When gay friends flew out to California to get married (in the brief period where it was legal in that state), but then returned to their home in Florida where gay marriage is forbidden by state statute, they asked me were they really "married" in the eyes of the law? I'm a law professor, but my area of expertise is commercial matters and not family law, but I've done some reading and research on this issue, and the answer is, well, complicated.
Article IV, Section 1 of the United States Constitution:
Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.
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It would seem then that a gay couple married in jurisdictions like Massachusetts, which recognizes gay marriages as equal to straight ones, would only be really married in that state and in states recognizing gay marriages legally performed elsewhere, but that's not quite right either. Why not? Because federal law prohibits gay marriages from being given legal recognition at the federal level or by any state not wanting to grant such legal recognition.
In 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 1738C (DOMA), and President Clinton signed it into law. It provides, in pertinent part:
No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.
What about gays who wed in other countries where gay marriages are legal? Another thorny legal area that one. In theory, international treaties recognize marriages legally contracted by signatories to such treaties, which includes the United States, but again exceptions have been made, and the issues need resolution at the highest levels.
In the meantime we have a legal mess, with perfectly good people having "quasi-marriages" only, and in limbo as to their rights and those of their children (the littlest victims of all this homophobia). Even contractual agreements between gay couples (or straight couples living together without being married) are suspect and often subject to valid legal challenges (undue influence, for example).
Gay couples who get married deserve to celebrate their unions, but what they've legally achieved is only slightly better than jumping over the broom, the symbolic tradition of slaves wanting to marry. These happy couples are "married" in their own eyes, and in the opinion of those friends and family who love them, as well those Americans who mostly don't give a damn about the issue, but to much of the country gay "married" spouses are pretenders, to be condemned or, at best, pitied.
I've been a gay activist for over three decades, and I've seen dramatic changes occur in a breathtakingly short period of time, so I'm sure there's a happy ending to this problem. Until then I urge the current activists and their allies to keep working for change until "gay marriage" loses its adjective and keeps only the definitive noun.
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
"Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011"The Legacy of Homophobia," August 2, 2011
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“Gay Marriage, DOMA, Proposition 8 and the Mysterious Supreme Court,” January 15, 2013
"Gay Marriage, the Supreme Court, and the Future," June 26, 2013
“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/03/a-gay-hoosier-lawyer-looks-at-indianas.html
“Oral Arguments on Gay Marriage in the Supreme Court: What Was and What Wasn’t Said,” April 28, 2015; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/04/oral-arguments-on-gay-marriage-in.html