On 17 May 2004, American history was sealed with a kiss at midnight.
One gay couple after another - men and women - came out of the town hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts waving the freshly issued papers that would allow them to get married.
Massachusetts has always been known as a likely state in America to make liberal reforms to the law. Now, after months of battles between the state Supreme Court and the state legislature, it has become the first state to legalise marriage between same-sex couples. The Supreme Court has upheld a decision by the state┬┤s highest court stating that denying marriage licences to same-sex couples violated anti-discrimination laws as set out in the second Amendment of the American Constitution.
The issue of homosexual marriage has divided opinion and politicians across the US. After San Francisco┬┤s heterosexual Mayor, Gavin Newsom, had given the go-ahead on 12 February, 2004, to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples in February saying that current legislation was discriminatory, 3,700 gay couples were married in San Francisco. Read here, the wedding story and personal comment of Lauren Hewitt, (Managing Director, 42nd Street Moon), who was married to her partner, Kathrynn, in San Francisco on Valentine┬┤s Day.
However, the marriages in San Francisco were not recognised by the state of California. California┬┤s Supreme Court ordered San Francisco officials to immediately suspend same-sex marriages. In its order, the court referred to California┬┤s family code which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
After the rush to San Francisco┬┤s city hall by gay and lesbian couples, President George W Bush immediately asked Congress to change the American Constitution so that it clearly defines marriage "as a union of a man and a woman". This is election year in America and the evangelical wing of the Republican Party are angry about the huge number of gay marriages being performed. They have demanded action from the President in return for their loyalty when it comes time to vote.
On August 12, 2004 California┬┤s Supreme Court finally made a decision concerning the 3,700 marriages that took place in San Francisco earlier in February. All the marriages have been annulled. The court ruled that San Francisco┬┤s mayor had overstepped his authority by issuing the same-sex marriage licences. In separate legal action, the city of San Francisco and gay rights groups are suing the state of California to get the law banning same-sex marriages overturned. The case will be heard later this year.
Gay marriage is already banned in 38 states, but lawsuits in Florida, Nebraska, New Jersey and Oregon are seeking to have it made legal.
And what about gay marriage in Europe?
On April 1, 2002 the Dutch law allowing same-sex couples to marry came into force, together with a new law which allows same-sex couples to adopt children.
After years of pressure from gay rights groups, the British government has just published its plans to give homosexual couples the same rights as their married heterosexual counterparts, although the word "marriage" will not be used. Gay and lesbian couples will be able to call themselves "registered civil partners". The new legislation is planned to be passed in 2010 but there is a lot of pressure from gay rights groups to pass it earlier.
Civil unions between same-sex partners have been legal in France and other European countries for three or four years now. However, civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples fall very short of legal marriages. They do not come with benefits such as adoption rights, or the same fiscal advantages.
For a summary of the benefits that domestic partnerships and civil unions do offer for same-sex couples in various countries in Europe, go to: http://www.steff.suite.dk/partner.htm