Is the fight over yet? – A Historical Essay


In June of 2015, 390,000 same-sex couples were legally married in the United States, and this number increased to 486,000 in October 2015. But what makes these numbers so significant? In June of 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states. In Obergefell V Hodges, the United States Supreme Court declared state bans of same-sex marriage unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment (“Obergefell V. Hodges.” Legal). Nonetheless, this ruling did not occur without a fight. The LGBTQ community fought for their right to marriage, along with many other rights through court cases, protests, and the forming of activist organizations. However, the passing of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) spurred the increase of lawsuits for LGBTQ equality, which ultimately led to the ruling of Obergefell V Hodges. 

The Defense of Marriage Act was a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996 that gave states the right to not recognize same-sex marriages that have been legally authorized in other states. The law also defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” (United States, Congress, House 1) which was used as a vital point for DOMA advocates. Overturning DOMA became particularly difficult for LGBTQ rights advocates because of the debate around the definition of marriage that DOMA declared. Therefore, the passing of DOMA, while discriminatory and unfair, instigated the fight for the federal legalization of same-sex marriage as a part of the LGBTQ Movement. 

DOMA and its violations against equality sparked U.S. vs Windsor. In 2007, Edith Windsor and Thew Spyer were in a relationship for 44 years and legally got married in Canada. Their home state of New York recognized their marriage as legal, but when Spyer passed away in 2009, Windsor was unable to take advantage of the estate tax marital deduction because of DOMA’s discriminatory definition of marriage that deemed their marriage illegal (“United States”). On November 9, 2010, Windsor filed a case against the federal government for failing to recognize her marriage with Spyer and to provide benefits. On June 27, 2013, SCOTUS declared that the definition of marriage in DOMA was unconstitutional, and that the federal government cannot discriminate against married same-sex couples when deciding federal benefits and protections (“United States”). U.S. vs Windsor challenged the definition of marriage and showed that DOMA was able to be fought, providing a “win” for the LGBTQ Movement and a step in the right direction for federally legalizing same-sex marriage. 

The Supreme Court decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry regarding California’s Proposition 8 sparked a final drive toward the legalization of same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 was a state ballot initiative that stated “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California” (Summers). This proposition was put on the 2008 California state election ballot, voted on, and passed as a ballot proposition, becoming amended into the California state constitution. When Prop 8 was enacted, two same-sex couples filed Hollingsworth v. Perry, a lawsuit challenging Prop 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Prop 8 was declared unconstitutional in August 2010 by Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, the District Court Judge of the Northern District of California, under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment as it denied rights to minority groups without good cause (“A Brief”). On June 26, 2013, the day before U.S. v. Windsor was decided upon by SCOTUS, Prop 8 was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. Here, the Court concluded that Prop 8 was unconstitutional in Hollingsworth v. Perry, thereby allowing Governor Brown, the governor of California, the freedom to legalize same-sex marriage in the state of California. (“A Brief”). DOMA’s definition of marriage was declared unconstitutional by SCOTUS for the state of California and for Edith Windsor’s case in the same week, challenging DOMA to its core. The SCOTUS decisions during this week in June 2013 paved the way for Obergefell v. Hodges to federally legalize same-sex marriage. 

In Obergefell v. Hodges, SCOTUS declared that the section of DOMA which prohibits recognizing same-sex marriage unconstitutional and declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. James Obergefell and his partner, John Arthur, charged Ohio of discriminating against same-sex couples who married legally outside of the state and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio (“Obergefell V. Hodges.” Legal). The couple was together for years but could not marry legally in their home state of Ohio. After discovering that Arthur was about to die, Obergefell and Arthur wanted to get married. They got married in Maryland, a state that legalized same-sex marriage. When Arthur passed away, Ohio maintained its law against same-sex unions and declined to include Obergefell as Arthur’s surviving husband on the death certificate (“Obergefell V. Hodges.” ACLU). Fourteen other same-sex couples filed lawsuits similar to Obergefell’s, and in 2015, SCOTUS combined six lower court cases from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee disputing DOMA’s definition of marriage into Obergefell v. Hodges. The Court emphasized the connection between the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, overturning laws that prohibited same-sex marriage like DOMA (“Obergefell V. Hodges.” Legal). In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS determined that the right to marriage is one of the fundamental liberties that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees, and that this analysis holds true for same-sex couples just as it does for opposite-sex couples (Oyez). While the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was a win for the LGBTQ movement, it would not have been possible without the decisions in previous cases that created the platform for Obergefell v. Hodges to succeed. 

DOMA gave U.S. vs Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry the legal and physical space to fight for LGTBQ rights, paving the way for Obergefell v. Hodges. As each court case struck down different sections of DOMA, the accumulation of their decisions ultimately led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Though it took many years to finally obtain the right to same-sex marriage, what is its status today? We sometimes look at monumental acts like Obergefell v Hodges as being it – we won, the battle is over. But as recent SCOTUS rulings like the reversal of Roe v. Wade has shown, nothing is solidified, and there is still work to do regarding LGBTQ rights. States like Florida have banned “LGBTQ words” like “gay” to be said in classrooms, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson in 2022 created the potential for the Court to reconsider its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (“Defense of Marriage”). If DOMA was never passed, the definition of marriage would not have been described as exclusively; however, if that definition was not declared in 1996, it would have been declared later, further delaying the fight for same-sex marriage and LGTBQ rights.