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Gay marriage hasn't won (yet...)

By John D. Sutter, CNN
March 31, 2013 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Time's most recent cover declares the same-sex marriage wars are over.
Time's most recent cover declares the same-sex marriage wars are over.
  • Time magazine's cover declares "GAY MARRIAGE ALREADY WON"
  • John Sutter says that assertion is premature for most of the country
  • He says same-sex marriage is inevitable -- and that's a great thing
  • Sutter: If the Supreme Court passes, it could be years before it's national policy

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

(CNN) -- If Rush Limbaugh says same-sex marriage is inevitable, it's inevitable. Here's what the conservative radio host had to say about the topic on a recent show:

"This issue is lost. I don't care what the Supreme Court does. This is now inevitable. And it's inevitable because we lost the language on this."

In a separate clip, he says he would agree with gay rights activists who claim the "genie isn't going to get put back in the bottle" on this issue. "I think the inertia is clearly moving in the direction that there is going to be gay marriage, at some point, nationwide."

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Does he sound begrudging? Yes. Do I care? No. If the King Conservative is endorsing the inevitability of same-sex marriage, then my generation -- the one demographers talk about when they mention the "sea change" in public opinion on this topic; the people born after 1981 who support "gay marriage" at a rate of 70% -- will live to see it happen.

That's so exciting that I almost want to end the column right here and now. Who cares what the Supreme Court decides? Rush said equality is on the way!

But then the question becomes: How soon?

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And: What happens until then?

Finally: Doesn't this in-between part matter?

Those doubts are what bother me about a new and hotly debated Time magazine cover that declares, quite prematurely, and in all-caps: "Gay marriage already won."

"The Supreme Court hasn't made up its mind," the subhead says, "but America has."

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The trouble: America hasn't.

New-York-America has. Washington-America has. California-America, which voted in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage, could easily overturn that law if a new election were held today.

Sutter: Gays live in 50 Americas

But there are plenty of gay and lesbian people who live in states like South Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Georgia -- where far different views dominate the discourse.

Unless the Supreme Court rules broadly against California's ban on same-sex marriage, which seems unlikely to the smart people who have been dissecting the arguments, then some gay people could be waiting decades for equal rights under the law.

How long, exactly, is the subject of some debate.

"In Republican-leaning red states, which uniformly have banned gay marriage, few seem to be having second thoughts," writes Ronald Brownstein in the National Journal.

"For the near future, the nation appears locked onto a trajectory in which almost all reliably blue states will establish gay marriage (or civil unions) and possibly not a single reliably red state will follow."

Trajectory, locked. Awesome.

I did find a glimmer of hope, however, in an analysis from Nate Silver, The New York Times blogger and data wiz who correctly predicted the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.

Silver says even the reddest of the red states will change eventually.

Thirty-two states would support same-sex marriage in a popular vote by the year 2016, he writes in a recent blog post. "And by 2020, voters in 44 states would do so, assuming that same-sex marriage continues to gain support at roughly its previous rate."

The six states left out? South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, according to his analysis. With Mississippi being last.

I recently spent some time in that state, which passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage by a majority vote of 86%. In states like that, gay people find it difficult in some communities just to exist, much less hold commitment ceremonies.

I met gay kids who had been harassed at school; a couple that keep a security camera on their porch; and a man who says he was fired because of his sexual orientation. (That's legal in Mississippi and 28 other states, by the way, and it's something no one's talking about.)

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The conversation is changing -- there are plenty of proud, brave and openly gay people living in the Deep South -- but it's happening at an uneven clip.

And these delays matter for real people.

In Mississippi, I met folks like L.B. and Sara Bell, who are legally married in Connecticut but don't get any of the rights that go with that partnership in the Hospitality State. They told me they would like to start a family but worry about both of them getting custody, since Mississippi bans adoption by same-sex parents. Sara, who would like to carry the child, is 31. If same-sex marriage isn't legalized until, say, 2030, she would be 48.

It would be nice to overlook this mushy, awkward middle period -- our county's pimply adolescence on gay rights -- and jump straight to an all-inclusive future.

But these teenage years matter. They affect how millions of Americans live today. And the transition could also affect what type of nation we become. Let's hope they go by quickly.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

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