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How 2013 Became The Greatest Year In Gay Rights History

Several same-sex couples hold a group wedding ceremony Monday at the Sheraton Waikiki in Honolulu.
Marco Garcia
Several same-sex couples hold a group wedding ceremony Monday at the Sheraton Waikiki in Honolulu.

Any day now, the New Mexico Supreme Court may grant same-sex couples the right to get married.

At this point, such a ruling may not seem like such a big deal. Prior to last year's elections, gays and lesbians had a civil right to marry in only six states. Now, they have it in 16.

"This year represented the true tipping point," says Eric Marcus, author of Making Gay History. "We've reached a moment in history where it's very difficult, if not impossible, to go back."

This has been "the gayest year in gay history," in the words of Fred Sainz, vice president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, and not only because individual states and the U.S. Supreme Court have extended greater protections to gay couples.

There have been substantive changes in policy and personnel, with President Obama essentially doubling the number of openly gay individuals who have served as federal judges and ambassadors.

This year has also seen symbolic milestones, including Obama enshrining the cause of gays in the civil rights pantheon in his second inaugural address, and the first professional athletes in major sports coming out.

None of which is to suggest that anti-gay discrimination has gone away entirely, or that all Americans are on board with these trends. When the Cheney sisters feuded recently, the Pew Research Center showed that nearly two-thirds of Republicans are opposed to same-sex marriage.

But an earlier Pew survey found that a majority of gay marriage opponents viewed its legal recognition as "inevitable." And gay rights advocates almost can't believe the progress they've already made.

"To describe the events of the year as breathtaking is woefully inadequate," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

A Long Time Coming

As with any great societal change, this year's victories for the gay rights movement took a long time to gestate.

Gays and lesbians had once complained about feeling invisible, but as millions of individuals have come out, they not only have made their political desires more tangible but also have won sympathetic allies among many straights.

"It took the shape of a million different conversations that a newly out gay family member had with her parents or his siblings," Kendell says.

Just as the presence of gays in American life came to seem more commonplace, so did same-sex marriage.

"With every state that has passed marriage equality, it becomes a little less of a headline and a little more an advance of a norm," says Mark Harris, a film critic and cultural historian. "Everybody feels like it's only going in one direction."

A decade ago, Harris and his husband, playwright Tony Kushner, became the first same-sex couple to be featured in The New York Times "Vows" section.

"It took a long time for those gay marriage announcements to be routine," Harris says. "It seemed like a long time to us, but it was really a short time. The speed of our progress in the last several years has been almost unparalleled in American history in terms of a specific minority group's push for civil rights."

By the time Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was sworn in this year as the first openly gay senator in U.S. history, the occasion received barely any coverage. Similarly, Maine Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud coming out ahead of his gubernatorial bid seemed to cause barely a ripple.

"When I travel around the state, people want to talk about the future," says state Rep. Heather Mizeur, an openly gay Maryland Democrat running for governor next year. "It's insignificant to them that my wife will become the first lady of the state."

Crediting Obama

Given that gays make up a small fraction of the population, they have needed to win over allies. Their most important champion has been the president.

During his first term, Obama sometimes came across as a reluctant warrior on gay issues, taking his time to "evolve" his position on marriage, his timing perhaps prodded by remarks from Vice President Joe Biden. But Kendell and other advocates give him points for announcing his new position in the midst of his re-election bid.

"We saw an 18-point swing in African-American communities when the president came out in favor of it," says Mizeur of Maryland, where voters approved a same-sex marriage law last year.

Obama had already been the rare national politician to use the word "we" when speaking of the gay rights cause before announcing his support for same-sex marriage last year. In his inaugural address in January, he referred in the same breath to Stonewall, Selma and Seneca Falls (respectively, landmarks in the struggles for rights for gays, African-Americans and women).

Obama has been the "gays' LBJ," says Jonathan Rauch, a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, comparing the current president to Lyndon Johnson, who signed into law the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s.

"He's a guy who took an issue that had been something of a hot potato and put both his hands on it and said, 'I am mainstreaming this issue,' " Rauch says.

Obama's efforts have been more than rhetorical. Crucially, he ended "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that kept gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

This year's Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage might well have turned out differently if the government still had an active interest in arguing for discrimination, says Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center at San Francisco State University, which studies transgender military service.

"People who opposed gays in the military were exactly right to do so," he says. "They realized the military is so widely revered in American society that if they could draw the line in the sand there, they could prevent gays from locking in rights in other parts of society."

Aspirational Achievement

Obama spoke about gay rights in aspirational terms in his second inaugural.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," he said, "for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

Marriage helped gays "change the subject from being primarily about rights and nondiscrimination to being about love, family and community," says Rauch, who has written books about same-sex marriage and growing up gay.

"That's more compelling to people," he says. "They don't like having fingers shaken at them and being called a bigot."

Gays have not won every battle. The Senate passed an anti-discrimination law known as ENDA last month, but it appears to have little traction in the House. It remains legal for employers to fire people for being gay or transgender in more than half the states.

Although a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage rights, according to polls, it's a small majority. Public opinion polls may overstate such support, according to one study.

There's still considerable resistance among many voters and politicians to the gay rights cause. But the fact that support for gays and gay marriage has been rising — particularly among young people — may leave opposition to their movement less heated, activists say.

"Before Obama, it was possible to say that gay rights was a controversial but fringy concern," Rauch says. "After Obama, it is agree or disagree, but gay rights is 100 percent mainstream."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.