The most talked-about Supreme Court decision of 2015 was Obergefell v. Hodges, which established a right to same-sex marriage. Obergefell was decided on June 26, exactly two years after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, and exactly thirteen years after Lawrence v. Texas, which held that states could not criminalize homosexual conduct. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote all three opinions.
Famous constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar criticized Justice Kennedy's opinion for relying too much on liberty and not enough on equality. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote (and read from the bench) a dissent claiming that the Constitution had "nothing to do with" the opinion. Others compared the last paragraph of that opinion to poetry:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.
Raining on the pride parade
Before the ink was dry on the decision, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a statement claiming that "no Texan is required by the Supreme Court's decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs."
In September, Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis cited her religious beliefs when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She spent five days in jail for contempt of court, before emerging from the jailhouse to hold a rally with Republican candidate Mike Huckabee while "Eye of the Tiger" played.
As of October, judges in at least nine Alabama counties were refusing to issue marriage licenses to any couples. They relied on a 1961 law stating that clerks "may" (not "shall") issue marriage licenses; many believe the law was passed to avoid issuing interracial marriage licenses.
As this small group of state and local officials resisted the Supreme Court's decision, marriage equality made progress around the world.
The "small country with a big message for equality"
The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell came just a month after Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. Sixty-two percent of Irish voters, including thousands who flew from around the world to come #hometovote, approved a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage. Afterward, Prime Minister Enda Kenny referred to Ireland as a "small country with a big message for equality."
Ireland wasn't the only country to take action on marriage equality this year. A week before Obergefell, Mexico's Supreme Court issued an opinion finding same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Under Mexican law, this still required couples to go to court in states where the law prohibits same-sex marriage. Because of couples who did just that, the first same-sex marriage in Tijuana happened in August, following the first same-sex marriage in Baja California—in Mexicali—this January. Puebla held its first same-sex marriage in August.
In Slovenia, the parliament passed a law allowing same-sex marriage in March, but because of a constitutional challenge, there will be a popular referendum on December 20. Mexico's Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex adoption in August, and Colombia's Supreme Court did the same in November. After a decade of debate, Chile legalized same-sex civil unions in April, and began performing ceremonies in October.
The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage.
Judge Walker's comment foreshadowed the transgender progress that went hand-in-hand with marriage equality this year.
"Transgender" becomes a trending topic
Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender this spring, and made Time's short list for Person of the Year. The streaming television show Transparent, and its star Jeffrey Tambor, won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for telling the story of a 70-year-old man who comes out to his family as transgender. The show has been nominated again for the 2016 Golden Globes and for two Screen Actors Guild awards. Actor Eddie Redmayne was also nominated for a SAG award for his portrayal of a transgender woman, and there is a campaign to nominate the transgender stars of Tangerine for Academy awards.
The rise in transgender visibility has extended beyond the entertainment world. In January, President Obama was the first person to use the word "transgender" in his State of the Union address. The next month, he spoke out in favor of open military service for transgender people, and the government agreed to pay for sex reassignment surgery for "Wikileaker" Chelsea Manning. Last month, Obama publicly supported the Equality Act, which would add LGBT protection to the Civil Rights Act.
Oregon swore in the nation's first openly LGBTQ governor, Kate Brown, in February. Salt Lake City, Utah, elected a lesbian mayor in November. Open transgender service in the U.S. Air Force began in June. Dallas,Texas, expanded its anti-discrimination law to include transgender people, while Houston overwhelmingly repealed the HERO Act, which included LGBT protection in the city's nondiscrimination laws. New York state governor Andrew Cuomo announced an executive order to protect transgender New Yorkers after the legislature failed to act.
Violence against transgender people is still a serious problem in the United States and around the world. This is especially true for transgender people in custody. But transgender rights are gaining ground globally as well. Norway proposed legislation to let children as young as seven to change their legal gender, Colombia also legalized gender registration, Vietnam passed a law allowing people to register a gender change after sex reassignment surgery, and Thailand opened the first transgender health clinic in Asia.
Let's hope that 2016 brings more "equal dignity" for all LGBTQ people.