Almost 40 years ago, Howard and Brad Grossman bought wedding bands to signify their commitment to each other after years of dating. But with same-sex marriage illegal at the time, the gay couple could only mark their partnership through those rings, not with legal documents.
"Our affection for each other was against the law," Howard Grossman told USA TODAY.
Decades later, with President Joe Biden officially signing the Respect for Marriage Act into law Tuesday guaranteeing federal recognition of same-sex marriage rights, the Grossmans are appreciative that young same-sex couples won't face the same anxiety they've had about losing their marriage rights.
"To see how far we've come as a society, it makes my heart smile," Howard Grossman, 67 said.
The Respect for Marriage Act guarantees federal recognition of any marriage between two individuals if the union was valid in the state where it was performed. It also requires states to accept the legitimacy of a valid marriage performed elsewhere and protects interracial marriages.
“This law and the love it defends strike a blow against hate in all its forms,” Biden said Tuesday upon signing the legislation into law in front of a large crowd on the South Lawn of the White House. “And that’s why this law matters to every single American.”
The historic law comes more than seven years after the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that gay marriage is a fundamental right of all Americans. Democrats pushed for the legislation after the Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion in June and Justice Clarence Thomas expressed interest in reconsidering same-sex and interracial marriage rights in his opinion in that case.
There were about 710,000 married same-sex couple households in the United States in 2021, and about 500,000 unmarried same-sex couple households, according to data from the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey.
The new law affords same-sex couples as many as 1,100 rights and benefits attached to marriage under federal law, including custody determinations and social security benefits, said Cathryn Oakley, senior director of state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, at a press conference.
Some LGBTQ advocates, however, have said the law does not go far enough to fully enshrine marriage equality.
Under the law, states are not required to license same-sex marriages should nationwide marriage equality be overturned by the Supreme Court – an important distinction considering 35 states have statutes or constitutional amendments limiting the ability of same-sex couples to marry, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an independent think tank.
The law also does not require individuals or groups to provide services for a wedding ceremony or celebration if it's against their religious beliefs and does not recognize polyamorous unions.
But for same-sex couples, some of whom have been together long before their marriage was recognized and others who just recently wed, the law is a bright spot at a time of rising anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation.
More than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2022, including measures targeted at regulating school curricula, limiting transgender student participation in sports and banning gender-affirming care, according to data compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We are in an increasingly polarized society, and there are places where it can feel not safe to be LGBTQ right now in this country," said Paul Barnes-Hoggett, 48, who married his husband Stephen Lim last September. "Seeing something like this happen gives us a little ray of hope."
What does the Respect for Marriage Act do?: The bill just passed the Senate. What to know.
Gay married couples worried about their civil rights
Prior to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 in the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, many same-sex couples like Sally Masters, 64, and Christine Zingler, 70, had to travel to progressive states including Massachusetts – the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004 – for their wedding.
"Some people choose to have a destination wedding. We were forced into one," Masters told USA TODAY.
Since getting married, Masters and Zingler – who recently retired to Florida from Wisconsin – invested in a flash drive containing the legal documents on their marriage, including estate planning documents and power of attorney papers, that they take with them when they travel to ensure they can prove their partnership should one of them end up in the hospital.
The couple said the ruling has somewhat relieved the anxiety they experience with each election cycle, according to Masters.
"I have often said to people who are opposite-sex couples that we wish that they knew what it felt like with every pending election – how it feels to be worried about whether their marriage would be legal or invalidated or on the line," she said.
Pat and Paulette Martin, both 71, a married couple who reside in Harlem, New York, said the law would bring about peace of mind for many LGBTQ couples.
"It brings about improvement of the quality of our lives by having that trust mentally and more importantly, emotionally," Paulette Martin said. "That as we're living our lives each and every day, that we have the same safeguards as others."
Respect for Marriage Act: Senate defeats filibuster on gay marriage bill, paving path for protecting same sex unions
'We need to always be on our guard'
The Grossmans were ecstatic over the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act but still feel weary for the future of their rights and those of others in the LGBTQ community, they said.
"I'm not going to say, 'Oh, everything is peachy-keen now and we don't have to worry anymore,'" Howard Grossman said. "We don't have to stress out as much, but we need to always be on our guard because things could change. ... I'm so happy for the passage of this legislation. But I'm always going keep my eyes open."
National support for same-sex marriage has grown since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015. About 71% of Americans support legal same-sex marriage as of 2022, according to a Gallup poll – the highest approval rate for the legalization of such unions in U.S. history. Only 60% of Americans supported legal same-sex marriage in 2015, according to Gallup.
Joan Irwin, who has been married to her partner Ellen Irwin for almost two decades, said the law could do more by requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriage should the Supreme Court overrule its previous ruling, but any progress in protecting LGBTQ rights is better than none.
"I'm glad at this point that Congress is actually stepping up and doing something real about it," Irwin said. "It's not perfect, but nothing ever is."
Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What does Respect for Marriage Act mean for same-sex couples?