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Topics In the News
Top Ten GLBTQ News Stories of 2011
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/25/11
Last updated on: 12/31/11
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Any survey of the top glbtq news stories of 2011 must begin with the dramatic turnaround of the Obama Administration on glbtq issues. That turnaround is the biggest news story of the year because it is crucial to many of the other top stories of the year, including marriage, immigration, and foreign policy. In 2011, President Obama finally became the fierce advocate he promised he would be.

In 2008, the President achieved a solid victory, one sweeping enough to give him large majorities in both houses of Congress and a mandate for fundamental change. He won with overwhelming support from the glbtq community. However, in the first two years of his term he spent little political capital on glbtq issues. Indeed, his Administration, especially the Justice Department, often opposed gay rights, particularly in the lawsuits against the constitutionality of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy and of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Moreover, the President and the conservative Blue Dog Democrats seemed afraid to do the right thing even on issues that enjoyed broad popular support such as repealing DADT and passing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). It quickly became apparent that the President and his party were squandering an historic opportunity to advance equal rights.

The result was extreme disillusion with the President and with the establishment gay rights organizations that attempted to give him cover for his inaction. A mirror of that disillusionment was a precipitous drop in contributions from the glbtq community to the Democratic Party and a lack of enthusiasm for many Democratic candidates, especially those who were seen as abetting the President's timidity.

In the 2010 Congressional election, the Democrats, and by proxy the President, "took a shellacking." The Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives and their majority in the Senate was substantially trimmed. Ironically, the Blue Dog Democrats suffered the most.

Indeed, President Obama's timidity almost cost him the victory that he now counts as one of the signature achievements of his administration: the repeal of DADT, which was finally accomplished in the 2010 lameduck session of Congress. Credit for the repeal owes as much to a bipartisan group of Senators--including especially Senators Lieberman, Udall, and Collins--as it does to President Obama.

However, after the "shellacking" of 2010, the President seems to have reconsidered his method of governing, especially the use of executive power to accomplish goals that are now impossible to accomplish legislatively. Consequently, in 2011 he finally became the fierce advocate for glbtq rights that he promised to be during his 2008 election campaign.

As a result of President Obama's turnaround, the Justice Department became the friend of the struggle for equal rights instead of an obstacle to it. The very lawyers who had been defending DOMA argued in 2011 that the blatantly discriminatory law is unconstitutional. In addition, immigration policies were changed to give latitude to binational gay and lesbian couples: the new policies have effectively ended the deportation of legally married gay spouses. The implementation of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell proceeded smoothly in part because of the Administration's commitment to its success. And in a major declaration of American foreign policy, the President and Secretary of State Clinton have announced that gay rights are human rights.

Other big glbtq stories of 2011 concerned partnership rights and marriage equality. The biggest story of the year in this category (and the second biggest overall) is the achievement of marriage equality in New York.

The achievement of marriage equality in New York was the result of careful planning and hard work. In March 2011, Governor Cuomo met with representatives of the state's leading gay rights organizations, including the Empire State Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry, Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans, and New York Marriage Equality, and devised a highly disciplined campaign to build support in the state for marriage equality. By the summer of 2011, polls showed a solid majority of New Yorkers in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Advocates moved aggressively to capitalize on that shift in public opinion, flooding the offices of lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails, and postcards and letters from constituents who favored same-sex marriage. In addition, high-profile supporters of marriage equality, such as New York City's Mayor Bloomberg and its openly gay Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn, and both United States Senators from New York, as well as celebrities from Lady Gaga to Cynthia Nixon, lobbied wavering legislators.

The state's House of Representatives passed the bill by a comfortable margin. The battle was in the Senate. Finally, on June 24, 2011, after a tense week of negotiations over religious exemptions and uncertainty as to whether the Republican majority in the Senate would even allow a vote, the bill was brought to the Senate floor and approved by a tally of 33 in favor to 29 opposed. The majority vote included all but one of the Democrats plus four Republicans.

