Gays and lesbians in the United States have made considerable progress
in recent years in their fight for the same legal rights as
With a flick of his pen this week,
U.S. President Barack Obama extended more job benefits to the partners
of gay government employees than many had ever had before.
of our government's hard-working and dedicated, patriotic public
servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues
enjoy, for one simple reason: The people they love are of the same
sex," President Obama said.
The president was not alone when he
signed the memorandum. Frank Kameny, 84, a pioneer in the gay rights
movement, was peering over his shoulder. It was a vastly different view
from the one Kameny had in 1965, when he was picketing outside the
White House to be treated just like everyone else.
"Here I was
as a welcome guest, standing on one side of the president, while the
vice president stood on the other side," Kameny said. "So it was just
an utterly different world. It was like a storybook tale having come
In 1957, Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer
with the Army Map Service for being gay. He was among thousands of men
and women dismissed from their federal jobs in the 1950s because of
During the same period, U.S. senators were conducting investigations into suspected communist infiltration of the government.
Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says the
government considered homosexuals to be top security risks.
thinking was, from the government's point of view, they could be
blackmailed for communist agents in order to get them to spy for
communist government because they were at risk of being exposed," Kazin
As the fear of communism subsided in
the U.S., the effort to keep homosexuals out of the government eased.
But it was not until 1995 that then-President Bill Clinton signed an
executive order barring the federal government from denying security
clearances to people simply on the basis of their sexual orientation.
development was due in large part to the persistent lobbying of
activists like Kameny, who appealed his firing by the U.S. Civil
Service Commission up to the Supreme Court. The court did not hear the
"That ended my own case in a formal sense, but it was
clear enough to me that there were fundamental societal issues that
needed to be addressed," Kameny said.
Kameny's activism also
contributed to another key achievement in the fight for equality. In
1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from
its official list of mental disorders.
That decision came just
four years after gays and lesbians took to the streets in their first
mass demonstrations for respect. On June 27, 1969, police raided a gay
bar in New York called the Stonewall Inn. Tired of being harassed, the
patrons fought back, sparking days of riots.
Historian Kazin says the political environment of the U.S. in the 1960s made it an ideal time to protest.
atmosphere of the '60s was an atmosphere of increasing demand for
rights from African Americans, Latino Americans, women, students,"
Kazin explained. "It made sense that gay men and women who were part of
these movements, or even if they weren't part of these movements, if
they were inspired by these movements would have begun to demand rights
for themselves as well."
Today, gays and lesbians do not suffer
the discrimination they did decades ago. President Obama recently
appointed an openly gay man to head the Office of Personnel Management,
the same institution that fired Kameny for being gay 52 years ago.
Despite that, there is still a strong movement against gay rights, and in some cases, against homosexuality.
Family Research Council in Washington is among the concerned groups.
The council's policy analyst, Peter Sprigg, says he believes homosexual
conduct is harmful to society.
"We should be discouraging it
rather than encouraging it," Sprigg said. "And any time you give a
benefit or a subsidy for a particular behavior, you're obviously
encouraging it. We just feel that that's bad public policy."
Sprigg says people should not be afforded special rights for what he considers to be their chosen way of life.
do not believe that anyone is born gay. Evidence for genetic or
biological origin for homosexuality from birth is weak to
non-existent," Sprigg said.
Not a choice
But Paul Cates of the American Civil
Liberties Union says both gay and straight people do not choose their
sexuality. He says, even if it was a choice, civil rights still should
be upheld, like in the case of religion.
"If someone is a
Methodist, and then all of a sudden they become a Catholic, that
doesn't mean they're no less entitled to be protected from
discrimination based on their religious views," Cates said. "And the
same thing should apply to sexual orientation."
Right to marry
say the next step in their movement is the right to marry. The issue
has become a national debate between equal rights supporters and
religious conservatives who say the Bible only endorses marriage
between a man and a woman.
Sprigg, of the Family Research
Council, says beyond the Bible, marriage is a social institution with a
specific purpose - to preserve the human race through procreation.
have to talk about why society gives benefits to marriage in the first
place," Sprigg said. "And we argue that it's because marriage gives
benefits to society."
Cates disagrees. He says gay people make
the same kind of commitments to each other as heterosexuals couples,
and need the same legal protections provided through marriage.
when lesbian and gay couples are denied those protections, they're not
treated equally, and the constitution says that everyone should be
treated the same," Cates said.
Those protections include the
right to visit a partner in the hospital and make medical decisions for
an incapacitated loved one.
This week, President Obama called
for the repeal of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines
marriage as a legal union exclusively between a man and a woman.
believe it's discriminatory, I think it interferes with states' rights,
and we will work with Congress to overturn it," Mr. Obama said.
the Obama administration's Justice Department recently filed a brief to
uphold the act. Some gay activists are concerned the president is all
talk and no action.
Activists also are looking to Mr. Obama to
repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. It allows gays to serve in
the military, but prohibits them from identifying their sexuality.