Atlantic Cities

The New Geography of Gay Marriage Still Looks a Lot Like the Old One

The New Geography of Gay Marriage Still Looks a Lot Like the Old One

For same-sex marriage advocates, today has been a day for celebrating what Molly Ball over at has already called "an epic year of progress." In the relatively short lifespan of the two legal cases the Supreme Court decided this morning, same-sex marriage has been embraced by more states, both at the ballot box and in state legislatures, and for the first time a majority of Americans now say they support the right of gays and lesbians to get married.

Four years ago, when the legal challenge to California's Proposition 8 began, three states ensured the right to same-sex marriage. Today, 12 states and the District of Columbia do. Here they are, in forest-green, on a map from the advocacy group Freedom to Marry:

Wednesday's ruling by the Supreme Court now clears the way for California, the most populous state in the country, to re-join that map. Before today, 18 percent of the U.S. population, and 22 percent of same-sex couples, lived in those 12 states and the District where same-sex marriage is legal. With the addition of California, soon 30 percent of the U.S. population (and 37 percent of same-sex couples) could live in such a state.

But this also means, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, that 5.5 million LGBT Americans (and 800,000 same-sex couples) live in places where they don't yet have that right. And Tuesday's Prop. 8 ruling in particular raises some uneasy questions about what will happen to them – and what may happen to an already geographically polarized country where the places where we chose (or happen) to live determine our access to everything from health care coverage to quality education to freedom from housing discrimination.

While handing gay-rights advocates two historic victories, the court said nothing Tuesday about the legality of the many state laws that ban same-sex marriage, nor the constitutional right of gays to live in a society where their neighbors can't foil their weddings. As a result, the Prop. 8 ruling will benefit the LGBT community in California. But it won't directly do much for the gay-rights cause outside of the state (the DOMA ruling, on the other hand, enhances the rights of same-sex married couples living in any state that legally recognizes them).

Without a constitutional protection for same-sex marriage, this sets up a scenario in the immediate future where America will become even more geographically divided on the question. Same-sex marriage will become yet another dimension along which two Americas exist within the United States.

This chart from the think tank Third Way illustrates the impressive historic trajectory of recognition for same-sex marriage and civil unions:

But that trajectory by no means implies that every state will get there in the foreseeable future. Inevitably, some corners of the country will remain steadfast holdouts. The trend line on that chart will hit a ceiling in states that have recently shown themselves to be nowhere near ready for same-sex marriage. In 2006, 81 percent of voters in Alabama voted to ban marriages and civil unions for same-sex couples. In 2008, 62 percent of voters in Florida opted to define marriage as between a man and a woman. In North Carolina just last year, 61 percent of voters supported an amendment to the state constitution barring North Carolina from recognizing or performing same-sex marriages or civil unions.

National polling results on this question obscure the fact that Americans remain deeply divided over same-sex marriage along some familiar geographic lines. While we wait for the right to marry to become truly universal – either with a lot of time, or by a future court ruling – life for some people will look very different depending on where they live. And many of us don't choose our homes. We're stuck with the ones we have.

Top image: Tracey Hepner, the wife of U.S. Army General Tammy Smith, who is the first openly gay flag officer in the U.S. military, holds a U.S. flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the court's ruling on cases against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's gay marriage ban known as Prop 8. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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