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Same-Sex Couples Reflect 7 Years After Winning Right to Marry in US

FILE - Same-sex marriage supporters gather outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, June 26, 2015.
FILE - Same-sex marriage supporters gather outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, June 26, 2015.

Last week marked the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across America, overriding bans in more than a dozen states and granting gay and lesbian wedded couples the same rights and legal protections that married heterosexuals enjoy.

The months and years leading up to the high court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges saw an impassioned outcry from LGBTQ rights opponents, who argued same-sex marriage would destroy the traditional family and the institution of marriage itself.

In the years since, evidence to support such dire predictions has been hard to find. U.S. marriage rates were declining long before same-sex couples gained the right to wed. To the extent the trend has continued since 2015, researchers point to a slew of economic and sociological factors other than same-sex unions.

Meanwhile, an ever-growing number gay and lesbian people have embraced wedlock. The U.S. Census Bureau's most recent data, from 2020, showed more than 570,000 households belonged to married same-sex couples, equating to more than 1.1 million people.

"We finally have the same rights as other couples who love each other," said Jill Spragio, an administrator at a New Orleans, Louisiana-based information technology company, speaking with VOA. Spragio and her partner married the year before the Obergefell ruling, in Illinois, where same-sex marriage was already legal.

"But we weren't recognized as married in Louisiana until the Supreme Court's decision in 2015," she said. "We just wanted to be treated the same as our heterosexual married friends. Now, if one of us gets sick, the hospital can't throw us out of the room, and we can make decisions for each other as spouses. We can be entitled to our partner's Social Security if we survive them. I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but it is."

Opponents of the decision, however, insist allowing gay marriage has done harm.

"My concern is that it's damaged the institution of marriage and families, of course," Mathew Staver, Chairperson of the Liberty Counsel, told VOA, "but it's also damaged our Constitution. It's a decision with no legal foundation, and a house built on sand will eventually fall."

Marriage as stability

Molly Bourg, who works in the food and beverage industry in New Orleans, was a senior in college at the time of Obergefell v. Hodges. Bourg, who prefers non-gender specific pronouns, said the ruling changed their thoughts about what was possible in their life.

"I didn't even come out as gay until after the decision," Bourg told VOA. "Once something is legal it feels more socially acceptable. Before that, though, I felt like, 'Why put myself out there just to be rejected by the community I grew up in?'"

Bourg remembers, for example, watching their siblings lean on their family for support during high school and college breakups.

"Meanwhile when I had my first heartbreak, I remember having to struggle through it alone because I was too scared to tell anybody," they said, noting it's just one of the many ways life was more difficult for someone in the LGBTQ community.

Today, however, with same-sex marriage legal across the country, things feel more normal, said Bourg.

"My partner and I can talk about life and marriage plans that are two or three years down the line just like everyone else," they said. "It feels safe and domestic, and I like having that security. I imagine anyone would."

Increasingly vocal minority

Polls show Americans increasingly back same-sex marriage. According to Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted in May, 71% of Americans say they support the right of gay and lesbian people to wed. This is a record high, up from 70% the year before.

When the poll was first conducted by Gallup in 1996, only 27% of the country supported same-sex marriage, indicating a steady shift in the public's perception of such unions —even among Republican voters.

"I hope they have all the rights of a traditional family," said Jillian Dani, a Republican voter from Merritt Island, Florida, who added she believes the U.S. Constitution leaves it to the states to decide such matters.

The Gallup poll revealed one group that still opposes gay marriage: Americans who say they attend church weekly. Only 40% of regular churchgoers say they are in favor of same-sex unions.

"I don't think Obergefell had any effect on the institution of marriage and it had no effect on me," said Judi Thompson, a self-proclaimed supporter of former President Donald Trump from Garland, Texas. "I just think the decision was disgusting, to be honest. According to God's law, marriage is between a man and a woman, and I'd like to see the Supreme Court correct its earlier decision."

Preparing for battle

The Supreme Court recently hinted that Thompson could get her wish.

In last month's contentious decision on abortion, the high court's energized conservative majority overturned nearly 50 years of precedent and ruled that individual states can decide whether to allow or ban the procedure.

Many LGBTQ people and their allies worry the Supreme Court won't stop with abortion. They fear the same reasoning used to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortions nationwide, will be used to overturn decisions that expanded rights for other groups, as well.

Justice Clarence Thomas bolstered this theory in his concurring opinion last month overturning Roe.

"In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court's substantive due process precedents," he wrote, "including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell."

The Supreme Court's 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut set forth the right of married couples to use contraceptives. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the high court struck down state laws across America that penalized sodomy.

"I think it's a matter of when — not if — they start coming for us, one case at a time," said James Knoblach, a member of the LGBTQ community and vice president for a public relations and digital marketing firm in New York City. "You saw it in Thomas' opinion, and I wouldn't put it past this illegitimate court to go as far as criminalizing homosexuality in their bid to turn our democracy into a theocracy."

Bourg from New Orleans agreed.

"Thomas didn't just mention Obergefell," they said. "He mentioned Lawrence v. Texas, as well. They're not just looking to deny us marriage, they're looking to criminalize what goes on in the bedroom, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has publicly said he'd defend an anti-sodomy law if it was brought to him."

The LGBTQ community's fears are well founded, said Staver from the Liberty Counsel.

"Reversing Obergefell is inevitable," he said.

It will fall, Staver believes, because of what he calls a "baseless decision from Justices who imposed their own ideology untethered from the Constitution," but also because of the harm he feels it does to the families in America.

"There is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage, and, because of that, Obergefell is doomed," he said. "And that's a good thing because same-sex marriage permanently deprives children of a mother or father, and it casts a negative view on the absent gender."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, however, "no legitimate research has demonstrated that same-sex couples are any more or any less harmful than heterosexual couples."

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry affirmed in a 2013 study that "current research shows that children with gay and lesbian parents do not differ from children with heterosexual parents in their emotional development or in their relationships with peers and adults."

Still, many in the LGBTQ community are preparing for the worst.

"You could feel it in last month's Pride Parade," explained Knoblach of New York City, referring to the LGBTQ celebrations held annually throughout the month of June. "There was a defiance in the crowd you don't usually feel — a sense there is a fight coming and we're not going to back down."

Outside of parades, individuals like Bourg and their partner are also preparing.

"We've already discussed general options if Obergefell and other decisions are overturned," Bourg said. "I have no doubt if that's the case, then my home state of Louisiana will be outlawing same-sex marriage."

This would set up a very difficult decision for Bourg and many LGBTQ people like them.

"Louisiana is my home. My family is here. And if the Supreme Court stays in this direction, I will have to choose between my family and my home, or having a chance to marry the person I love. That's ... heartbreaking."