Maryland made history yesterday as the first state to approve gay marriage at the ballot box. The outcome on Question 6 was notable not just for what it will mean for thousands of gays and lesbians whose relationships will now be recognized as equal to those of their heterosexual peers but for what it says about the state of gay rights in America. There is good reason to believe that yesterday's vote was not just a victory for equality but a turning point.

Technically, Maryland appeared to be tied for the first-in-the-nation distinction, as a similar measure was poised for passage in Maine on the same day. Another was on the ballot in Washington. Considering that the electoral record for same-sex marriage up until yesterday was 0 wins and 32 losses, those victories are remarkable. The vote in Maryland in particular is a sign that the growing acceptance for marriage equality is starting to break down old barriers and may portend a rapid shift in the political and legal landscape.

If advocates were looking for a test case, Maryland in 2012 would probably not have been the time and place they would have picked. Although the state is reliably Democratic, it contains large numbers of African-Americans, who have historically been less inclined to support same-sex marriages. That was particularly worrisome given that President Barack Obama's presence on the ballot was expected to boost their turnout. Many blame that same phenomenon for the success of a constitutional amendment against marriage equality in California four years ago.

The result in Maryland suggests that the shift in attitudes among African-Americans that was reflected in the polls this year after Mr. Obama and the NAACP endorsed gay marriage was real. If marriage equality can succeed at the ballot box here, chances are it can succeed in many other places as well.

In Maryland, Maine and Washington (and Minnesota, where a constitutional ban on gay marriage was on the ballot), opponents of same-sex marriage trotted out the same arguments that had worked everywhere else: Children would be indoctrinated in public schools, free speech rights would be suspended, and churches would be forced to sanctify gay marriages. None of it is true, and this time the scare tactics didn't work. Yesterday's results are likely to encourage supporters to try to reverse some of those 32 votes against marriage — in fact, that's what happened in Maine, where a gay marriage law passed by the legislature was defeated just three years ago.

The timing of yesterday's victories could be crucial. The Supreme Court is expected to soon face a challenge to bans on same-sex marriage as well as the Defense of Marriage Act, as lower courts have found both to be unconstitutional. The high court may be evenly divided on the issue, with Justice Anthony Kennedy — who has sided with gay rights in the past — the swing vote. On social issues, the court often takes changing cultural values into account, and success at the ballot box is likely to mean much more than the results of opinion polls.

Marriage equality for all Americans won't happen overnight, but it's destined to happen — particularly given the overwhelming support of younger voters. What is at stake is simple fairness — the right for gay couples to have the same legal protections and privileges provided heterosexual families and their children. That involves a lot of matters that have nothing to do with religious faith, like the right to transfer property, make medical decisions, provide health insurance, and on and on.

But marriage equality is about more than that. Measures that attempt to grant such rights but withhold the name "marriage" are inadequate. To force same-sex couples into the status of a "union" but not a marriage only labels them as something apart, something second-rank, society's "other."

Yesterday, Marylanders were among the first to say that nothing short of full equality is good enough. Of that, we should be proud.