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Top 10 LGBT Rights Developments of the Decade

Robert Nakatani,
LGBT Project
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January 13, 2010

The ‘aughts’ were a decade of rapid progress — and some setbacks — for LGBT rights. These are the top 10 developments, as we see them, for LGBT Americans these last 10 years.

10. State sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws pass halfway mark

At the start of the decade, state laws banning at least one type of anti-gay discrimination covered only about a third of the population. By 2006, these state law protections spread to more than 50 percent of Americans. Today, 21 states and the District of Columbia protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination, many comprehensively. We’re still lagging significantly behind, however, on state laws banning gender identity discrimination, which now cover roughly 40 percent of the population.

9. Transgender rights: Schroer v. Library of Congress

Diane Schroer testifies before Congress

Decorated Special Forces veteran David Schroer was offered a job as a terrorism research analyst for the Library of Congress, which serves as the research arm of Congress and is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. This offer was rescinded when the Library learned that David would be starting work as Diane. Schroer sued the Library in federal court and won an unprecedented ruling that refusing to hire a qualified person because that individual is transitioning violates the existing federal civil rights law against sex discrimination. Ironically, Schroer’s story has provided members of Congress deliberating on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) with a human face for the need for job protections for transgender Americans. For more on Diane’s story, see

8. Election of Barack Obama as President

OK, we know — and we agree — that President Obama has not been as assertive on the LGBT rights front as we would like. But he did sign into law a bill making it a federal crime to assault someone because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, the culmination of over a decade of hard lobbying. And his administration has made several low-profile changes, from explicitly protecting transgender individuals in federal employment to ending the HIV travel and immigration ban. LGBT advocates currently have much more access to key administration officials than we had in the previous administration. And lest we forget, he did rid us of eight years of a closed, hostile and lawless administration.

7. Growth of Civil Unions

In 2000, Vermont became the first state to establish civil unions, acting under the mandate of the state high court’s ruling in Baker v. Vermont. Since then, these states have followed suit to provide same-sex couples the same rights and protections accorded married couples: California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington (Conn., D.C., N.H. later established marriage). In 2009, Washington’s law survived a voter challenge, making it the first law in the nation granting comprehensive relationship rights to same-sex couples to win at the ballot box.

6. From criminalization to acceptance: Lawrence v. Texas

Texas police arrested John Lawrence and Tyron Garner after bursting into Lawrence’s apartment and finding them sexually engaged. Although this law enforcement home invasion was prompted by a neighbor’s false report of a “man going crazy with a gun,” Lawrence and Garner were arrested for violating the state sodomy law. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this conviction and in the process struck down all remaining state sodomy laws, capping a decades-long, state-by-state coordinated effort by the ACLU and Lambda Legal. In sweeping language, the high court said that the constitutional right to privacy protects the right of gay people to form intimate relationships and that gay people have the same right to “define one’s concept of existence, of meaning . . . and of the mystery of human life” that heterosexuals do. More importantly, the Court’s ruling reversed its own 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick whose language of utter contempt for gay people had become a potent political tool for those working to derail the movement for LGBT equality.

5. Explosion of LGBT student clubs in schools

Boyd County GSA

In 1990, there were two gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in the entire nation; today there are more than 4,000. Student activists have joined together to win policy protections from discrimination and harassment in many school districts [e.g., in 2003 students got an unprecedented decision from a federal appeals court requiring school officials to take effective preventive measures when they learn that LGBT students are being harassed (Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District)] and to challenge school officials on a variety of issues, from taking same-sex dates to the prom to wearing pro-gay t-shirts and gaining online access to legitimate LGBT websites. Unsurprisingly, many school districts have fought back, taking aim at their local LGBT student club. Some school districts [e.g., White County (Ga.); Boyd County (Ky.)] went so far as to ban all extracurricular clubs while others adopted the transparent rationale that recognizing a gay student club would violate the district’s “abstinence only” policy. No federal courts have been deceived by these moves [e.g., GSA of Okeechobee High School v. Okeechobee School Board].

4. Transgender rights becomes national movement: LGB + T

Powered by transgender activists and young people accustomed to questioning gender conformity, the gay rights movement grew into the national campaign for LGBT rights. Before this decade, only Minnesota had a law protecting transgender people from discrimination. Today 13 states and the District of Columbia ban some sort of discrimination based on gender identity. Understanding that fear of gender variance lies at the heart of discrimination against lesbians and gay men, all national gay and transgender rights organizations now agree with the need to pursue protections for LGBT people as a united front.

3. End to myth of lesbians and gay men as unfit parents: Howard v. Child Welfare Agency Review Board

After consideration of arguably the most extensive social science evidence ever presented to a court on the impact of gay parenting, the Arkansas Supreme Court in Howard v. Child Welfare Agency Review Board (2006) struck down a state rule that banned gay people, and anyone living in a household with a gay adult, from being foster parents. Every justice on the high court of this southern state was persuaded by this evidence to conclude that sexual orientation has nothing to do with fitness to parent. This evidence was subsequently presented in a challenge to Florida’s ban on adoption by gay people and led to the trial judge striking down the ban as unconstitutional. (In re Gill, now on appeal.)

2. Marriage on the national radar screen

Marriage for same-sex couples became a reality in Massachusetts on November 18, 2003 with the historic state supreme court decision in Goodrich v. Department of Public Health. Before that decision even went into effect, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom electrified the nation when he ordered the City/County Clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on February 12, 2004. By the end of the decade, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont had joined Massachusetts in extending the right to marry to gay couples. In addition, some 18,000 same-sex couples got married in California, taking advantage of a window of equality that opened between the California Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision striking down all state discrimination against lesbians and gay men in In re Marriage Cases and the passage of Proposition 8. And just before the end of the decade, the District of Columbia’s City Council brought marriage to south of the Mason-Dixon line. The growing visibility of married same-sex couples is helping to discredit our opposition’s ubiquitous argument that unions of lesbians and gay men threaten heterosexual marriages.

1. Storytelling becomes an LGBT rights imperative

We used to be bound together by the “love that dare not speak its name,” but over this past decade, LGBT people, famous and not, have not only been coming out in greater numbers but have been increasingly forthright about telling their stories. These stories are arguably the single greatest factor in the rise of public support for LGBT equality. There have been some very high-profile stories:

  • Rosie O’Donnell talking about her struggles to be a mom in March of 2002 on ABC’s Prime Time Live;
  • The inspiring story of the life and death of Mark Bingham, a gay rugby enthusiast, who is believed to have been among the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who foiled 9/11 terrorists trying to take the plane on a suicide mission to inflict thousands of American casualties;
  • Transgender teen Brandon Teena’s horrifying story of rape and murder in Nebraska in Boys Don’t Cry, a film for which Hilary Swank won an Oscar for Best Actress in 2000;
  • The marriage of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi in August of 2008;
  • And who can forget the heartbreaking romance of two American cowboys in Brokeback Mountain (2005) which brought us the line, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

In the final analysis, however, it’s been the stories of everyday LGBT Americans that have mattered. Some of these have been the basis of LGBT rights litigation or have been the essence of legislative testimony on LGBT rights bills, but most of them have been shared one-on-one over the phone, in cafes, and around the family dinner table in all parts of the country. Recent social science evidence has documented that people in mainstream America who are most likely to support marriage for same-sex couples are also the people who have heard the story of an LGBT person close to them. And if you want conclusive evidence of the power of personal stories, think Mary Cheney.

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