The radical transformation over just ten years in the status of marriage equality in the United States–progressing from the first prohibition of rights to same-sex marriage and first licenses issued in the state of Massachusetts to the recognition of same-sex marriage nationwide–has “made our union a little more perfect” in 2015 no uncertain terms, as President Obama perceptively observed recognizing the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The verdict has also brought us into line with recognition of a social order, and forcefully recognized marriage as a human right.
The ground seems to have changed beneath our feet. In recent times, the United States was of course a relative outlier in the recognition of the sanctity and legality of same-sex marriage: both just two years ago, and indeed during the ten years when the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses first began. Although there is continued reference to “insider” sorts of knowledge that may inform pronouncement and recognition by Justice Anthony Kennedy that “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” and unconstitutional to deny a right permitted by the U.S. Constitution, the apparent rapid change in state policies of recognizing marriage equity-and sanctioning same-sex marriage licenses–did not only have its origins in the retrograde retrenchment of the “Defense of Marriage Act”–a piece of legal attempt to prevent the acceptance of same-sex marriage enacted in Utah twenty years ago back in 1995, which has however been subsequently overturned.
1. A broader global map contrasting the criminalization of same-sex marriage against its sanctioning reveals that rather than about red- and blue- states, or even political affiliation, debates on marriage equity are actually about human rights and dignity–in the face of which state statutes restricting marriage were disputes about legal definitions of matrimony–and demanded that an accumulation of scores of local legal precedents struck them down. For dismissing “traditional marriage laws” as both legally retrograde–see below–and of painful personal consequences, and the acknowledgment of civil and natural rights.
The ancient geographic concept of ecumene described the world inhabited by men–excluding torrid zones that did not permit life, and based the concept that one could circumscribe the limits of its inhabitability. One could just as easily trace the world inhabited by gay marriage today, noting, however, not actual atmospheric variations in climate or temperature as the prime indices of livability, but mapping the distribution of legally recognized same-sex unions.
Despite the current evidence of ties between maps and surveillance, the maps visualization of the legal permissibility of gay marriage suggests a deep distortion on the appearance that the world’s surface is by and large inhabitable for all–red dots indicating place where gay unions are penalized, in this visualization created by OpenStreetMap contributors in Tableaux.
While a global visualization of different legal standards reveals that this is by no means a local issue, it does suggest the outlier status of the United States on a question of civil rights, already resolved in the jurisprudential thought as well as social practice in much of western Europe, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as South Africa.
2. Such world maps offer valuable context for interpreting the recent reversal DOMA faced within the United States, and Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. For they help us better map ourselves in a global context: we seem more than a bit retardaire in our legal codes in the Anglophone tradition, if you didn’t notice, and perhaps the least cosmopolitan of all: the 49th parallel cuts a pretty sharp line across North America for gay unions, and a deep break between the US and much of Central America. (Let’s bet this wasn’t on the short-list of Obama’s conversations with his African allies–at least until he reaches South Africa, a rare case of the legality of gay marriage in that continent.)
Despite a huge change over the markedly a dramatic seachange in the legal definition of past fifty years across individual states of the union, the national policy about marriage inequality in our fragile union seems to make the United States something of an outlier across much of the world’s populations–and most especially in regards to most of its traditional allies. Before the Supreme Court confirmed the right of marriage for all, the court moved to reject the a huge quantity of local legislation enacted at the state level in striking down the DOMA and Proposition 8 in June 2013. The court’s decision explicitly reacted to and rejected the decisive progress in LGBT legislation recently charted in 50 Years of Change—which was recognized by winning an award for the most successful dynamic narrative map. Its attempting to map and measure local acceptance of marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships across a starkly divided nation, and indeed the changed tapestry of the nation, ended up describing the changed landscape of marriage equality in recent years across our national union, in ways that effectively worked to map a salient cultural and sociological change over space. For such a map is a description of a mutation of legal opinion over space, as much as it charts a broad cultural change or a shifting consensus about public speech.
3. A map devised by Rashauna Mead, Erin Hamilton and Vanessa Wetzel from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and tells a dramatic parallel political narratives of both the dramatic expanding limits for marriage equity and an intensified polarization among those states denying or legislatively banning civil unions (shaded orange or dark orange) and legal recognition of domestic partnerships, civil union or same-sex marriage (light blue; dark blue; black). The 2013 map was awarded the NACIS prize for narrative map, and provides an illuminating narrative of legislative change that was so fundamental to Kennedy’s decision. The piecemeal progression of individual changes toward legal recognition of cohabitation and marriage equality, if a very minority movement until the 1990s, have come to divide the nation within the last five years along increasingly stark lines:
Of course, the divisions defined by such chromatic contrasts are now relics of a past patchwork of legal customs that was primarily defined by local statutes, but which clear pronouncement of equity had to occur to change the map to one hue.
The increased divisions over an issue that had hardly entered the national legal debate during much of the era of expanding civil rights had at first polarize the nation, but almost inevitably receded into the past as the strength of resistance to marriage equity was struck down. Put in perspective by this animated info graphic, Fifty Years of Change, the difficulty of crafting consensus on a polarizing issue is apparent, particularly in an era of increased recognition of states’ rights when the assertion of anything like a national standard–even as a matter of human rights–threatens to smack of federal intervention for several of the current Supremes.
