The Decade’s Rise of Gay
Five States Down, 45 to Go for LGBT Community Hoping for Equal
By SARAH NETTER
Dec. 16, 2009—
Five states in 10 years may not seem like an significant
accomplishment for gay marriage advocates, but for men and women
who thought they might never be able to marry their same sex
partners, the victories have been monumental.
“I think these things are often marked by steps forward and steps
back,” Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the
Boston-based Family Equality Council told ABCNews.com. “I think
it’s a very hopeful time despite the setbacks we’ve seen.”
That shift in public policy has frequently been met with a public
backlash. Gay marriage laws passed in several states have been
promptly overturned by voters. Polls indicate a growing acceptance,
but they also suggest there is still a significant percentage of
Americans resisting, even alarmed, at the trend.
“Obviously that movement has made gains over the last decade, but
not nearly what I think they might have hoped or expected to have
had,” Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family
Research Council, told ABCNews.com. Resistence is “persisting much
more than the advocates of same sex marriage thought it would,” he
But there clearly has been a seismic shift.
When the last decade ended, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender community was still reeling from a series of early gay
marriage defeats and the beating death of Matthew Shepard, a
Wyoming college student targeted because he was gay.
Now, gay Americans can marry in Connecticut, Massachusetts,
Vermont, Iowa and — starting on Jan. 1 — New Hampshire. Various
incarnations of legal unions short of marriage are recognized in
several other states.
“When you’re being denied your equality, nothing short of full
equality is good enough. And so, it is hard to be patient,”
Chrisler said. “Having said that, we are so much further than we
were 10 years ago. And even five years ago, when we thought things
were so hard.”
Yet there have been major blows to the LGBT movement, which Sprigg
called the “pro-homosexual movement” in the last 10 years. The
federal Defense of Marriage Act remains a major target for gay
marriage advocates, many of whom blame the eight-year Bush
administration for stalling equal rights progress on several
A court ruling legalizing same sex marriage in California lasted
less than five months before being overturned by Proposition 8 at
the polls in November 2008. Maine also approved same sex marriage
legislation in 2009, but the move was overturned in a voter
referendum later this year.
While the Washington D.C. council voted just last week to allow
same-sex marriage, the New York State Senate overwhelmingly shot
down a similar bill the next day.
And being called gay is still such an insult in most schools, that
several young people have committed suicide over the taunts.
After Massachusetts’ became the first state to allow gay marriage
“there was almost a feeling that the rest of the country, the rest
of the states would begin falling like dominos,” Sprigg said.
Instead, the years went by before the next state followed suit.
But for Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, it is a time her son hoped
he’d some day see. Shepard said Matthew, whose death has become a
sad symbol of gay hate, asked her the summer before he died whether
same sex marriage would ever be allowed.
The summer before he died — when Hawaii litigation was ongoing —
Matthew asked if same sex marriage would ever be allowed. “‘Matt,’
I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. It may
happen in yours,'” Shepard said. “It turned out to be the other way
Gay marriage won’t solve every problem in the community, Shepard
pointed out. Federally employed gays and lesbians still cannot get
benefits for their partners or spouses and many employers still
discriminate against openly gay and lesbian hires.
The military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, signed into law by
President Clinton in 1993, still stands, much to the chagrin of
open gay and lesbian military members who want the right to serve
their country. President Obama has promised to end the ban, but has
not given any timetable for such an effort.
Shepard said that, in her mind, one of the LGBT community’s biggest
victories of the decade came not from same-sex marriage advances,
but from President Obama’s signing this year of federal hate crime
legislation that specifically protects the gay community.
“It sends a message,” she said, “that they recgonize the gay
Gay Marriage and the Bush Administration: Progress or ‘Very
Shepard, whose book, “The Meaning of Matthew” hit stores in
September, became a tireless advocate for LGBT rights after her
son’s murderers were sent to prison and still does 30 to 40
speeches a year.
“I couldn’t understand why the gay community was being denied
anything,” she said. “They’re American citizens.”
She called the Bush administration “the very dark years.”
“I think we’d be further along if we didn’t have that eight year
interruption,” she said.
It’s a sentiment shared by some of her fellow advocates. “I think
you can not underestimate how cleverly the conservative movement
leveraged marriage for their political gain,” Chrisler said,
pointing to the 2004 election as a particularly damaging time for
the gay community.
“I don’t think that’s the reason John Kerry lost in his
presidential election, but I think it’s the first time in really
super-susbstantive ways there was debate about marriage equality in
a national dialogue,” she said.
Sprigg said he considered DOMA to be a defining moment in the
movement to protect what he said is the sanctity of the family.
The law, he said, “has been effective in preventing the extension
of benefits to same sex couples within the federal government and
also has been effective in protecting the rights of states to
define marriage for themselves.”
In the next 10 years, he said, it will be crucial to protect DOMA
“”because it maintains a crucial line of defense for the states as
well as the example set by the federal government.”
Brian Brown, executive director and founder of the National
Organization for Marriage, said he founded the organization two
years ago to counter the gay and lesbian groups “”trying to force
same sex marriage through the state legislature and through the
“This decade might be better termed the rise and fall of gay
marriage,” he said, noting, like Sprigg, that the LGBT movement
seemed to expect that liberal states such as New York and
Washington would take a cue from Massachusetts and Connecticut and
allow same-sex marriage.
