The State of Relationship Recognition in 2012

In 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, only 5% of Americans lived in a place that had any recognition for gay and lesbian couples. Sixteen years later, that number is poised to become a majority—currently hovering at 48%. The ground has shifted substantially under our feet, and the country is now approaching a tipping point for the first time in history. If our country continues to move forward at this pace, it is likely that within the next decade marriage for gay couples will be a reality—not a debate—across the nation.

Change #1

The number of Americans living in places that recognize gay couples is quickly approaching a majority.

In our 2011 report, we found that the number of Americans living in a jurisdiction with some level of relationship recognition for gay couples had grown from 5% in 1996 to 46%. Today, 48% of the U.S. population lives in a place that recognizes gay couples—a total of 147 million Americans, up 5 million from just a year ago. And should marriage laws passed this year in Maryland and Washington go into effect, 15% of the country—48 million Americans—will live in a state that allows gay couples to marry. That means we are quickly approaching the moment when a majority of the country lives in a jurisdiction with some form of relationship recognition, perhaps in the next year.

A full 38% already live in a state that either has marriage or a civil union or domestic partnership law that purports to grant all the same state protections as marriage. Another 4% live in a state with some lower level of domestic partnership benefits, and an additional 6% live in a city or county that provides some level of domestic partnership recognition. In the past year, nearly two dozen cities and counties across the country have added such protections in purple and red states like Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida.

Breakdown of U.S. Population Living in Jurisdictions with Relationship Recognition Laws1

Breakdown of U.S. Population Living in Jurisdictions with Relationship Recognition Laws

Includes Maryland and Washington, where marriage laws have been passed but may be repealed by voters in November before going into effect.

It is notable that while the overall percentage of the population living in a place with relationship recognition increased only 2 percentage points in the past year, the modest increase is largely due to the fact that where progress has been made it has been in states that already had some level of protection for gay couples. In fact, the gain in the number of people living in marriage states is higher than the overall gain for relationship recognition—since Maryland and Washington had already provided some level of relationship recognition prior to their passage of marriage this year.

Percentage of U.S. Population Living in Jurisdictions with Relationship Recognition2

Percentage of U.S. Population Living in Jurisdictions with Relationship Recognition

This observation reinforces the importance of passing other forms of relationship recognition where marriage for gay couples is not yet on the table—both because it sets the stage for future progress (rather than stunting it, as some have argued), and because it can offer protections to the majority of Americans who currently live in a state without any. The next set of states where marriage legislation is being discussed—like New Jersey, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Illinois—all have civil union or equivalent domestic partnership laws already in place. Passage of those interim relationship recognition laws hasn’t thwarted the efforts for marriage in those states, and moving more states into that queue by passing civil union or domestic partnership laws where possible could only be helpful, not harmful, to our country’s long-term journey on this issue.

Change #2

This year may be the first time marriage wins at the ballot.

This November, the voters of four states will vote on marriage initiatives or referenda at the ballot—and it is more likely than ever that for the first time marriage advocates will claim victory in one or more of those elections. In Maryland and Washington, voters will decide whether to repeal marriage laws passed by their state legislatures. In Minnesota, they will be faced with a constitutional amendment permanently banning marriage for gay couples, similar to those passed in many states in 2004 and 2006. And in Maine, for the first time, marriage supporters are affirmatively heading to the ballot to attempt to win marriage by popular vote.

