The Decade's Rise of Gay Marriage

LGBT community is pleased with progress, but hoping for more.

November 30, 2009, 11:26 AM

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 "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 Resistence is "persisting much more than the advocates of same sex marriage thought it would," he said.

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 fronts.

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 around."

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 community exists."

Gay Marriage and the Bush Administration: Progress or 'Very Dark Years?'

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 courts."

"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," he said.

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 centuries.

"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," he said.

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 support it.

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 Stand?

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 landslide."

It's that trend, he said, that makes him optimistic for the future.

"At the end of [2019] 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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