Loading Up the Medals, but Still Racing for the Freedom to Marry at Home

On Friday, the world will be watching as its best athletes come together in London to compete for the Olympic gold. It's an old tradition at the junction of friendly rivalry, hard work, and patriotism -- and when Americans win, the audience over here cheers.

As in the race for the freedom to marry, we've seen winners and losers, thrilling surges and heartbreaking upsets. But while gay and lesbian Olympians push themselves to the limit on the world's stage to bring victory to America, the U.S. government denies them one of the most basic human rights at home: the ability to commit to the people they love through marriage.

Nearly two decades ago, the U.S. was itself a favorite for the gold in this arena. In fact, we won the world's first decision in favor of the freedom to marry in 1996 when a Hawaii court ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples constituted discrimination. While other countries around the world began to have their own public discourse, America's dash to victory was blocked by politics. Hawaii voters restricted the freedom to marry in 1998 with a constitutional amendment, and it wasn't until 2004 in Massachusetts that marriage became an option for same-sex couples anywhere in the U.S.

As we stumbled, the Netherlands moved in for the gold, ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage in 2001. Belgium took silver in 2003, with Spain capturing the bronze two years later. The race to enable all committed and loving couples to marry has been going ever since. Same-sex couples can now share in the freedom to marry in 14 countries on four continents -- up from zero about a decade ago.

And while some socially progressive nations on the list were widely seen as leading contenders -- including the most recent winner, Denmark, which finally embraced marriage this year after being first in the world to enact domestic partnerships in 1989 -- others overcame incredible odds on the way to triumph. Only three decades after the end of the oppressive Francisco Franco regime and despite serious opposition from the Catholic Church, Spain embraced the freedom to marry in 2005, beating Canada. South Africa, only 12 years out from its apartheid era, became the first African country to embrace marriage for all. Argentina was first in Latin America, with its president stressing the importance of rejecting a history of dictatorship and social conservatism in the name of democracy. Portugal legalized marriage for all committed couples in 2010, similarly breaking with the government-sponsored discrimination of its past and showing its maturity as a democracy.

Many other countries are well on the way. Ireland, until very recently heavily influenced by the Catholic Church's position against the freedom to marry, now has civil partnership and is on the verge of marriage. In France, President François Hollande made the freedom to marry part of his campaign and beat an opponent set against it. The Australian Parliament is set to vote on two freedom to marry bills later this year, with public support showing majority support for them. In the United Kingdom, where legislation is also being debated, Prime Minister David Cameron has personally backed the proposal, saying, "I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative."

Suffice it to say that in the initial race, the medals have already been awarded. But like the Olympics, the battle for the freedom to marry offers many chances to win. Indeed, when all loving, committed couples are afforded the freedom to marry - with all the commitment, protections, and responsibilities marriage brings -- we all win: Families gain the respect and dignity they deserve, communities grow stronger, and nations fulfill constitutional and human rights guarantees of freedom, equal protection, and dignity for all under the rule of law.

In the Freedom to Marry Olympics, it's not too late to make everyone a winner everywhere. Let's end marriage discrimination throughout the USA and around the world, and let all loving and committed couples go for the gold.

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