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United front: LGBT community takes on latest challenges to secure rights


The milestone events which have occurred within the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community command both worldwide distinction and national recognition. With June serving as LGBT Pride Month, this often misunderstood and maligned community has transformed itself from cautiously peering outward from the fringes of society, into a growing socio-political dynamic whose influence can be seen everywhere from the boardroom to the battlefield, and from quiet living rooms to ascendant seats of power.

The LGBT community each generation has forged increased acceptance into mainstream society, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1940s, psychologists and psychiatrists considered homosexuality to be a form of illness, a belief that defied the research findings of noted biologist Alfred Kinsey who concluded that homosexual behavior was not uniformly restricted to people who identified themselves as homosexual and that 37 percent of men he surveyed indicated they had participated in homosexual activities at least once.

Emerging from the shadows

In 1950 the nation’s first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, was founded in Los Angeles to change public perception of homosexuality by endeavoring to “eliminate discrimination, derision, prejudice and bigotry.” Their objective was to cultivate a notion of “ethical homosexual culture” at a time when the community dwelled largely in the shadows of public life and members risked arrest if revealed. The decade also the American Psychiatric Association (APA) list homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” although the majority of physicians, mental health practitioners and sociologists criticized the categorization due to lack of empirical and scientific data. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, banning homosexuals from working for the federal government or any of its private contractors.

Such laws began to be slowly dismantled after the 1958 Supreme Court decision in “One, Inc. v. Olesen” inwhich the high court ruled in favor of the First Amendment rights of the LGBT magazine “One: The Homosexual Magazine.” The U.S. Postal Service and the FBI deemed the magazine as obscene material and the case marked the first time the Supreme Court ruled in favor of homosexuals. Illinois in 1962 became the first state to repeal its sodomy laws, but other states and cities held firm in their anti-gay statutes, such as the New York Liquor Authority which in 1966 prohibited bars from serving LGBT customers on the basis that homosexuals were “disorderly.”

From Stonewall to ‘Twinkies’

The most famous LGBT protest was, arguably, the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, N.Y. where police raided a popular gay bar to rid the neighborhood of “sexual deviants.”  Angry gay youth clashed with the NYPD for three days; the event is widely credited with reigniting the fire behind America’s modern LGBT movement. After the Stonewall Riots, gay pride parades would spread to dozens of countries around the world and these assemblies would give rise to the Gay Liberation Front. In 1973, the APA voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

Setbacks–and violence–became more pronounced in the late 1970s when singer Anita Bryant led a successful campaign with the “Save Our Children” crusade to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla. Although the campaign faced fierce backlash across the nation, the ordinance was not reinstated until 1998. In 1978, San Francisco Supervisor Dan White murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a gay man, for the latter’s introduction of a gay rights ordinance to protect members of the LGBT community from losing their jobs. Rioters ransacked San Francisco City Hall after White was sentenced to seven years in prison for voluntary manslaughter after invoking the so-called “Twinkie Defense” because of his habit of consuming junk food that allegedly led to his depression. A peaceful protest by members of all the neighborhoods took place the next evening.

In 1981 the New York Times printed a story about a rare form of pneumonia and skin cancer found in 41 gay men in New York and in California. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially referred to the disease as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Disorder, later changed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Disorder (AIDS). An AIDS advocacy group, ACT Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 as a response to the devastating impact the disease was taking on the LGBT community. Also that year, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts became the first openly-gay member of Congress.

Gay marriage and Proposition 8

President George H.W. Bush in 1990 signed the Ryan White Care Act, a federally-funded program for people living with AIDS. The act was named after an Indiana teenager, a hemophilia patient, who was barred from attending school because of his HIV-positive status. HIV (human immunodeficiency  virus) was now identified as the virus that causes AIDS. In 1993, the Department of Defense issued a directive prohibiting the military from barring applicants for service because of their sexual orientation. Termed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the LGBT community considered it to be discriminatory, eventually forcing its repeal in 2010 thereby allowing LGBT persons to serve openly.

In 2004 Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. In California in 2008, however, voters approved Proposition 8 making same-sex marriage illegal. The passage garnered national attention from gay-rights supporters and spurred rallies in many cities. Congress in 2009 passed the Matthew Sheppard Act which expanded the 1969 U.S. Federal Hate Crime Law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Sheppard was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wy. in 1998 because he was gay.

In 2011, President Barack Obama said his administration will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The controversial law originally defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman” and that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from out of state.

Obergefell  v. Hodges

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) recognized marriage between same-sex couples. The United States has no federal law prohibiting LGBT discrimination nationwide, and many states do not have protections from this type of discrimination, other than from federal executive orders. Court observers last summer pointed to two quotes during oral arguments that may have helped to swing the balance in favor of legalizing gay marriage:

“Same-sex couples say, of course, we understand the nobility and the sacredness of the marriage. We know we can’t procreate, but we want the other attributes of it in order to show that we, too, have a dignity that can be fulfilled,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “All the incentives, all of the benefits that marriage provides will still be available. So you won’t be taking away anything from heterosexual couples. They will have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come from marriage they do now.”

