THE YEAR IN GAY | The LGBT community certainly had its ups and downs in 2010, but with some surprising court victories and a last-minute Capitol Hill victory before the Democrats relinquished control of the US House of Representatives, the year offered reason for optimism.
Perhaps most heartening was our ability to embarrass homophobes who have trouble accepting queers as citizens with rights.
James Inhofe, a Republican US senator from Oklahoma, and Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor of a California mega-church, had their reputations permanently damaged by their membership in “The Family,” a secretive group of evangelicals that, among many activities, offers religious members of Congress cut-rate Washington housing and more than a dollop of fanaticism.
Rachel Maddow, the popular out lesbian anchor on MSNBC, and Jeff Sharlet, an investigative journalist, reported that the Family sponsored a prayer breakfast in Uganda where that nation's proposed “kill the gays” legislation — which would make homosexual acts and unreported knowledge of such acts punishable by the death penalty — was floated. Reporting throughout the year zeroed in specifically on Inhofe's and Warren's links to radically anti-gay leaders in Uganda. In the ensuing public outcry, both Warren and Inhofe found it necessary to publicly disavow the bill.
In the waning days of the year, musicians Raz-B and Chris Brown, while engaging in a Twitter flame war that included numerous homophobic volleys between them, were prevailed on — probably by their PR advisors mindful of online campaigns bringing the ugliness to light — to publicly declare they are not anti-gay.
In Texas, 2010 began with Annise Parker taking office as mayor of Houston, and she remains a ray of sunshine in a very Republican state. Jack Valinski, who moderates “Queer Voices” on the Pacifica Radio station in Houston, said of Parker, “She sets a tone.” She has held citywide elective offices for 13 years, showing that the nation's fourth largest city prefers competence over lingering resistance based on an individual's sexual orientation. Parker gets praised for her visibility, and everybody knows her children have two moms.
To be clear, in a state where Republicans hold every statewide office, don't expect Parker's positive reviews to spawn pro-LGBT legislation in Austin any time soon. Still, the mayor is one of many signs that the LGBT community is asserting its place at the table in that part of the country. The “It Gets Better” campaign, in which Americans famous and obscure have made videos urging LGBT youth to hang in there even in the face of adversity, has produced a big impact. In Fort Worth, Joel Burns, an out gay member of the City Council, tearfully described his pain and isolation growing up.
The “It Gets Better” campaign, launched by gay activist and sex columnist Dan Savage in response to news of a spate of youth suicides in 2010, marks an historic embrace of LGBT well-being by the larger society. Those making YouTube videos included not only President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but also young people, gay and straight alike. The project enables students to help each other, rather then reinforcing stigma that leads too many LGBT young people to believe that by coming out or having no choice but to be out will make them a pariah. The campaign dovetails nicely with the growth in gay-straight alliances that create safe spaces in high schools and middle schools across the county.
In Texas, the suicide of Asher Brown in Houston in response anti-gay bullying left school officials muttering, “We didn't know” about what everybody else at the school saw and knew.
It wasn't only education officials who were placed on the defensive. The public response to a brutal police raid on a Fort Worth gay bar and to El Paso police officers forgetting that city has a gay rights law when they told a group of gays to leave a restaurant also demonstrated LGBT Texans' growing acceptance as part of the larger community. Texas law enforcement officers probably had trouble sharing laughs with their buddies about busting fairies while facing disciplinary action.
In Mississippi, Constance McMillen wanted to take her girl friend to the prom, but her school district flouted the law and canceled the affair. The district had to pay $35,000 for ignoring her civil rights, and McMillen became a sought-after new voice in the national debate on LGBT equality.
The Smithsonian was acutely embarrassed after it removed a video made by the late David Wojnarowicz — mourning the death from AIDS of artist and close friend Peter Hujar — from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The video was part of the critically acclaimed “Hide/Seek” show that was the first staging of a collection of gay-inspired art by a major museum. The move, coming amidst outcry from Republicans and the militantly anti-gay Catholic League over the use of a crucifix in the video, was widely denounced in the art world as craven. James T. Bartlett, a commissioner on the Smithsonian's advisory board, resigned in protest.
Only the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) — coming in the last days of Congress' lame duck session, can compete with the anti-suicide movement for its positive effect on the lives of LGBT community. Aaron Belkin, a leader in the struggle for repeal as director of the University of California, Santa Barbara's Palm Center research institute, said that repeal “ushers in a new era in which the largest employer in the United States treats gays and lesbians like human beings.”
Outside of ending DADT, the biggest government action this past year came in the federal courts. For years, the LGBT community has battled the anti-gay military policy as well as the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as two odious example of the US government asserting an affirmative obligation to discriminate against the gay community. In cases brought by the Log Cabin Republicans against DADT, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and gay and lesbian couples married there against DOMA, and by the City of San Francisco and couples denied the right to marry in California against Proposition 8, federal district court judges sided with the LGBT community.
The DADT victory may well prove moot if the military and the president move expeditiously to certify that the armed forces are fully prepared to let the old policy die, but the principles articulated there are important nonetheless. As the DOMA and Prop 8 cases wend there way up the federal court system, profound game changers could be in the offing.
The biggest disappointment of 2010 was undoubtedly the slow death of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress, a measure that could not even advance in the House, where the institutional barrier of the filibuster that slows down legislation in the Senate does not exist. ENDA's primary boosters in the House argued that the inclusion of protections for transgender Americans opened up the possibility of Republicans adding poison pill amendments effectively killing the bill during floor debate.
Obama, with the opportunity to sign repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell just days before Christmas, surely ended the year in a stronger position with LGBT voters than could have been predicted at the time of the midterm Democratic losses in November. The gays in the military issue got the better of Bill Clinton; the current president, in contrast, delivered on his 2008 promise to end the policy. Prior to the DADT victory, Obama had only the 2009 hate crimes law and a string of executive department initiatives to his credit. The president's executive orders and other administrative actions were not insignificant; they ended the ban on HIV-positive travelers entering the US; opened up same-sex partner visitation rights at nearly all American hospitals; eliminated the requirement that transgender passport holders produce evidence of sex reassignment to change the gender indicated; and extended some partnership benefits to federal employees in same-sex relationship.
Most LGBT Americans, however, remained dubious that all that added up to “change we can believe in.”
As Obama looks to re-energizing his base for 2012, while Republicans work assiduously to frustrate his efforts in the House, the question will be whether his record to date, even including the DADT victory, will be enough to motivate significant gay turnout for his reelection. Time will tell if the president decides that his professed “evolving” view on marriage equality will have to fully mature in time to stir the crowds for one more victory.