While up to this point voters in a state have never sided with marriage for gay couples on these kinds of ballot initiatives, this is conceivably that tipping point year. Polls now consistently show that a majority of Americans support marriage for gay couples, and those voters in the center of the electorate who are key to winning these measures favor marriage by significant margins. The latest Gallup numbers show that Independents support marriage 57% to 40%.3 For moderates, the numbers are 58% in favor to 38% opposed.4

And the surveys in these specific states show a path to victory, with all four having surpassed the 50% mark in marriage support. In Minnesota, a recent poll showed that 52% said they agreed with President Obama that gay couples should be able to marry, and only 42% disagreed.5 In Maryland, 52% said they favored marriage for gay couples in the most recent poll, while 39% were opposed, and previous polling showed those numbers at 50% and 44%.6 In Washington State, 54% of likely voters said they believe marriage for gay couples should be legal, with 33% saying it should not.7 And 54% of Maine voters said they supported allowing gay couples to marry, with only 41% opposed.8

If marriage advocates are able to win one or more of these initiative votes, it will mark a major turning point on the issue. It will eliminate marriage opponents’ argument that every time the American people have voted on this issue they have rejected it. And it will indicate that we have finally hit a tipping point on marriage, where the massive shift of public opinion may finally translate into electoral victory.

Change #3

Democrats are now unifying behind marriage for gay couples.

On May 9, 2012, President Obama announced that he had come to the conclusion that gay couples should be able to marry. In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, he explained his evolution this way:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is gone, because they’re not able to commit themselves in a marriage. At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.9

With this statement, this President became the first in history to support allowing gay couples to marry. It was an astounding act given that the prior Democratic president was so concerned about the political blowback of the issue that he signed a law cementing the opposite stance into federal law. But President Obama’s evolution mirrors the one so many Americans have taken on the issue since that time, and among those in his own party, it could even be said he was a bit behind the curve. A recent Gallup poll showed 65% of Democrats support marriage for gay couples,10 and Pew found that this support has grown nearly ten points since President Obama was elected in 2008 and nearly 20 points since 2001.11 In fact, more Democrats now say they support marriage for gay couples than say they consider themselves pro-choice.12

With the President strongly voicing his support for marriage, many leaders in his party who had not yet done so took the occasion to follow. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the highest ranking House Democrat who hadn’t yet publicly supported marriage for gay couples, echoed the President the following day, saying, “I believe that extending the definition of marriage to committed relationships between two people, irrespective of their sex, is the right thing to do.”13 And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) concurred, even though he had admitted to personally voting for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage for gay couples in Nevada ten years ago.14 With these additions, Democratic Congressional leadership in both chambers is now squarely in favor of marriage.

Many of the traditional Democratic constituency groups have come on board for marriage as well. Unions like the AFL-CIO declared they were “happy to stand with millions of Americans and with President Obama” on the issue,15 Latino organizations like the National Council of La Raza applauded the President for his announcement,16 and civil rights groups joined the chorus, with the NAACP passing a resolution supporting marriage for gay couples in the weeks that followed.17

Given the President’s support for marriage, and the fact that his announcement spurred other leaders in his party to openly embrace it, it is possible that the Democratic Party platform may include support for allowing gay couples to marry as a plank for the first time this year. There is no longer a question about where the Democratic Party stands on marriage for gay couples—President Obama’s leadership has provided a definitive answer.

Change #4

The Republican Party is warming and is now where Democrats were ten years ago.

While the Democratic Party position is solidifying, the Republican Party is also experiencing a massive shift and now finds itself about where Democrats were a decade ago: increasingly becoming the party of civil unions.

In the past, Republican policymakers have been at the forefront of the opposition to marriage—or often any level of relationship recognition—for gay couples. And too frequently, that opposition has been downright vitriolic. But in the past year, Republican leaders have torqued, with many voicing their support for some level of relationship recognition for gay couples, and even those who still oppose any level of recognition turning down the heat on the issue substantially.

In each of the states that have enacted marriage for gay couples legislatively this past year, Republican lawmakers have supported it—often as the deciding votes. And in a stunning first in New Hampshire earlier this year, the state House of Representatives—dominated by Republicans 3 to 1—roundly defeated an attempt to repeal the state’s marriage law by an overwhelming vote of 211 to 116.18 Never before had so many Republican state legislators voted against repealing marriage for gay couples.

