Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the federal-level legalization of same-sex marriage. From a human rights standpoint, there’s no question that it should be legal. But what does historical precedent tell us? What conditions need to be in place to effect social change? And how close are we, really?
According to a revealing new visualization by Alex Tribou and Keith Collins on Bloomberg, we’re very close. In fact, the time is now.
They charted the state-by-state legalization of some of the biggest social rights topics in human history: Women’s suffrage. Prohibition. Abortion. Interracial marriage. And what they found (and you can clearly see in the visualization) is that support builds slowly, just a state or two at a time, until there’s an explosion of support when dozens of states support a topic. Then the federal government votes, and the rights are extended to everyone in the U.S., not just those living in select states.
Of course, how you define an “explosion of support” changes from one social issue to the next. Women’s suffrage had about 10 years of serious state momentum before the federal government granted women voting rights. The fall of prohibition had a 14-year run. Interracial marriage–perhaps the nearest topical precedent–had the rockiest path to federal support. State support evolved over 180 years, with one state allowing interracial marriage, then decades passing before another one jumped on board. But even that had a sudden, 19-year upswing of state adoption starting in 1950 (in this case, following a landmark case in the California Supreme Court that provided precedent).
So where does this leave same-sex marriage? If you acknowledge that state acceptance began in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to deem a ban against same-sex marriage unconstitutional, then it’s 11 years into its run. If you place it at 2009, when other states joined in, we’re just seven years in. But if you place it at 2013, after which time 28 more states have recognized gay marriage, it’s two years into the surge.
Any way you cut the timeline, just looking at these graphs, you can see, we’ve reached a critical mass for the federal adoption of same-sex marriage. It’s second only to the lift on prohibition in terms of state acceptance before federal support. (Yes, that means that if you were just looking at same-sex marriage through the lens of how many states supported it, interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, and abortion were all federally legal by now.)
As for recreational marijuana, another developing social issue that this visualization tackles, you can see that we’re probably a ways off. With only four states on board at the moment, pot has more traction than it used to, but it hasn’t surged yet. I recently heard an expert estimate that we’re 10 years out from federal acceptance of recreational marijuana, and that certainly seems reasonable when looking at this visualization.