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.
"Many 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 true."
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 their sexuality.
During the same period, U.S. senators were conducting investigations into suspected communist infiltration of the government.
Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says the government considered homosexuals to be top security risks.
"The 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 said.
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.
The 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 case.
"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.
"The 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.
The 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.
"We 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
Gay activists 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.
"We 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.
"So 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.
"I believe it's discriminatory, I think it interferes with states' rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it," Mr. Obama said.
But 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.