Justice Kennedy’s sentiment that human dignity must be respected in a global context, one could argue, even if the United States lags far behind our NATO allies in accepting LGBT civil rights. Kennedy’s recent forceful (and more compelling) formulation that marriage is a right of self-fulfillment that “embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family” is a conservative notion of marriage–but the impassioned defense of equal rights to a union that “embodies a love that may endure even past death” enshrines the notion of equal rights in a powerfully forceful manner. It essentially emphasizes the injustice of denying the possibility of its fulfillment and their full participation in society. The construal of the right to a marital union and the inability to preserve exclusion from marriage as an institution and ensure “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” reflects less a change in attitudes, but strictest rpreservation of individual rights.
It is striking that the debate about such social and institutional acceptance have become so clearly divided in different geographic locations, even as the world is increasingly globalized. The widely differing responses that were provoked by the question “Should [your] society accept homosexuality?” showed French and Canadians only mildly supportive of legal recognition of same-sex sacraments, and even less positive response elsewhere, including Brazil, despite strong support in Spain and Germany, and similarly lukewarm support in Japan. The provocative nature of marriage inequality may put us just barely ahead of the median, if far behind the cutting edge of judicial recognition of individual rights. But it would be, one senses, for Justice Kennedy, an unwarranted position to deny that right or legally exclude anyone from its obligations and duties.
It is incumbent to try to imagine a future map of areas that hold same-sex marriage an inalienable human right.
4. The question of social attitudes toward marriage, while often mapped, are not prominent in Kennedy’s stirring opinion.
Despite the uniform blocks used in the above maps, actual maps would require greater granularity of a complex issue–and an attempt to map the variations on the ground in different states’ populations has been increasingly attempted in recent years, as a change in attitudes has seemed to become increasingly diffused both in media and in public debate to a degree unprecedented twenty years ago. In 2012, City Lab in The Atlantic created a static detailed palimpsest of a map fascinating in its progressive shading and detail of tracing competing attitudes to marriage equality, so rich with variations that it was taken up by Democratic Underground, and particularly popular because it punctured the notion that there was a dominant tendency to reject the social acceptance of marriage of gay couples in the United States–and seems to have registered a tipping point, suggesting as it does a shift in the probability of an eventual common social consensus about same-sex marriage, rather than a deep or irreversible social divide that had long been retained–perhaps reified in a perverse way by recent national elections–as a stubborn spatial imaginary of the limited social consensus about the universality of marriage rights across the United States.
The map, extrapolating from data in create an Esri tapestry segmentation to parse gradations of social acceptance of marriage equality. Charting differences in intensity by green and yellow, and the strength of opposition in orange and red, the map of public opinions reveals a true tapestry of social attitudes across geographical divides, showing consensus across many states, and even marking far more consensus than ambivalence:
City Lab (2012)
There is a bit of a lack of consensus, to say the least, yet a very deep density of apparent unease at gay marriage in specific swaths. The big news of giving greater local detail to these complex negotiations of our notions of marriage suggest the traditional coastal rapprochement in a political spectrum, but a broad shift in the most densely populated areas of the nation. But strict opposition to marriage equality seems too clearly stand in the minority–even in the electoral map–in ways that suggested the possibility of moving toward a more perfect union. Of course, the question of public opinion is distinct from the question of law, but the accumulation of legal precedents that the granting of broad acceptance of same-sex marriage as a right brought opened a broad window for relatively rapid change.
Such a map of attitudes must be placed beside the changing geography of where spouses of the same sex reside. Although the legal equality of a right to marriage was not couched in terms of a cultural change by its framers, the spectrum of attitudes revealed in the recent analysis based on county-by-county estimates using the 2010 Census that provides the basis for the map by Gary Gates at U.C.L.A. of where same-sex spouses live. If undeniably a function of local jurisprudence, it clearly reveals considerable concentrations of such marriages even in areas where same-sex marriage was not itself legalized as well as suggesting a steep opposition of acceptance to same-sex coupling that suggest the long-term struggle the country will face.
2010 Census County-level estimates mapped by Gary Gates, Williams Institute (U.C.L.A.)
For all the mosaic of attitudes revealed in the City Lab map of 2012, in other words, that less precise map must be read side by side the contrasts that future Censuses will reveal. However, the question of individual preferences–and reported data on household status–is not a predictor of legislative change. By 2014, the accumulation of a range of local precedents and statutes that recognized the validity of marriage as a right attainable by any two individuals of either sex had been effectively recognized throughout the country, making it difficult to deny the right as an individual decision tied to the security of a family, home, and rights to insurance, inheritance or wages: if a bifurcation existed in local statute legislation across the country, that has some interesting correlations to the above survey of opinions, if it also reveals a deep disconnect between the official policies of many states and their residents–including parts of Michigan and North and South Dakota, and indeed much of Texas.
5. The rapidity of this historical change is incredible, because it has been so rapid, and, in a sense, so much of a relief for much of the country. Although there exist few clear historical pointers able to be identified for such a widespread legislative embrace of the right to marriage, even if it’s acceptance have been long seen as akin to the racial hatred that are rooted in an even more explicitly odious practices of oppression, the overcoming of oppression seems undeniably healthy in creating a more perfect union in the nation.
For the acceptance of marriage as a right has become undeniable, and the differences in acceptance–if few were able to allow it earlier–decayed in the face of an attempt to deny marriage to all.