Supporters of gay rights saw real progress on the horizon on Wednesday after the re-election of “ally-in-chief” Barack Obama and important gains for same-sex marriage in four states.
Voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington approved marriage equality in referendums run in parallel with Tuesday's elections - the first time it has ever been approved at the ballot box in the United States.
Those in Minnesota, meanwhile, rejected a proposal to ban gay marriage in the northern state's constitution.
“It's a proud day to be proudly out,” said Zack Ford, editor of the LGBT section of ThinkProgress.org, a political blog affiliated with the liberal Centre for American Progress think tank.
“The momentum for marriage equality has never been stronger,” added Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organisation.
“With poll after poll showing a growing majority of support, we have a renewed certainty that we will win this fight.”
Same-sex marriage is already legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.
But it remains a divisive issue, banned in about 30 of the 50 states - notably California, where its legalisation was overturned in a 2008 referendum - and fiercely opposed by evangelical Christians and Roman Catholic bishops.
It is not recognised at the federal level either, with the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) denying married LGBT couples the same tax and social security benefits as their straight counterparts.
The US Supreme Court is expected later this month to consider whether to rule on DOMA's constitutionality.
The conservative National organisation for Marriage (NOM) expressed disappointment Wednesday at the election results, but it vowed to pursue the “true and just cause ... of preserving marriage as God designed it.”
In a statement, its president Brian Brown attributed the setback to “a huge financial advantage” on the part of same-sex marriage campaigners in four “very liberal states.”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, standard-bearer for the Vatican's opposition to abortion, contraception and marriage equality, said it was “a disappointing day for marriage.”
“No matter what policy, law or judicial decision is put into place, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union,” it said.
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said the fight for “natural marriage” would shift to defending DOMA and resisting Obama administration efforts towards “the normalisation of homosexual behaviour” in public schools.
“The vote in these (four) states legitimises behaviour that is immoral, unnatural, and unhealthy,” Fischer, director of policy analysis for the Evangelical group, told AFP. “That's hardly progress.”
Obama made history in May as the first serving president to publicly support marriage equality. Last year he repealed the “don't ask, don't tell” ban on gays serving openly in the US military.
“There is no doubt that we will continue to see tremendous strides forward like we've made during his first four years with our 'ally-in-chief' back in office,” Griffin said.
Obama's defeated Republican rival Mitt Romney campaigned on the social-conservative position that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman - a stance that plays strongest in the American heartland.
Across the Atlantic, France's Socialist government adopted a draft law Wednesday to authorise same-sex marriage and adoption, despite Roman Catholic and right-wing opposition.
Tuesday also saw the election of Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin as the first openly gay member of the US Senate. Since 1999 the Democrat has been a member of the lower House of Representatives.
“I didn't run to make history. I ran to make a difference,” Baldwin told supporters in the state capital Madison after trouncing former Republican state governor and federal health secretary Tommy Thompson.
Support for marriage equality has been growing slowly but steadily among Americans, with an August 2010 opinion poll for CNN television becoming the first of several indicating majority support.
“We believe that in a few years, gay marriage will cease to be seen as strange by anyone,” said Joseph McClane, 62, a resident of Rockville, Maryland who has been with his partner Bill Nickel for 18 years. - Sapa-AFP