The victory was widely seen as attributable to the strong and decisive leadership of Governor Cuomo and to the effectiveness of the campaign strategy he and the gay rights groups had devised in March.

Governor Cuomo signed the bill the very night it was passed. It went into effect on July 24, 2011. New York thus became the sixth and largest state to permit same-sex marriage.

In 2011, national polls for the first time showed a majority of Americans in support of same-sex marriage. This is the third biggest story of the year.

Other stories involving partnership rights include the passage of civil unions in Illinois, Hawaii, Delaware, and Rhode Island. Attempts to secure marriage equality in Maryland and Rhode Island failed.

On the international front, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Denmark took steps toward marriage equality.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced a "consultation" on the question that may bring marriage equality to the United Kingdom in 2012. In Australia, the Labor Party endorsed marriage equality though Prime Minister Julia Gillard's insistence on a "conscience vote" on the question means that the marriage equality bill is not likely to pass soon. In Germany, the opposition Social Democratic party switched its position to support marriage equality. In Denmark, the ruling party announced its intention to introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in early 2012.

The Proposition 8 case, Perry v. Brown, which concerns the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which ended same-sex marriage in the state, mainly languished during the year though there were some important developments, including final arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although as of this writing, a the appeals court has not issued a decision, the potential for an important breakthrough in federal court on the issue of marriage equality makes the Proposition 8 case the fourth most important story of the year.

On January 4, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asked the California Supreme Court to issue a decision on a question of standing, namely, whether the proponents of a voter-enacted law had standing to defend its constitutionality when the Governor and Attorney General declined to do so. Scandalously, the California Supreme Court took eleven months to consider a rather straightforward question.

Finally, on November 7, 2011, the California Supreme Court decided that the proponents of voter-enacted legislation do have the right to defend such legislation in cases where the state declines to do so.

Meanwhile, the proponents of Proposition 8 moved that Judge Walker's decision be vacated on the grounds that he should have recused himself since he is gay and in a relationship. That argument was rejected by the District Court, but is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit and has been consolidated with the main case.

The final arguments in the Proposition 8 case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals were heard on December 8, 2011, when oral arguments were presented on two questions: whether the videos of the district court trial should be released and whether the decision by Judge Vaughn Walker should be vacated because he is gay and in a long-term homosexual relationship.

On the basis of the questions asked by the judges, it is pretty safe to predict that they will order that the videotapes of the trial remain under seal, but that they will not vacate the case.

The arguments on December 8 did not address the question of the merits of the case itself, which was argued a year ago.

It is anticipated that the Ninth Circuit panel will issue a decision (or perhaps three separate decisions) soon. It is likely that whatever decision issued by the Ninth Circuit, the losing side will appeal further. The case may ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The other major litigation involving same-sex marriage are the cases winding through federal courts involving DOMA, which has been declared unconstitutional by three separate courts.

The most important development in this litigation came on February 23, 2011, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced a reversal of the Justice Department's position that it was bound to defend the constitutionality of DOMA. This is the fifth biggest story of the year.

The Attorney General announced that on instructions from the President, the Justice Department will no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as applied to same-sex married couples. The Executive Branch will continue to enforce the law unless Congress repeals it or there is a final judicial ruling striking it down, but the Administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court.

In response to the Attorney General's decision, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner quickly arranged for the House of Representatives to defend the statute.

The tangible result of the Justice Department's refusal to defend the constitutionality of DOMA was seen on December 15, when oral arguments were presented in Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management. The case, which originally began as a simple attempt by Karen Golinski, a federal court employee, to have her wife Amy Cunninghis covered under her federal health insurance plan, is being heard in the Ninth Circuit.

At the hearing on December 15 the Department of Justice sent one of its leading attorneys to argue not in defense of DOMA but in opposition to it. Tony West, head of the Department of Justice's Civil Division, personally argued the DOJ's case, thus making a statement about the seriousness with which the Obama Administration regards the question of DOMA's constitutionality.

