For same-sex couples, 2013 has been a remarkable year

It’s just one of countless holiday cards, stacked in a basket on our hall table. Our friends Kevin and Grant are holding their twin sons, Gustav and Alton, while each toddler clutches a brightly colored leaf in his tiny hand.

Yes, 2013 has been the “worst year” of President Obama’s tenure, and the country is in a sour mood. By a margin of more than 2 to 1, Americans think we’re headed in the “wrong direction.” This Congress has been the least productive in history, and its favorable rating stands at a dismal 13 percent.

But in one important way, 2013 has been the best year ever: the advancement of gay rights. A federal judge last week made Utah the 18th state to sanction gay marriage, and Gallup reports that “public opinion on gay marriage has reached a tipping point, whereby the majority now clearly supports it.”

That Christmas card explains why. Many Americans got ones like it this year, and what’s so significant about them is that they’re now so ordinary. Gay couples are our friends and neighbors, relatives and co-workers. And they are caring for each other – and their children – with the same devotion as any straight family.

The Utah ruling is only the latest landmark in a year filled with them:

 • A half-dozen states expanded marriage rights and close to half of all Americans now live in states “that offer some protection for gay couples,” according to the website Freedom to Marry.

 • Pope Francis extended a hand of welcome to gay Catholics in July, saying, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized ... They’re our brothers.”

 • The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June that had barred legally married same-sex couples from receiving a host of federal benefits. That ruling has triggered many changes. Just last week, reports The Washington Post, the U.S. Navy announced it would “provide military benefits to gay couples stationed in Japan after previously denying dependent status to same-sex spouses there.”

 • President Obama named three openly gay athletes to his official delegation at the Sochi Olympics in February.

“We don’t make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation,” Obama told a year-end news conference. “And that’s a value that I think is at the heart of not just America but American sports.”

With seven out of 10 Americans under 30 supporting gay marriage, Republican strategists are increasingly worried that the issue will spell political trouble for the GOP in the future. “Opposing freedom to marry is a loser for our party and serves to drive away a growing number of voters who have turned the page,” David Kochel, a Romney adviser in Iowa, told the AP.

What’s behind this stunning shift is simply experience. Conservatives have always argued that same-sex unions demean and degrade traditional marriage, but exactly the opposite is true. These couples are not tearing down the institution. They’re rushing to join it.

In Utah, hundreds of couples flooded government offices applying for marriage licenses within hours of the judge’s ruling. Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, home to the Mormon Church, one of the nation’s most conservative denominations, called the scene “thrilling pandemonium.”

“We knew it was something we had to do,” Jeffrey Gomez told The New York Times after leaving work and rushing to the city clerk’s office with his partner, James Goodman. “This is my home, and I never thought I’d be able to get married here. I feel like a real person.”

A series of court rulings have reflected – and reinforced – these human emotions. In the Utah case, for instance, Judge Robert J. Shelby strongly rejected the notion that couples like Gomez and Goodman were somehow threatening traditional values.

“The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry,” he wrote, “and in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.”

Too often in the past year, on too many issues, public policy has been dominated by ideological crusaders. When it comes to gay marriage, however, reason and reality have frequently triumphed.

This year, for the first time, many gays and lesbians felt like “real people” in the eyes of the law. And many kids like Gustav and Alton, the tots on our Christmas card, are growing up in real families – recognized and respected by their community and their country.

Steve and Cokie Roberts are nationally syndicated columnists. Email them at stevecokie@gmail.com.