In the last two years there have been anti-LGBT bills introduced in 28 states which were either defeated or failed to meet key legislative deadlines. Two bills did pass in an effort to limit LGBT rights, one in Arkansas and the other in Indiana. A pair of bills were introduced in Nevada that would allow individuals and businesses to use religion to challenge or opt out of anti-discrimination laws, including statutes that protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Similar legislation was introduced–and some still pending–in Montana, Georgia, Missouri and in Texas.

Power of ‘state’s rights’

Last year, the state legislatures in Alabama and Florida proposed legislation that would allow adoption agencies to use religious principles and/or beliefs to discriminate against eligible LGBT parents and guardians; Michigan had a similar bill moving through its legislature.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has reported as many as 100 anti-LGBT bills in 29 state legislatures. These proposed laws tend to represent “religious refusal” legislation that generally constitutes four types of bills, such as the often-cited “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) that requires the state government to have a “compelling interest” before it can “substantially burden” personal religious practices. The HRC says that, in practice, most of these bills can allow individuals to use religion to challenge or opt out of state and local laws, including local laws that guard against LGBT discrimination. By passing an RFRA, the HFC notes, the state puts the power to decide what constitutes religious discrimination into the hands of the state supreme court.

“Given the fact that state supreme courts tend to reflect the leanings of a state as a whole, this places a gay couple in Mississippi, for instance, at much greater risk than a gay couple in Rhode Island,” the HRC explained.

Second, there is an on-going attack on marriage equality despite the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. In Arkansas, one bill would allow businesses to refuse service to any couple to whom the owner objected to their marriage. In Oklahoma and South Carolina legislation has been drafted that would bar department of records employees from issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples–and if they do issue them they will forfeit their salaries or pensions.

Channeling Russia?

Third, LGBT couples are witnessing a curtailment of adoption privileges. Legislation has been introduced in some states that would allow adoption service providers to deny service based on an RFRA. The HRC said that prospective parents of different denominations, ethnicities and sexual orientation could be at risk of rejection for reasons unrelated to their ability to rear a child.

Then there are the “Super RFRAs,” one of which was favored in Arizona in 2014. These bills fall into two broad categories, the first being that a conservative Christian employee would be allowed to sue their employer for announcing, as an example, a gay employee’s marriage or adoption of a child at a staff meeting. Another variety of Super RFRA would lower the standard for what constitutes a “burden” on someone’s religions practice. Texas lawmakers last year proposed legislation that lowered the “substantial burdening” to such a degree that practically anyone who found their religious beliefs even mildly inconvenienced would have a cause of action to sue.

Some states maintain anti-LGBT laws that, at first glance, may not appear to be much different than those in Russia as they relate to banning “gay propaganda.” In Alabama, state law dictates that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle and within  sex education instruction, [course materials] should emphasize in a “factual manner and from a public health perspective that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” A Utah law strictly prohibits “the advocacy of homosexuality.”

Mass media misleading

According to Arizona law, not only is there nothing positive about being gay, there is no safe way to have gay sex. Within Arizona sex education, no school district shall “introduce in its course of study”  instruction which (1) promotes a homosexual lifestyle and (2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle. Louisiana has a law that censors discussion of homosexuality in sex education, while in Mississippi there is a law that refers back to the state’s unenforceable sodomy law, thereby dismissing the possibility that there is any kind of gay sex that is safe, appropriate or legal. Texas struck down its sodomy law years ago, but part of it still lies within the state’s official sex education policy: “…homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06 of the Penal Code.”

The mass media can often present an unrealistic reflection of the LGBT community. A Gallup survey conducted in 2013 revealed that “non-Whites are more likely than White segments of the U.S. population to identify as LGBT.” The report revealed that 4.6 percent of African Americans responded “yes” when asked if they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, along with four percent of Latinos, 4.3 percent of Asians and 3.2 percent of Whites. Gary Gates of the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute said these findings tend to refute the media image of the LGBT community.

“This data reveals that, relative to the general population, the LGBT population has a larger proportion of non-White people and clearly is not overly wealthy,” Gates said. “It helps to counter what I think are some inappropriate stereotypes of the LGBT community. If you spend a lot of time watching television, you’d think that most LGBT people are rich, well-educated White men who live in big cities. These data suggest the LGBT community reflects more of the diversity of the U.S. population.”

The Gallup report also indicated that identification as LGBT is highest among Americans with the lowest levels of education and among those in the lowest income groups.

‘Gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’

There has been ongoing political and media controversy regarding the transgender population. Who are these persons? Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth (i.e., the sex listed on their birth certificate). The HRC explains “gender identity” as a person’s innate, deeply-felt psychological identification as a man, woman or some other gender. “Gender expression” refers to the external manifestation of a person’s gender identity, which may or may not conform to socially-defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.

The transgender community is waging a battle within the nation’s school districts to allow students who identify as transgender to use the restroom of their choice. In May, the Obama Administration–with the departments of Education and Justice–issued a letter to the nation’s public school districts advocating that transgender students use the lavatory of their choice, primarily in response to a North Carolina statute that would require transgender persons to specifically use the restroom that corresponds to their sex as stipulated on their birth certificate.

There are 32 states that have no law protecting transgender persons from being fired; California is among 18 states and the District of Columbia that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. In 2012, a National Transgender Discrimination Survey found 47 percent of respondents reporting that they have experienced a “negative job outcome” such as being fired, not hired or denied promotion because they were transgender.