The History and Mysteries of Gay Marriage and Divorce

On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to oversee a fully legalized gay marriage with the union of Tanya McCloskey and Marcia Kadish. On December 3, 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had also become the first territory in the new world to legalize divorce with the case of Mr. and Mrs. James Luxford. (Notably, the case was only heard and granted because Mr. Luxford had been discovered to been unlawfully married to two women at the same time—his punishment included forfeiting his wealth to Mrs. Luxford and eventual banishment back to England.)

Both issues proved contentious for the United States: no-fault divorce (the legal dissolution of a marriage without the requirement of wrongdoing by either party) wasn’t legalized until California’s Family Law Act of 1969, which went into effect January 1, 1970, the same year that Maryland became the first state to officially ban gay marriage when the state added Article 2, Section 201 to the Maryland Code, stating that “only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state."

Three years prior to that, on May 18, 1970, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell had become the first gay couple to apply for a marriage license in the United States; they were roundly rejected by Hennepin County, Minnesota. McConnell, in law school at the time, brought a case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. When the case was rejected, he pursued the case to the Supreme Court of the United States who dismissed the appeal on the grounds that it did not “present a substantial federal question, and the power to regulate marriages within a state belongs exclusively to that state."

The same year that Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah passed measures banning it, and judges in California and Oregon ordered individual counties to cease issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. That same year, in direct opposition to the Supreme Court’s 1970 assertion of gay marriage as a state’s right, a majority of the House of Representatives voted to amend the constitution to make gay marriage illegal; the measure fell 49 votes short of the required two-thirds majority to pass.

For the next eleven years, the legality of gay marriage in America (and its cousins, domestic partnership and civil unions) existed in a shifting patchwork of county lines as state legislatures alternatively banned and upheld gay marriage amendments, judges upheld and overturned decisions, and the dignities and legal protections allotted to couples whose marriages were legal in their home states remained in jeopardy outside of those states. In 2013, Juli Yim and Lorelei Jones became the first gay couple to divorce in Colorado, a state which still did not allow gay marriage. Colorado’s civil union law allowed for gay couples who had been married in other states to legally divorce, a right not recognized in many states with similar legalized civil union or domestic partnership arrangements.

These contradicting laws were brought into alignment on June 26, 2015 when the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Obergefell vs. Hodges. Updating the Court’s 1970 decision that the question of gay marriage should be decided at a state level, the justices ruled five to four that the right to marry was protected under the Constitution, extending the same federal and state benefits to same-sex married couples as opposite-sex married couples receive (a Government Accountability Office count found 1,138 federal statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights, and privileges). In his majority opinion Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the plaintiffs “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Eleanor Regan