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Same-sex weddings in Washington State: Breakthrough for gay marriage?

For the first time, same-sex couples now are allowed to marry in their state as the result of a popular vote legally authorizing such unions. Until now, those few states where gay marriages can occur took that step as the result of legislation or court cases based on discrimination.

But in Washington State Wednesday night, hundreds of same-sex couples lined up to apply for marriage licenses – some having waited for decades, all in celebration of the state’s new law approved by voters in last month’s election.

Thursday was the first day such licenses were to be issued. By noon, nearly 400 licenses had been issued in Seattle.

"We waited a long time. We've been together 35 years, never thinking we'd get a legal marriage,” Pete-e Petersen, who with her partner Jane Abbott Lighty, were the first to get a license in Seattle, told theAssociated Press. “Now I feel so joyous I can't hardly stand it.”

Voters in Maine and Maryland approved such measures as well, and Minnesota voters shot down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

Those elections were an important shift given that all previous ballot measures – 31 in all – amended state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. Polls indicate that public opinion is moving steadily in that direction.

In 2008, a Quinnipiac University poll showed most Americans opposed to same-sex marriage by a wide margin (55 to 36 percent). By this year, the numbers had shifted dramatically, with a plurality (48 to 46 percent) now backing gay marriage, Quinnipiac reported this week.

There’s a clear gender gap here, although both men and women are moving in the direction of approval.

In 2008, men opposed gay marriage 61-31 percent. Now they oppose it 50-43 percent, a 23- point shift. Women, who had opposed it 51-40 percent in 2008, now back it 52-42 percent, a shift of 21 points, reports Quinnipiac.

The Gallup polling organization reports this week that 53 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid with the same rights as traditional marriages. That ties with May 2011 as the highest level of support Gallup has found since it began tracking the issue in 1996.

Forty-six percent of the adult population continues to oppose gay marriage, Gallup found, most of those “on the basis of religious beliefs and/or interpretation of biblical passages dealing with same-sex relations.”

The generational gap may be more significant in what it portends for public attitudes

“Since voters 18 to 29 years old support same-sex marriage 63 to 35 percent, once again we see it's just a matter of time,” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn. "It seems pretty clear that attitudes toward same-sex marriage in American society are changing rapidly. While the country remains split on the issue, supporters have come pretty far in the last four years.”

Meanwhile, official attitudes and actions are moving in the direction of greater acceptance as well.

During the past four years, the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" ban on gay service members serving openly has been reversed, the Obama administration has refused to legally defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court, and President Obama has joined other senior political figures in voicing support for same-sex marriage.

It was more than symbolically significant that the Cadet Chapel at the US Military Academy at West Pointrecently held its first same-sex marriage, conducted by a US Army chaplain. (One of the two women is a West Point graduate.)

Until last month’s elections in Washington, Maine, and Maryland, six states and the District of Columbia had granted marriage rights to same-sex couples. They are Connecticut, Iowa,MassachusettsNew HampshireNew York, and Vermont.

Opinion polls may indicate a steady change in support of same-sex marriage among the general population. But another survey – this one conducted on Election Day for the conservative National Organization for Marriage – indicates that most  voting Americans nationwide (60 percent) agree that "marriage is between one man and one woman,” with 51 percent of all respondents agreeing strongly.

Supporters of gay marriage acknowledge that they still have a long way to go in gaining full public acceptance.

Meanwhile, following a three-day waiting period after marriage licenses are issued, members of the clergy and other authorized officials will begin conducting same-sex weddings this weekend in Washington State. The ballot measures approving such marriages become law in Maine on Dec. 29 and in Maryland on Jan. 1.

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