The ritual was replayed from Boston to San Francisco: Exuberant gay couples sharing marriage vows and slices of wedding cake.
After decades of seeking the same basic rights as most Americans, gay activists celebrated a long-sought achievement as the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that same-sex marriage (search) was legal. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom (search) performed gay marriages even though he had no similar court affirmation.
Gays thought barriers were finally crumbling. Then came the elections.
Outraged by these images of gay couples, conservatives clamored for laws not only banning gay marriage but in some states for prohibiting civil unions (search) and domestic partnerships. Nine of the 13 states that acted on or before Election Day on laws barring gay marriage also banned other forms of recognition for same-sex relationships.
Effects of those measures are already being felt. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, will remove same-sex partner benefits from contracts negotiated with state workers after the voter-approved amendment to the Michigan Constitution that bans gay marriage "and similar unions."
The lack of activists' success in the United States stands in contrast to Canada where the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that gay marriage was constitutional, allowing the government there to call on Parliament to legalize same-sex unions nationwide.
The string of U.S. election defeats — and the extent of the restrictions — has forced gay activists to reassess their strategy in what they see as a protracted fight for equal rights.
"There now is a profound realization that this struggle is going to go on for a very long time," said Matthew Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "People understand the reality of that in a way they did not before."
While many gays heralded the ruling in Massachusetts, several said they had mixed feelings as they watched the unprecedented developments.
"I thought what was done in Massachusetts was worth the price," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said of the legal success of gay couples who sued for the right to get married.
"The mistake was in San Francisco," said Frank, an openly gay congressman. Newsom's short-lived effort to allow gay marriages was "a lot of hoopla that didn't accomplish anything," Frank said.
Gay activists say their strategy will include:
—Seeking public support for equal protection for gays and taking that message to the conservative-leaning states in the South and West won by President Bush. Activists say there are many in those states who would be sympathetic to the difficulties gays face if they had more information about the legal barriers — both in the workplace and in recognition of relationships.
—Answering the high-profile religious leaders who are opposed to gay rights with religious leaders who are supportive.
—Shifting resources to work with corporate leaders about the need for more protections for gays in the workplace.
"Our biggest job is education, the hard work has to take place of telling people who we are and explaining that we don't even have these rights," said Cheryl Jacques, former president of the Human Rights Campaign. The Human Rights Campaign is a gay rights group that is attempting to recruit more non-gay members and shift its focus to human rights generally.
Americans oppose gay marriage by almost 2-to-1, according to a recent AP-Ipsos poll. Other recent surveys have found that people are evenly divided on civil unions that provide many of the same legal benefits for gay couples.
Jacques said gay couples who challenged local laws to get married "really handed Karl Rove fuel to pour on the flames," a reference to Bush's chief political adviser and how the issue energized conservative voters who turned out on Election Day.
After the 2004 elections, conservatives are determined to continue fighting for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which fell well short of the necessary two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.
"We'll have efforts in another eight to 12 states in the next couple of years, but also a renewed effort to get a federal marriage amendment passed," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council.
Court challenges to bans on gay marriage also will continue, said Gary Buseck, legal director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. But he acknowledged that winning over the public may take time.
"The younger generation is much more tolerant," said Buseck, whose group led efforts to change Massachusetts laws. "Our opponents can see where this is headed down the line."