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GLAAD Media Reference Guide - In Focus: Marriage


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For a list of U.S. states where committed gay and lesbian couples can currently marry, please see Appendix A: Federal & State Laws & Protections. Visit for updates.

Marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is one of today's most widely reported-on legal and cultural issues, with marriage equality emerging in a number of states. In the midst of this media coverage, gay and lesbian families are often reduced to abstractions by those who claim to be "defending" marriage – and whose carefully chosen euphemisms (such as "protecting the sanctity of marriage" and "sending our children a positive message about marriage") serve to obscure the impact of systematically excluding gay and lesbian Americans from marriage.

This lack of acknowledgement renders invisible the hundreds of thousands of loving, committed couples whose lives are most directly impacted by this debate.

As you cover the legal, policy and political dimensions of marriage for gay and lesbian couples, please share the stories of the committed couples whose lives and families are at the heart of this issue – and for whom the denial of marriage continues to threaten the security of their loved ones. The stories of same-sex couples and families are an integral and essential part of fair, accurate and inclusive coverage of discussions about, and movement toward, marriage equality.


Marriage licenses, while issued and regulated by the states, provide couples access to more than 1,000 state and federal rights, protections and responsibilities – few of which can be secured through private contracts – that safeguard their families.

Among the state rights, protections and responsibilities of marriage (which vary somewhat from state to state):

  • automatic inheritance
  • child custody/parenting/adoption rights
  • hospital visitation
  • medical decision-making power
  • standing to sue for wrongful death of a spouse
  • divorce protections
  • spousal/child support
  • access to family insurance policies
  • exemption from property tax upon death of a spouse
  • immunity from being forced to testify against one's spouse
  • domestic violence protections, and more.

Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) excludes married gay couples from 1,138 federal protections, rights and responsibilities conferred on married couples in the areas of:

State marriage laws are currently in a state of flux. Since 2003, several U.S. states have extended marriage to gay couples, and more than 40 states have some form of law – ranging from a simple statute to a state constitutional amendment – banning same-sex couples from marriage. In some cases, these laws also ban any state recognition of, or protections for, same-sex couples. For a list of states where gay and lesbian couples can marry, as well as those that currently exclude gay couples from marriage, see Appendix A: Federal & State Laws & Protections.

Civil union and domestic partnership laws in a handful of states offer varying degrees of state-only protection for same-sex couples. Opponents of marriage for gay couples have attempted to use the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to prevent civil union laws, as well as existing marriage equality laws, from being enforced in other states. DOMA also denies federal protec­tions to gay and lesbian couples in civil unions (see IN FOCUS: Civil Unions & Domestic Partner­ships)

Private contracts cannot provide adequate protections for gay and lesbian couples. Wills and trusts, powers of attorney, co-parent adoptions and joint titles, leases and accounts are often sought by same-sex couples to provide some sort of limited protection for their families. How­ever, these attempts to mimic a small number of the protections and responsibilities of marriage can be prohibitively (and unfairly) expensive, unenforceable in court, and may not be recognized by families, some private institutions, and by local, state and federal governments.

Extending marriage to gay couples has benefitted local businesses and state economies. A survey and a study of state-collected tax revenue data in Massachusetts by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law in 2009 found that marriage equality had a positive economic impact on the state, boosting the state economy by more than $100 million in the first four-and-a-half years.

  • Social Security benefits
  • he Family and Medical Leave Act
  • health insurance and continuation of health coverage (COBRA)
  • immigration law
  • Medicaid
  • retirement plans
  • federal tax laws, and more.


Public opinion on same-sex marriage has been gradually trending upward. Although most polls find shrinking majorities that continue to oppose marriage equality, the majority of public opinion polls now find solid majorities favoring some form of legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples (see IN FOCUS: Public Opinion & Polls).

Opponents of same-sex marriage frequently characterize as "judicial activism" those court decisions with which they disagree. Throughout our nation's history, the courts have heard chal­lenges to unjust majority-enacted laws that discriminate against and deny equal protection of the law to minorities. Some courts – including some composed of conservative judges appointed by Republicans – have recently struck down anti-gay marriage laws, extending basic rights and pro­tections to same-sex couples. Also, anti-gay extremists have begun attacking as "activists" those legislatures that have extended marriage or civil unions to gay couples independent of the courts.

When anti-gay activists, politicians and elected officials dispute the legitimacy of legal decisions and/or characterize them as "judicial activism," please rigorously examine these claims and evaluate their validity against the history of Constitutional Law and American jurisprudence.

Avoid constructions that use the inaccurate terms "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage." Same-sex couples seeking the freedom to marry want to join the institution of marriage as it currently exists, defining their relationships not as "gay marriage" but as "marriage." Used as a noun, "gay marriage" more accurately refers to non-marriage institutions such as civil unions. "Gay marriage" should never be used to describe the marriages of gay and lesbian couples in any state or country where gay couples have the ability to marry.

That said, just as The New York Times notes that the phrase "gay rights" is "often indispensable for confined headlines," print editors may find they need the term "gay marriage" when headline space restrictions do not permit use of the more accurate "marriage for gay and lesbian couples."

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