While support for marriage among Republicans still lags behind other groups, recent polls have found that a bare majority of Republicans support civil unions for gay couples,19 and less than a third oppose basic domestic partnership protections like hospital visitation.20 And in a marked shift, that stance has become a frequent rebuttal for leading Republicans, who have attempted to pivot to their support for other forms of relationship recognition rather than attacking marriage for gay couples directly. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who vetoed a marriage bill passed by his state legislature in February, vowed to strengthen his state’s relationship recognition for gay couples, saying:

“I have been just as adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples—as well as the strict enforcement of those rights and benefits.”21

If you contrast that statement to the venomous attacks waged by many Republicans on the issue just a few years ago, it is clear that the tide has turned. In fact, in the wake of President Obama’s announcement of support for marriage, former George W. Bush pollster Jan van Lohuizen warned Republicans against attacking too ferociously on the issue, noting the huge shift in public opinion both among Americans generally and among Republican voters. He recommended a message framework reinforcing support for relationship recognition instead of one attacking those who support marriage, offering this example statement:

“People who believe in equality under the law as a fundamental principle, as I do, will agree that this principle extends to gay and lesbian couples; gay and lesbian couples should not face discrimination and their relationship should be protected under the law. People who disagree on the fundamental nature of marriage can agree, at the same time, that gays and lesbians should receive essential rights and protections such as hospital visitation, adoption rights, and health and death benefits.”22

And Republican leaders have largely heeded this advice. Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, responded to the President’s announcement by saying he would “respect the right of the president to reach the conclusion he has”23 and then pivoting to reinforce his own support for some level of state domestic partnership benefits and allowing gay couples to adopt.24 And Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) dismissed the President’s support for marriage as a distraction, saying, “I’m going to stay focused on jobs.”25

Indeed, it seems that the party who credited their attacks against marriage for gay couples as the issue that delivered them the 2004 election has reconsidered, at least to some degree, in the face of shifting public opinion and is becoming the civil union party. Ironically, RNC Chair Reince Priebus actually accused President Obama of “playing politics” by announcing his support for marriage—implying that the Republican Party chair believes America’s views have changed so drastically that marriage support is the position that offers political benefit at this point—not marriage opposition.26 What a difference eight years makes.

This shift has been evident on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as well. While the Republican House of Representatives nominally decided to step in and defend DOMA in court after the President declined to do so, Republican leadership has avoided putting the issue front and center. And this year, the legislation to repeal DOMA gained its first Republican supporter, when in September Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) decided to cosponsor it. Although the Senate version of the bill has not yet garnered a Republican cosponsor, the dynamics have shifted in that chamber as well. When the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill last summer, every Democratic committee member attended and spoke in favor of the bill—yet only one Republican member, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), decided to participate and question the witnesses in opposition. And when the Judiciary Committee passed the bill in November along party lines, Republican Senators focused their objections on process and eschewed vitriolic attacks on supporters of DOMA repeal.

While the Republican Party lags behind the rest of the nation, it too is on a journey. And unlike on other issues, the movement on relationship recognition and marriage seems to only flow in one direction, so it is likely the days of ferocious attacks a la 2004 will continue to fade in the rearview mirror.


Our country is making massive strides forward on marriage and other forms of relationship recognition for gay couples every year, and we are approaching a major tipping point. In 2012, for the first time in history, the President of the United States supports marriage for gay couples. Democratic leaders are solidifying behind that view, and Republican leaders are shifting quickly in order to avoid being left behind by the tide. Legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act is beginning to move and boasts bipartisan support. More and more Americans—now nearly a majority—live in a place that already recognizes gay couples in some way. And this year will likely bring the first-ever victory for marriage at the ballot box.

The state of relationship recognition in our country is growing stronger with every moment, and if this momentum continues unabated, our children will likely look back with confusion on a time when we struggled to determine how to recognize the relationships of committed gay couples

Appendix A

States with Relationship Recognition

States with Relationship Recognition

Appendix B

Cities and Counties with Relationship Recognition

Cities and Counties with Relationship Recognition

End Notes