Marriage Equality Activists 'Have Never Been More Hopeful'
PHOTO: Hundreds gathered at the State Capitol Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn., where supporters of gay marriage called for Minnesota lawmakers to legalize gay marriage.

Jim Mone/AP Photo

A number of wins these past few weeks for proponents of same-sex marriage have fueled an unprecedented level of optimism, said Stuart Gaffney, a board member of Marriage Equality USA.

With a marriage bill passing the Illinois Senate, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's step forward on extending benefits to same-sex military spouses, the president's renewed support for their movement and two pivotal Supreme Court cases pending, Gaffney said supporters "have never been more hopeful."

"We are really hoping that this year will be the greatest year ever for the freedom to marry in the United States," Gaffney told ABC News Friday. "There's so many historic firsts that have been happening, day after day."

Here is a look at what steps forward - and back - proponents of same-sex marriage have taken this week:

President Obama's SOTU Shout-Out to Same-Sex Couples

President Obama gave a brief but noteworthy mention to same-sex couples in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country - the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead no matter where you come from, what you look like or who you love," the president told members of Congress and their guests in Statuary Hall.

That small shout-out was a step back from the level of support he showed in his inaugural address. Obama directly compared the gay rights struggle to such civil rights movements as the women's movement and the fight for racial equality during his swearing-in ceremony.

That speech was considered historic because it was the first time a president included the issue of gay rights in an inaugural address.

Panetta Adds to List of Benefits Available to Same-Sex Military Spouses

While it wasn't a full approval of what activists were asking for, an announcement this week by Panetta significantly increased the resources available to military members' same-sex spouses.

Panetta added 22 new benefits - including access to child care - to the list of those extended to same-sex partners.

The Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman and is up for consideration by the Supreme Court this year, precludes same-sex military spouses from receiving many of the additional benefits for which advocates have asked.

One of the unmet demands was burial at Arlington National Cemetery, but a decision from the Veterans' Affairs bureau Thursday could signal changing attitudes towards that policy.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki decided to allow retired Lt. Col. Linda Campbell to bury the ashes of her wife in a national military cemetery Friday.

Illinois Senate Approves Gay Marriage Bill

In what the Chicago Tribune called a " Valentine's Day victory," the Illinois Senate voted to legalize marriage for same-sex couples Thursday.

If the legislation passes in the House and is signed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, it would make Illinois the 10th state to allow same-sex marriage. But it would not allow residents of Illinois who marry under the law to receive federal benefits, like those available under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Senators Encourage Obama to End Workplace Discrimination

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., led a group of 37 senators in sending a letter to President Obama on Valentine's Day, asking him to sign an executive order to protect GLBT workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the Washington Post reported.

According to the White House website, President Obama believes workplace protection "should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity."

Woman in Army National Guard Seeking Benefits for Spouse Dies

Jeanne Shaheen took to the Senate floor Thursday to tell the story of Charlie Morgan, a New Hampshire woman in the Army National Guard who died of breast cancer Sunday after fighting to get benefits for her wife and their 4-year-old daughter, according to The Associated Press.

Sen. Shaheen, D-N.H., posted a video of her floor speech on Twitter and YouTube.

Morgan's wife, Karen, spoke of hope for marriage equality at her funeral in Portsmouth, N.H.

""I'll be on the courthouse steps with your picture when DOMA goes down," she said, according to the Seacoast Online. "I'll see you there. It's a date."

Shaheen introduced a bill with Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in Charlie Morgan's name that would require DOD to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states like New Hampshire where such practices are legal.

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