In July 2000, Vermont became the first state to start granting civil unions for same-sex couples. The state Legislature steered clear of the word marriage. Yet that didn't stop the firestorm that thrust the tiny New England state front and center in the national debate over gay marriage.
Some people warned that Vermont would become a gay state, that granting marriage-like rights to gay people would destroy traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
In the midst of the culture wars were ordinary people like Karen Kunz and Angela French, parents of a 9-year-old, who were in love and just wanted to get married. In 2001, I traveled to Brattleboro, Vt., on the anniversary of the landmark civil union legislation to assess its impact. Gay couples weren't moving to Vermont in droves. But a modest number were making symbolic pilgrimages to get legal validation of their commitment to one another, though once they returned home, it wouldn't be worth the paper it was written on.
I attended the commitment ceremony for Kunz and French and marveled at their desire and determination to wed.
After the U.S. Supreme Court's twin rulings that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, I thought about that time not so long ago when a majority of Americans considered civil unions to be something radical. I am amazed by the rapid shift in public attitudes since these two women, who had both been previously married to men, tearfully exchanged vows.
In 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage 57 to 35 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, 50 percent support it, while 43 percent are opposed. Supporters include President Barack Obama, who shifted course last year.
To be sure, a little more than a decade does not seem like a short time if you are the one who has been relegated to what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called "this sort of skim-milk marriage." But in the context of social movements, we're talking about a remarkably short period of time.
How did it happen so fast?
Once Vermont adopted civil unions, a growing number of states began to follow suit. Many straight people saw that gay couples did not pose a threat to their own marriages. Same-sex couples also took their kids to soccer practices and attended PTA meetings, tended to their yards and pretty much did the same things as other couples.
"When people know someone who is LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) their attitudes change dramatically," says Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, the first openly gay woman on the council. "This has really been a big part of the broader shift that has helped to obliterate stereotypes."
People are far less likely to buy into hateful pronouncements of gays as deviants who pose a danger to children when beloved Uncle Harvey and his male spouse are frequent dinner guests. Exhibit A: Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, once considered a potential running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012, used to tow the conservative line on gay marriage. He did an about-face when his son came out to him two years ago. Now, he says, he sees gay marriage from a new perspective.
As more gays and lesbians have heeded gay activist and former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk's call to come out, they have increasingly become a visible part of every aspect of public life in many communities.
There is also a generational shift. Younger people who grew up in an era where some classmates had two moms or two dads tend to be far more accepting of gay relationships than their parents or grandparents.
Television has also had a huge influence in changing public attitudes. Shows such as "Will and Grace" portrayed gay people as normal and showed them in healthy, intimate relationships. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who came out publicly in 1997, has one of the most popular talk shows on television. She is married to actress Portia de Rossi.
"The change is that the gay characters being shown at this time aren't flamboyantly gay or butch lesbians or dying of AIDS," says Terrance Cheung, chief of staff to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.
Cheung's partner is Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, who appears with him in his Facebook profile picture. Cheung displays the rainbow flag flying at Richmond City Hall on his Facebook page.
Last month, some Richmond city employees and residents protested the flying of the flag during Gay Pride Month -- an ugly reminder that prejudice against gays and lesbians, though not as bad as it used to be, is still alive and well.