The Year in Gay Rights: A major victory for marriage, but more to do

Advocates celebrate the defeat of DOMA, but there are still major obstacles for gay-rights activists to overcome in 2014

Adrienne Douglass, 34, of Centreville, Va., went to the Supreme Court to show her support for marriage equality. The court struck down a key part of DOMA on June 26, 2013 — a victory for same-sex marriage.
Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

For gay Americans, 2013 was a monumental year.

Among the many milestones achieved in their struggle for equal rights, the landmark Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States had the most impact. In overturning a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the decision paved the way for federal government agencies to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples.

By year’s end, six more states had legalized gay marriage in 2013, raising the total to 18 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington state alone, same-sex couples accounted for 17 percent of all weddings. Yet state-by-state progress lagged nationwide sentiment, a conclusion suggested by a Gallup poll showing that a majority of Americans now support gay marriage.

Reflecting that major attitudinal shift were a slew of federal regulatory changes. The Internal Revenue Service finally allowed married same-sex couples to jointly file their taxes, which means they will be treated the same as married heterosexuals for all federal-tax purposes including income, gift and estate taxes. Same-sex spouses are now eligible to receive military spousal benefits, apply for a visa or green card, collect a deceased spouse’s Social Security and take family or medical leave if their partners are sick — all things barred for gay Americans before the Supreme Court overturned DOMA.

Gay rights also made gains in the corporate world when the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in November after years of wrangling and delay. More than 90 percent of the nation’s biggest companies announced their support for ENDA, with some CEOs such as Apple’s Tim Cook publicly calling on Congress to pass the measure. The bill remains stalled in the House.

Not for long if lawmakers tune in to popular culture. The pop-rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis wrote “Same Love,” a smash-hit anthem calling for the freedom to marry nationwide. Mary Lambert, featured on the track, had her own hit with “She Keeps Me Warm.” And on social media, more than 10 million people participated in the Human Rights Campaign’s call for Facebook and Twitter users to temporarily swap their profile picture with a red equal sign in support of same-sex marriage.

Among the bold-faced names who came out in 2013 was Robin Roberts, the “Good Morning America” figure who is as much a part of morning in many households as coffee or tea. She acknowledged her same-sex partner of a decade. Fans shrugged. Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers, the NBA’s Jason Collins and pro wrestler Darren Young also came out. Again, fans shrugged, which makes it easier for other gay sports stars to follow. There were plans for an NFL player to come out as gay, and while that didn’t happen, stay tuned.

The new outlook was years in the making. After all, 2013 marked 10 years since Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love decided to improve its economic outlook by marketing itself as “one of, if not the most” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friendly cities in the world. 

The struggle continues

Yet for all the advances in 2013, obstacles remain both globally and domestically.

As the world prepares for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, President Vladimir Putin is defending a controversial anti-gay law that critics say has led to a spike in hate crimes against gay men and lesbians. As a result, some are calling for a boycott of the Winter Games.

Elsewhere this year, Australia approved and then overturned gay marriage in a matter of days, crushing the hopes of thousands, India reinstated a colonial-era ban against gay sex, and homosexuality is still a crime in 38 African countries.

In the United States, despite the defeat of DOMA, the marriage debate is far from settled. In more than 12 states, there are either cases pending or legislation being drafted to challenge bans on gay marriage or to put the issue to a public vote. Expect contentious debate throughout 2014.

Violence directed at gay and lesbian Americans continues unabated. Over the summer, two gay men walking arm in arm in New York City were brutally attacked by a group of men. Just a few months later, a gay man was gunned down in Greenwich Village, an urban enclave long recognized for tolerance.

Nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 8 lesbians, 4 in 10 gay men and nearly half of bisexual women and men have experienced some form of sexual violence, and nearly 4 million will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that nearly 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow some form of “conversion therapy” — a controversial practice that seeks to change people from gay to straight. The practice has been criticized by nearly all major American medical, psychiatric and psychological associations because it has been shown to cause anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts in patients. Several states have taken steps to ban it.

Furthermore, gay Americans may be fired or refused employment for their sexual orientation or gender identity in 29 states, and transgender Americans may be fired or passed up for employment in 33 states, making full passage of ENDA a major agenda item for gay-rights activists in 2014.

The transgender community faces increased profiling and discrimination from law enforcement at a time when relations between police and minorities of all types is as tense as ever.

Gay couples seeking to adopt children continue to face a complicated and inconsistent patchwork of laws from coast to coast, with nearly every state restricting adoption in some form or another.

Will all these obstacles be overcome in 2014? Expect continued progress but it is unlikely discrimination that runs as deep as homophobia will disappear as quickly as many want. Still, the advances of 2013 are real and momentous and indicative of bigger changes to come, given what Pope Francis said of gay priests soon after assuming his office in March: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

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