The incredibly rapid evolution on gay rights

The nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage by the US Supreme Court just over a week ago signals an extremely rapid transition in views indeed. However the struggle for the rights of the LGBT community has by no means ended. They still face all manner of discriminations. Yes, they can get married (even though some jurisdictions are still obstructing it) but they can still be legally not hired or fired from their jobs for being homosexual, they can be denied the right to rent a home, and so on. One would like to think that all those things would also move rapidly now that the big hurdle of marriage has been overcome but it may be that the dead-enders who dislike homosexuality may dig in their heels and even more vigorously oppose those moves to full equality.

But positive change is coming, especially among the young. Usually after a momentous change in attitudes like this, what one usually sees is a rewriting of personal histories as people start to claim that of course they were always personally in favor of same-sex marriage. It is like how so many people now say that they were opposed to the Iraq invasion from the beginning. So it is instructive to take a look back and see how much has changed so soon.

It was as late as in 1986 that the court upheld by a 5-4 margin in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick that states were allowed to criminalize consensual sodomy even if it occurred in the privacy of one’s home. It led Justice Blackmun in his dissent to assert:

I can only hope that here, too, the Court soon will reconsider its analysis and conclude that depriving individuals of the right to choose for themselves how to conduct their intimate relationships poses a far greater threat to the values most deeply rooted in our Nation’s history than tolerance of nonconformity could ever do.

Blackmun’s hope was realized sooner than he might have anticipated. It was the reversal of this decision by a 6-3 vote in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas that explicitly repealed the Bowers verdict that started the trend that led to the striking down of bans on same-sex marriage. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor voted with the majority in this case though she did not go along with the repeal of the Bowers decision that she had supported. Her vote in Lawrence was based on the fact that it criminalized same-sex sodomy and not opposite-sex sodomy.

Nowadays, it is hard to find people in the Democratic party who are not enthusiastic supporters of same-sex marriage and we can be excused for thinking that it has been thus for some time. But the political winds have changed very recently too, even among those who are now vigorous supporters of same-sex rights.

In the 1990s — just 20 years ago — anti-gay sentiment was so widespread that Bill Clinton signed two grotesquely bigoted and damaging laws: “the Defense of Marriage Act,” which barred the federal government from offering any benefits to same-sex couples (including crucial immigration and survivor rights), and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which codified the ban on LGBTs serving in the military. DOMA passed the Senate on September 10, 1996 — less than 20 years ago — by a vote of 85-14, with the support of every Republican as well as people like Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Pat Leahy, Patty Murray and Paul Wellstone.

In the 2000s — just 10 years ago — opposition to gay marriage was so pervasive that every state referendum on the question rejected it.

In both the 2004 and 2008 election, the presidential nominees for both parties were adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage.

In 2008 — just seven years ago — Barack Obama said at an event at Rick Warren’s church: “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix. . . . I am not somebody who promotes same-sex marriage, but I do believe in civil unions.” In November of that year, Obama told MTV: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”

In June 2011 — just four years ago — Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer told a gathering of liberal bloggers: “The president has never favored same-sex marriage. He is against it.”

Meanwhile, until as late as 2013, Hillary Clinton “earnestly believed that marriage equality should be denied to gays and lesbians”.

So the change has been truly rapid.


  1. aashiq says

    Yes…isn’t democracy great? If you get institutional power and then wield it effectively, this works every time. Sometimes it works in the right direction (marriage equality) and sometimes not (Wall Street).

  2. says

    As has been done many times, it’s comparable to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Religious types and governments participated in discrimination and racism until public sentiment changed, then they did an about face. Most people started to realize their bigotry was wrong, though not all.

    On the other hand, the quick march forward of LGBTQ rights and attention on it completely overshadows the quick march backward on women’s rights (e.g. body autonomy, the right to abortion and birth control, the criminalization of miscarriage, etc.). Not enough attention is paid to the loss women’s rights.

  3. Mobius says

    Just yesterday on a forum I had someone tell me it is illegal in all of the US to fire a person for being homosexual, but it is legal to fire them for being Christian. (?!?) That is some serious misinformation, and some serious Christian Persecution Complex.

  4. Chiroptera says

    Mobius, #3:

    I’m sure that you and everyone else already knows this, but it’s worth pointing out: Most (maybe all?) states have “religion” as part of their anti-discrimination laws. Some states have sexual orientation as part of their anti-discrimination laws.

  5. doublereed says

    Now that they have something like marriage rights, I think anti-discrimination laws will be quick to be passed in most blue/purple states that don’t have it already. Keep in mind that many red states (such as Alabama) don’t have their own anti-discrimination laws at all and people have to make federal claims (in response to @3 and @4, religion is covered under federal law). State laws, from what I’ve heard, are simply more accessible so it’s better to have both.

    Adding LGBT to federal law may take a little longer, considering the current Congress.

    Another anti-discrimination issue making its way through several states now is Pregnancy Discrimination. It’s legal in many states to fire someone for getting pregnant.

  6. anat says

    It’s legal in many states to fire someone for getting pregnant.

    Because being ‘prolife’ doesn’t extend to making sure the ambulatory uterus unit can eat.

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