The sixth biggest story of the year is the repeal of DADT, though most of the heavy lifting was done in 2010 by activists who relentlessly and courageously protested the policy and by the lawyers on behalf of the Log Cabin Republicans who succeeded in having a federal district judge declare the policy unconstitutional.

On September 20, 2011, the U.S. military policy that prohibited the service of openly gay men and women officially ended. In effect since 1993, DADT was responsible for curtailing the military careers of more than 14,000 American servicemembers and causing psychological damage to many more. The policy forced gay men and lesbians in the military to live in constant fear of exposure as they served under the threat of losing their jobs should their sexual orientation become known.

The cost to American taxpayers of discharging openly gay servicemembers under DADT is estimated at some half a billion dollars. But the cost to military effectiveness and governmental integrity was probably even more staggering.

As proponents of ending DADT pointed out, the ban promoted a hostile working environment, wasted crucial resources on unnecessary investigations, and forced many qualified service members to leave the military and many others from enlisting, thus depriving the military of many needed talents.

Moreover, by officially enforcing discrimination, the policy contradicted the democratic values the military is supposed to protect.

In addition, as Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed, the policy forced members of the military to violate the honor code by lying: "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he said in 2010, adding, "For me, personally, it comes down to integrity--theirs as individuals, ours as an institution."

The struggle to end the odious policy was a long one. Crucial to its success were organizations such as the Palm Center and Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund; military activists such as Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, Lieutenant Dan Choi, Captain Jim Pietrangelo, Captain Tanya Domi, Captain Mike Almy, Sergeant Justin Elzie, Major Margaret Witt, Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, and Servicemembers United Executive Director Alexander Nicholson, among many others; as well as such politicians as Representative Patrick Murphy and Senators Joseph Lieberman and Carl Levin.

Log Cabin Republicans deserves special credit for pressing on with its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the policy. The ruling by Judge Virginia Phillips in Log Cabin Republicans v. U.S.A. placed significant pressure on the military to end the policy. Sadly, however, in 2011 a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated her ruling on the grounds that with the repeal of DADT the issue is moot.

The seventh biggest story of the year is the Obama Administration's declaration that gay rights are human rights. On December 6, 2011, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum instructing federal agencies abroad to defend glbtq rights. The issuance of the memorandum was timed to coincide with a historic speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the United Nations Council on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland in which she called on all nations to respect the human rights of gay people. "Being LGBT does not make you less human," she declared.

In his "Memorandum for The Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies," President Obama asserted that "The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."

"I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world--whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation," he continued. "That is why I declared before heads of state gathered at the United Nations, 'no country should deny people their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.' Under my Administration, agencies engaged abroad have already begun taking action to promote the fundamental human rights of LGBT persons everywhere."

The President directed all agencies engaged abroad "to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons."

In her speech, Secretary Clinton conceded that the United States has its own failings in ensuring equal civil rights for its glbtq citizens, and echoed the President's contention that ending discrimination is a common cause for all countries.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Obama Administration's embrace of gay rights as human rights is that it aligns the U.S. with recent statements by the U.K.'s David Cameron that British foreign aid will be conditioned on an end to the persecution of sexual minorities, a stance that has also been urged by other European countries, such as Norway and Sweden.

The eighth biggest story of the year is the continuing problem of the suicides and bullying of glbtq youth. Despite the staggering number of "It Gets Better" videos and the proliferation of Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools, glbtq teens continue to experience bullying so severe that some are driven to suicide. The good news in this area is that the publicity generated by some of the bullying incidents and suicides has led to lawsuits and pressure from the Department of Education, as well as state legislation, to force schools to enact anti-bullying policies.

One of the most shocking bullying incidents of the year occurred on October 17, 2011 when a Unioto, Ohio high school freshman was viciously attacked by a classmate who had previously taunted him for being gay. Video of the attack, which was recorded with a cellphone by another student and later posted online, went viral on the Internet and shocked the conscience of viewers around the world.

