What Does the Country Look Like After Marriage Equality?

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, thoughts on equality and the United States.

Courtney Hurtt/ WDET

Stephen Henderson:

So — three days after the landmark Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage  what does equality look like? And how does it feel?

Of course, over the weekend, we’ve seen thousands of gay couples realize their dreams, finally tying the knot after, in some cases, decades of denial.

And if you watched any of the coverage of the issue on national news shows, you know by now that there are still battles to be fought for gay equality, and they are far from in the margins. Legalized gay marriage does not directly wipe out other forms of discrimination, and the courts will be challenged over the next few years to figure out just how powerful and far-reaching the marriage ruling’s tentacles might be.

But I also think you’d have to be nuts not to pause for a minute—even if it’s just a minute—to reflect on how quickly the national culture shifted to make gay marriage an inevitability, or how singularly important it is that this civil rights milestone has been achieved.

It was just over a decade ago, for instance, that the high court only narrowly overturned a ruling that, on the mere suspicion that someone was gay, said the government could come into that person’s house and arrest them for having sex with someone of the same gender. Think about that. Gay sex was illegal in most southern states and several others—and not just in theory—police in some cases were putting people in jail for expressing same-sex love.

One irony of last week’s decision is that Justice Antonin Scalia, when the court struck down laws against gay sex, warned strenuously that the court was removing barriers that would lead, inevitably, to the legalization of gay marriage. Of course, that warning was delivered in the most doomsaying context, as one in a parade of “horribles” that Scalia imagined were on the way.

Scalia was being quite awful—but I don’t think even the justices who voted to do away with laws against gay sex believed what he was saying.

Gay marriage? No way. Not anywhere in the immediate future.

But quickly, one by one after the gay sex ruling, other barriers began to fall. The Massachusetts high court was the first to use the gay sex ruling to say the government couldn’t deny marriage benefits to gay couples. Then other states followed while a backlash—one that caught us flat-footed here in Michigan—emerged in which states rushed to get voters to BAN same-sex marriage.

By the time the court ruled on Friday, gay marriage was either legal or on the verge of being legal in 35 states. And thousands of gay couples had already wed, placing their unions well within the cultural norms in many, many parts of the country.

It’s amazing to think how fast that all happened, how quickly a drive for equality got its footing, got out of the gate and scored a major, major victory.

And that brings me back to the magnitude of last week’s ruling. I think the most obvious comparison is to the 1967 high court ruling that finally did away with laws against interracial marriage. Not that race and sexual orientation, as issues, have similar histories or cultural contours. But it’s unquestionably true that what they share in common is discrimination – a decision by majority populations to treat people different on the basis of who they are. So much of American history is fraught with that dynamic, and last week was a remarkable victory against that dynamic for EVERYONE who has ever been the subject of discrimination.

America is a special place. A republic where incredible cultural transformation is possible because of a founding document that gives us the space, the time and the ability to keep getting better.

An important reminder this week, when we celebrate the 4th of July, maybe more than any other time. 


   Views expressed in Stephen Henderson’s essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of WDET, its management or the station licensee, Wayne State University. 


Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today


  • Stephen Henderson is host of Detroit Today and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is Executive Editor of BridgeDetroit and host of American Black Journal on Detroit Public Television.