The Decade's Rise of Gay Marriage

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

ByABC News
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."