The lesbian and gay liberation movements of the early 1970s did not make marriage a priority — quite the opposite. Activists fought police raids, job discrimination and families’ rejection of their queer children. Most radical activists scorned the very idea of marriage. But a handful walked into clerks’ offices across the country to request marriage licenses. State officials suddenly realized that their laws failed to limit marriage to a man and a woman; no other arrangement had been imagined. By 1978, 15 states had written this limitation into law.
A “traditional family values” movement arose to oppose gay rights and feminism. Anita Bryant and other activists took aim at some of the earliest local anti-discrimination laws, and by 1979 they had persuaded voters in several cities to repeal them. In some 140 local and state referendums, gay-rights activists were forced to defend their fledgling protections. This, not marriage, consumed their energies.
It was the 1980s that changed things. The AIDS epidemic and what came to be known as the “lesbian baby boom” compelled even those couples whose friends and family fully embraced them to deal with powerful institutions — family and probate courts, hospitals, adoption agencies and funeral homes — that refused to recognize their relationships at all.
The gay partner of someone with AIDS confronted hospitals that could deny him visitation privileges, not to mention consultation over treatment. He couldn’t use his health insurance to cover his partner. He risked losing his home after his partner’s death if his name wasn’t on the lease or if he couldn’t pay inheritance taxes on his partner’s share of it (which would not have been required of a surviving spouse).