Milestones on the Road to Marriage Equality

This June the National Archives is celebrating National Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to United States history and culture. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our related holdings. Today’s post comes from Michael Steffen in the National Archives History Office.

On June 26, 2019, the United States celebrates the fourth anniversary of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, a landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples and that all states must recognize marriages in other states regardless of sexual orientation.

The White House is lit with the colors of the rainbow in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, 6/26/2015. (National Archives Identifier 118817917)

While it is important to celebrate this ruling as a victory for the LGBTQ+ community, it is equally important to remember the arduous path it took to achieve that triumph. The road to marriage equality was paved by the cases that preceded it. The earliest same-sex marriage case to be reviewed by the Supreme Court was Baker v. Nelson (1972).

On May 18, 1970, University of Minnesota students Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license in Minneapolis. The District Court Clerk of Hennepin County, Gerald Nelson, denied the couple’s application because they were both men. In response, Baker and McConnell sued the county office for discrimination, but the court dismissed the couple’s claims and ordered the clerk not to issue the license.

After their appeal was dismissed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, Baker and McConnell filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was also dismissed “for want of a substantial federal question,” meaning the Court decided the issue did not directly relate to Federal laws.

Letter expressing the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Baker & McConnell’s appeal, 10/2/1972.  (National Archives Identifier 26318353)

Although Baker and McConnell’s case was never technically heard by the Supreme Court, its dismissal set a lasting precedent against same-sex marriage, culminating in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996.

DOMA was a major setback in the fight for marriage equality because it defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states, and prohibited married same-sex couples from collecting Federal benefits. DOMA remained intact until it was ruled unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor in 2013.

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer met in New York City in 1963 and soon after began a long-term relationship. They entered a domestic partnership in 1993 when New York Mayor David Dinkins issued an executive order extending that right to same-sex couples and were married in Ontario, Canada, in 2007.

When Spyer passed away in 2009 due to a heart condition, Windsor attempted to claim a Federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, but the IRS rejected her claims because DOMA held that the term “spouse” only applied to marriages between a man and a woman. As a result, Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in Federal estate taxes.

In 2010, Windsor sued the Federal Government for a full refund, claiming that DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause under the Fifth Amendment. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, and on June 26, 2013, the Court ruled in Windsor’s favor, deeming DOMA unconstitutional.

Although it did not legalize same-sex marriage, United States v. Windsor was a milestone in the fight for marriage equality. The decision forced the Federal Government to treat same-sex marriages equally under the law and made tax benefits previously restricted to opposite-sex couples available to same-sex couples. However, this ruling only extended to Federal laws; individual states did not have to recognize same-sex marriages. This discrepancy in state versus Federal law was resolved two years later in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

President Barack Obama meets with Edie Windsor during a visit to the Oval Office, 2/12/2014. (Barack Obama Presidential Library, National Archives)

Obergefell v. Hodges originated as the lower court case case of Obergefell v. Kasich in 2013. James Obergefell and his husband, John Arthur, sued Ohio Governor John Kasich for discrimination against same-sex couples who married lawfully out of state and, later, to force the state of Ohio to recognize same-sex unions on death certificates.

Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case, is the amalgamation of four court cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee—Obergefell v. Hodges (2014), Tanco v. Haslam (2013), Bourke v. Beshear (2013), and DeBoer v. Snyder (2012)—all challenging the constitutionality of those states’ bans on same-sex marriage.

On June 26, 2015, exactly two years after the United States v. Windsor decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty and is protected under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Obergefell v. Hodges required states to both issue marriage licenses between same-sex couples and recognize marriages between same-sex couples performed in any state.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, Obergefell said, “No other person will learn at the most painful moment of married life, the death of a spouse, that their lawful marriage will be disregarded by the state. No married couple who moves will suddenly become two single persons because their new state ignores their lawful marriage.”


Remarks by President Obama on the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality, 6/26/2015. (Barack Obama Presidential Library, National Archives)

During the month of June, the country reflects on and celebrates the advancements in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. While obtaining marriage equality was a major victory, it is not the end of the battle for LGBTQ+ rights. Today, the  LGBTQ+ community continues to fight against workplace discrimination, conversion therapy, military bans, and housing discrimination along with many other issues. As Pride Month comes to a close, take pride in who you are and continue to be an advocate for disenfranchised communities. Happy Pride Month!

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