Maryland voters approved same-sex marriage on Tuesday while similar measures in Maine and Washington state also appeared on track to pass, marking the first time marriage rights have been extended to same-sex couples by popular vote.
The vote was hailed as a watershed moment by gay rights activists because, while same-sex unions have been legalized in six states and the District of Columbia by lawmakers or courts, voters had consistently rejected doing so. Voters in more than 30 states have approved constitutional bans on gay marriage.
"It's enormous. We have truly made history," said Brian Ellner, head of the pro-gay marriage group The Four. "Having the first states approve marriage by a popular vote changes the narrative and sends an important message to the Supreme Court."
President Barack Obama earlier this year became the first U.S. president to support gay marriage, and his campaign endorsed the gay marriage measures in the three states.
In Maryland, the measure passed 52 percent to 48 percent, with 93 percent of precincts reporting. In Maine, it was leading by 54 percent to 46 percent, with 62 percent of precincts reporting. And in Washington, it was leading by 52 percent to 48 percent, with 61 percent of precincts reporting.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, voters appeared to be leaning against adding that state to the list of those defining marriage solely as a heterosexual union. With more than 78 percent of precincts reporting, the proposed constitutional amendment was trailing 49 percent to 51 percent.
The constitutionality of restricting marriage to unions between a man and a woman is widely expected to be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court soon.
James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, called the votes a "watershed moment" for gay and lesbian families.
"Not long ago, marriage for same-sex couples was unimaginable," he said. "In a remarkably short time, we have seen courts start to rule in favor of the freedom to marry, then legislatures affirm it, and now the people vote for it as well."