The Year In: Gay Rights


Civil rights battles tend to have years of what feels like quixotic agitating and organizing before change occurs. This year was a tipping point for gay rights.

To wit, last week Congress finally repealed "don't ask, don't tell," the 17-year ban on openly-gay military service. President Obama had endured withering criticism for failing to advance repeal, one of his campaign promises. Many TAP contributors, including myself, took aim at the president for failing to be forceful enough in pushing for the legislation despite the fact that it has become, as Paul Waldman wrote in June, a matter of public consensus that the policy should end.

It remains an open question whether Obama's painfully slow, legislative approach to ending the ban will be vindicated by historians -- for the moment, he's not getting much credit from gay-rights advocates. But there is little doubt that John McCain, who opposed repeal to the end, will be remembered as the George Wallace of the DADT episode. As TAP recently noted, post-election McCain "devolved from war hero and maverick to a character more like the deranged uncle in Arsenic and Old Lace who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, roaring and charging at every imaginary threat, toy pistols ablaze."

The second front on which the gay rights made inroads this year was marriage equality. After a long trial at the beginning of the year in which proponents of California's ban on gay marriage -- Proposition 8-- hardly bothered to put up a fight (except when it came to televising the proceedings), a judge ruled the ban unconstitutional; the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in that case at the beginning of December. As Waldman noted, the trial became a referendum on the meaning of straight marriage. Meanwhile, despite the efforts of groups like the National Organization for Marriage, same-sex marriage was adopted in Washington, D.C.; New Hampshire's marriage-equality law went into effect in January.

In the past few years, both Democrats and Republicans have altered how they discuss gay rights; culturally, we now accept LGBT individuals, while on the policy front, conservatives continue to fight -- and some liberals continue to ignore -- gay rights. This became evident when a rash of gay teen suicides prompted the "It Gets Better" campaign, wherein gay people and allies posted YouTube videos promising teens that "it gets better" in the future. Ann Friedman criticized politicians who made videos that did not tie the "it gets better" promise to actual action in the ongoing struggle for gay rights: "'It Gets Better' only works if it is a promise we keep, not just something we say into a webcam and then promptly forget about."

Next year, the Prop. 8 case will continue through the appeals court and the military will implement the DADT repeal. These are two important steps, but the battle is not yet over.

--Gabriel Arana

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)