Pride Flag
Even Utah, Alaska, Idaho, and North Carolina have marriage equality now. Photo: Flickr user Benson Kua.

And the first one now will later be last,
For the times they are a-changin'

--Bob Dylan

For a long time in the United States, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community has fought for equal rights -- and lost. Sure, there were victories here and there, but there were also many setbacks. But in the past decade, the times truly have been changing. A majority of the 50 states have adopted marriage equality and given same-sex married couples the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

A glance at the table below shows how quickly public views on marriage equality have changed. 

Year

Percent Who Oppose Same-Sex Marriage

Percent Who Favor Same-Sex Marriage

1996

65

27

2001

57

35

2003

58

33

2004

60

31

2005

53

36

2006

55

33

2007

54

37

2008

51

39

2009

54

37

2010

48

42

2011

45

46

2012

43

48

2013

43

50

2014

39

54

Source: Pew Research Center. 

The acceptance of same-sex marriage has accelerated in the past five years, rising from from 37% to 54%. Even more encouraging for supporters, a large majority of younger Americans (those aged 18 to 29) favor marriage equality -- even among Republicans. Per a Pew survey this year, fully 61% of Republicans aged 18 to 29 support marriage equality versus only 22% of Republicans 65 and older. Time is on the LGBT movement's side.

The snowball: 30 states and counting
The growth rate in the number of states legalizing marriage for same-sex couples has also been picking up. Massachusetts was first, a decade ago in 2004, and it stood alone until it was joined by Connecticut four years later. At last count, 30 states plus the District of Columbia now permit marriage for same-sex couples, while 19 states still have constitutional bans in place, and one, Wyoming, has a statutory ban. For a while, civil unions were offered as a compromise in some states, but they are not offered by any state today.

Money matters
If you're wondering what the big deal is, and why same-sex couples would want marriage equality, know that there are lots of reasons based on both principle and pragmatism. For one, there's the notion that all Americans should enjoy the same rights. But beyond that there are many legal and financial considerations. One big step toward equality was the Supreme Court's decision last year declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and thereby extending to same-sex married couples across America about 1,100 federal provisions, including joint tax returns, spousal Social Security benefits, and veterans' benefits.

Personal finance guru Suze Orman, herself in a long-term same-sex relationship, summarized the cost of inequality in a CNN opinion piece last year. When same-sex couples haven't been able to get married, for example, they have been lucky if one partner's employer offered health insurance coverage for the other, as is standard for spouses in heterosexual marriages. Even then, the employee in a same-sex partnership ends up being taxed on the value of the insurance premium paid by the employer. So if a domestic partner receives coverage that costs the employer $3,000, the employee is taxed on that $3,000 -- which can amount to $750 for someone in a 25% tax bracket. Married couples face no such taxation.

With the U.S. government and the IRS now recognizing same-sex marriages, many inequalities and extra taxes have been eliminated at the federal level. But each state has been left on its own regarding taxation and other rules. While most states now recognize same-sex marriages, gaps remain for many LGBT couples. Nanette Lee Miller, of the Marcum accounting firm's LGBT and nontraditional family practice, has noted:

We still have 50 states with 50 different sets of rules, but being able to file jointly in your state of domicile greatly simplifies matters for married couples whose marriages were not previously recognized at the state level. In addition and perhaps more significantly, the ability to consider marital assets for trust and estate planning purposes is a tremendous new benefit available to these families. There are still 24 states that do not recognize same-sex marriages, and that means separate calculations and separate state and federal filings for taxpayers in those states, or those with assets there.

Images

Photo: Flickr user Max Talbot-Minkin.

Not that near the finish line
It certainly appears that full marriage equality is likely to spread to all 50 states in the relatively near future, but many activists point out that there's still more work to be done, as inequality and discrimination persist. For example, in the majority of U.S. states, a person can still be fired for being gay (even if he or she is allowed to legally marry there).

In the meantime, marriage equality is bringing equal rights and some financial relief to many same-sex couples, and it's even benefiting the overall economy. Forbes magazine has estimated that national marriage equality could boost business for the wedding industry and related companies by more than $9 billion. New York City alone reaped $259 million in the first year it recognized marriage equality.

The times are clearly changing. And as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has noted, "America's corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do."

Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Goldman Sachs. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.