When it was learned that no one came to the aid of the freshman and that the attacker had been punished only by a three-day suspension, outrage grew and there were calls for the police to investigate the attack. Many viewers of the video described the assault as a hate crime.

In response, the school reviewed the original punishment given to the attacker and reportedly increased it. In addition, police charged the fifteen-year-old attacker with misdemeanor assault. According to Ross County Prosecutor Matt Schmidt, the student pled guilty. The judge in the case has ordered a predisposition report and a victim impact statement.

The attack on the gay student, known as Zach, was by no means the first time he had been physically and verbally abused at school. His mother repeatedly reported these attacks to school officials but they did little or nothing.

Now, however, with the aid of the ACLU, the young man and his mother have decided to fight back. On November 15, 2011, James Hardiman, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said the organization would represent Zach and his family in a lawsuit if school officials fail to enforce their anti-bullying policy. The ACLU's letter accuses the school district of being "derelict in its responsibility to provide a safe learning environment" for Zach.

The ninth biggest story of the year is increased protection for gender identity in the workplace. During 2011, four states--Hawaii, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Nevada--acted to prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender identity. There are now 16 states that prohibit such discrimination. But perhaps even more significantly, federal courts have ruled that existing sex discrimination law, under both the Equal Protection Clause and Title VII, prohibits discrimination against transgender employees based on their gender identity.

The latest such ruling came down on December 6, 2011 from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. In this decision, the court held that the Georgia General Assembly discriminated against Vandy Beth Glenn, a transgender woman who was fired from her job as Legislative Editor after she told her supervisor that she planned to transition from male to female.

In a forceful opinion authored by Judge Rosemary Barkett for a unanimous three-judge panel, which included one of the most conservative judges on the federal bench, Judge William Pryor, the Court declared, "An individual cannot be punished because of his or her perceived gender-nonconformity. Because these protections are afforded to everyone, they cannot be denied to a transgender individual. . . . A person is defined as transgender precisely because of the perception that his or her behavior transgresses gender stereotypes."

The victory is important because it is the first ruling on transgender rights from the Eleventh Circuit, considered one of the most conservative circuits. The ruling brings the Eleventh Circuit in line with other circuits in applying to transgender individuals a seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said that gender non-conformity is included in the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex.

The tenth biggest glbtq story of 2011 is the death of Frank Kameny. The pioneering gay rights leader passed away at his home in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 2011. He was one of the founding fathers of the American gay rights movement. He helped radicalize the homophile movement, preparing the way for the mass movement for equality initiated by the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969.

A victim of the McCarthy-era regulations that branded homosexuals as unfit for government employment, Kameny fought tirelessly against discrimination against homosexuals on every front. He and his friend Jack Nichols established the Mattachine Society of Washington, D. C. in August 1961. In opposition to many gay leaders at the time, Kameny embraced direct action. He believed that gay people should fight a "down-to-earth, grass-roots, sometimes tooth-and-nail battle" against discrimination. He is credited with coining the slogan "Gay is Good."

In recent years, Kameny received accolades for his heroic efforts to make America a more just nation. His house was designated an historic landmark by the D.C. Historic Preservation Board in 2009. In the same year, John Berry, Director of the Office of Personnel Management (formerly the Civil Service Commission), formally apologized to Kameny on behalf of the U.S. government for the "shameful action" of firing him in 1957. Berry also presented Kameny with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the department's most prestigious honor.

On November 3, 2011, a flag-draped coffin containing Dr. Kameny's remains lay in state in the atrium of the Carnegie Library Building in downtown Washington, D.C. as his life was celebrated by dignataries including the Mayor of Washington, city council members, representatives of glbtq organizations, and many of Kameny's friends, neighbors, and ordinary citizens whose lives were touched by his work.

In addition, the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History displayed artifacts from their collection of Kameny documents and the National Park Service designated Dr. Kameny's home in Washington, D.C. a national historic site.

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