“That did not happen and instead what happened was that Prop 8
happened and that changed everything,” he said.
Brown charged that supporters of gay marriage have said for so long
that most Americans support their cause that they actually started
to believe it, even as a majority of states approved Constitutional
amendments that suggested otherwise.
“In California when they lost, they just could not believe it,” he
said. “I think it sent shockwaves through the movement.”
The failure of Maine to approve same sex marriage, Brown said, just
solidified Prop 8’s victory.
“Maine made clear that California was not just a blip on the map,”
Attitudes Warming Toward Gay Community
Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense Fund,
which brought its first gay marriage lawsuit in the early 1990s,
said that while he’s grateful for the gains they’ve made, “I
probably would have thought by today that we would be further ahead
than where we are.”
“There have been enormous social shifts in the last decades, but
including in this last decade,” he said. “But for a lot of people,
marriage is still a big stumbling block because marriage is
identified with religion and with sacrament.”
Sprigg said his concerns are not about the plight of individual
same-sex marriages, but about the effect they could have on society
as a whole, undermining a tradition that has stood for
“Marriage is a public institution because of the role it plays in
the reproduction of the human race and providing that mother and
father will together raise the children produced by their union,”
Spring said he has seen research that indicates that gay partners
are less likely to enter into long-term relationships and, if they
do, have high rates of infidelity.
“If homosexual relationships are granted a public affirmation that
comes with being called marriages then actually it will undermine
society’s commitment, society’s understanding of the commitment, of
sexual fidelity,” he said.
Chrisler, who married her wife five years ago soon after
Massachusetts made same-sex marriage legal, said research shows the
Americans’ attitudes have grown more supportive of LGBT families
since the 1990s, even if more people still oppose gay marriage than
Recent Pew Research Center data showed that 65 percent of those
polled opposed gay marriage in 1996 while 27 percent of supported
it. By 2009, the split had narrowed to 54 percent opposed, 35
percent in support.
An April 2009 ABC News/Washington Post poll, however, found gay
marriage supporters outnumbering opponents, 49 percent to 46
percent, for the first time in the poll’s history.
Chrisler pointed that even gays and lesbians have changed their
attitudes in the last 10 years, accepting their sexual orientation
as just one part of their identity rather than the whole.
For gays and lesbians, she said, the 1990s were all about marches
and National Coming Out Day.
“I think what happened is that over time we as a community have
learned to wear our multiple identities in every aspect of our
lives,” she said.
That, combined with a more relaxed attitude on television and in
the media toward LGBT characters, has made a significant impact on
how non-LGBT people view them.
Ellen DeGeneres lost her sitcom after kissing another woman in
primetime, she noted. Now DeGeneres is an Emmy-award winning talk
show host and it’s no longer uncommon to see LGBT couples in
intimate relationships on TV or in the movies.
“Entertainment has really had a lot to do with people becoming more
comfortable with our issues,” she said.
Sprigg maintained, however, that the entertainment industry and
most mainstream news media are “pretty much sympathetic with the
same sex marriage cause so it’s remarkable that 54 percent of the
population still resists that.”
The Next 10 Years: National Gay Marriage Law or Will DOMA
Brown said he thinks the gay marriage debate will slide backwards
in the next 10 years, with supporters reverting to push for civil
unions and partnerships.
“The momentum is clearly on the side of protecting marriage,” he
said. “I think, politically, this is a disaster for the Democratic
Party if it doesn’t get its act together on this issue.”
But age, more than almost anything else, make the biggest
difference in opinion in the future, Cathcart said.
“We are so overwhelmingly winning among younger people and still
overwhelmingly losing among older people,” he said.
And when many of the final decisions on gay marriage at the state
level rest with voters at referendum, it’s the voice of the older
people that generally wins out.
Shepard agreed and, at 57 years old, blamed her own generation.
“It wasn’t part of our psyche and our world growing up,” she said,
noting that there are wide swaths of the country where people still
believe all gays are pedophiles.
Added Cathcart, “there’s still enough homophobia in this country
that people still want their kids to be straight.”
Cathcart said exit polling and research from the November 2008
ballot showed that if no one over the age of 65 had voted in Prop 8
last year, gay marriage would still be legal in California. And if
no one over the age of 45 had voted, “we would have won by a
It’s that trend, he said, that makes him optimistic for the
“At the end of  I believe this is largely going to be a non
issue,” he said, and “that we’re going to have equal marriage
rights in a significant number of states.”
Chrisler said she’s looking for even more.
“I think in the next 10 years you will certainly see that state
patchwork of strategy become very problematic,” she said, “and
there will have to be a national resolution.”
That’s something, Sprigg predicted, will never happen.
“The only way they would ever achieve that is through a U.S.
Supreme Court decision and I don’t see that as likely,” he said,
pointing to the Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling in 1974 that polarized
the country instead of bringing a resolution. “I think they’ve
learned a lesson from that and there will not be a Roe vs. Wade of
same sex marriage.”
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