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Gains outweigh setbacks in a landmark year for gay rights

Repeal of the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy may be the movement's biggest victory yet, activists say.

December 19, 2010|By Robin Abcarian and Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times

Today the military, tomorrow the marriage altar?

In an era when gay Americans have seen stunning progress and many setbacks in the quest for equality under the law, many believe 2010 will go down in history as a watershed that will lead inexorably to more legal rights.

Saturday's vote in the Senate to allow the repeal of the federal law banning gays from openly serving in the military is "one of the greatest, if not the greatest, victory in the history of the movement for gay and lesbian equality," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a UC Santa Barbara think tank that studies the issue of gays in the military. "Going back thousands of years, the marker of a first-class citizen has always been someone who's been allowed to serve in the military."

Most countries that allow gay marriage, he added, lifted their military bans on gays first.

Still, the wrangling in the halls of Congress, in courts and at ballot boxes about how gays are treated shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

"All social justice movements are two steps forward, three steps back," said Fred Sainz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group. "It's always been a lot of highs and sometimes more lows, but the highs tend to be more momentous than the lows."

Social conservatives, though disappointed with the Senate vote, disagree that there is a link between the military and marriage.

"It's a tragic day for America," said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. "But I don't think this will really affect the marriage issue very much. It's been rejected by voters in 31 states."

Indeed, the most important victories for gays have been won this year in the courts and Congress, rather than through the electorate.

In July, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. The Obama administration supported the statute, saying it was obligated to defend federal laws, even though President Obama has called it "abhorrent."

In August, a federal judge ruled that Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban passed by California voters, is unconstitutional. The ruling is on hold pending appeal.

And in September, another federal judge ruled the "don't ask, don't tell" law unconstitutional in response to a lawsuit brought by the gay group Log Cabin Republicans.

"The momentum in America," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national advocacy organization Freedom to Marry, is "toward the freedom to marry and ending unfair treatment of gay people." Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

Wolfson noted that 40% of Americans now live in states where some form of marriage or civil union for gay couples is recognized.

Although many in the gay community have accused Obama of being slow and inconsistent on the issue, his administration has supported a number of legislative and policy advancements on behalf of gay Americans.

Those include a hate crimes law that would allow federal prosecution of crimes where a victim is targeted because of sexual orientation or sexual identity, such as transgender.

The administration also extended certain benefits to partners of federal employees, recognized same-sex marriage certificates for the purposes of name changes on passports and gave hospital visitation protections to the same-sex partners of patients on Medicare and Medicaid, among other things.

But those who oppose gay marriage also scored important victories.

In Iowa, three state Supreme Court justices who joined in a unanimous ruling that legalized gay marriage in 2009 were ousted by voters in November. National groups, including the Family Research Council, the American Family Assn. and the National Organization for Marriage, were deeply involved in the effort.

This month, several Republican lawmakers in Iowa said they would try to impeach the four other justices who joined the ruling. And in New Hampshire, a legislator has introduced a bill to overturn the state's same-sex marriage law.

A bright spot for social conservatives has been the failure of Congress to pass the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit civilian, nonreligious employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Having failed to do that in this Congress, its chances in the new Congress will be even less," Sprigg said.

But gay rights advocates are encouraged.

"This is the first year in which we saw not one, but two polls showing the majority of Americans nationwide support the freedom to marry," Wolfson said. Fifteen years ago, little more than a quarter of Americans supported same-sex marriage.

Much of the shift reflects generational differences.

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