A long way from Stonewall, and sometimes a slog

Thursday - 6/27/2013, 2:44pm EDT

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- From Stonewall in New York in 1969 to the marble walls of the Supreme Court, the push to advance gay rights has moved forward, often glacially but recently at a quickening pace. A look at episodes in the modern history of that movement and how attitudes have changed along the way in the larger culture:


Fifty years ago, gay sex was a crime in almost every state, homosexuality was designated a mental disorder, federal workers could easily lose their jobs for being gay and only the outliers were out of the closet, a risky if not dangerous place to be.


Gay marriage is legal in a dozen states and the District of Columbia, and could soon be again in California after the court's ruling Wednesday.

Gays can serve openly in the armed forces and do so in high office, including Congress. Eight people who have served as a U.S. ambassador or been nominated for that post are openly gay. Openly gay entertainers are commonplace, athletes less so.

It can still be dangerous to be out of the closet, which is why Congress expanded federal hate-crimes legislation in 2009 to cover crimes motivated by bias against gays, lesbians and transgender people. The law is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student tied to a fence, beaten and left to die in a 1998 case that sparked hate-crimes laws around the country.


The Supreme Court turned a stone cold face to Frank Kameny in 1961, declining to hear his appeal after he was fired as a government astronomer for being gay. It did so again in 1970, dismissing an appeal by two men in Minnesota who fought for the right to marry. And in 1986, the court upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy, part of a patchwork of laws around the nation that once made gay sex a crime coast to coast.

The tide began to shift in the 1990s. In 1996, a ruling by the high court opened an avenue for states to protect gays as a class against discrimination. It struck down a Colorado measure that sought to bar homosexuals from gaining protections that are extended to other groups based on their race or religion.

In 2003, 10 years to the day before Wednesday's rulings, the Supreme Court stripped away the taboo at the heart of gay relationships, ruling that consensual sex between adults was not a crime so state sodomy laws could not stand. The court reversed its ruling of 17 years earlier on the Georgia law, and Justice Antonin Scalia, in a pointed and seemingly prophetic dissent, predicted it would clear the way for same-sex marriage.

Two years before his death in 2011, Kameny received an apology from the government for firing him. The apology came from John Berry, then director of the Office of Personnel Management, now nominated as ambassador to Australia, himself openly gay.

The rulings Wednesday extend federal recognition to gay marriages in the states where they are legal and seem bound to add California back into that category. But they leave same-sex marriage prohibitions standing in 35 states -- 29 under state constitutions, six under state laws -- and the overarching question of marriage equality as a national right unresolved. Two states, New Mexico and New Jersey, neither approve nor ban gay marriage.


In 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act became law, the University of Chicago's General Social Survey reported that 60 percent of respondents considered homosexual sex "always wrong." With political opinion closely tracking public sentiments in that election year, the ground was hardly fertile for something as far-reaching as gay marriage.

In September of that year, the Senate backed DOMA and its prohibition of federal recognition of same-sex gay marriage by a lopsided 85-14 vote, and later that month President Bill Clinton signed it. Although he said he didn't like the law, he made clear -- as did almost everyone else in both parties -- that he considered marriage to be a union between a man and a woman.

That was the prevailing bottom line in Washington right up until last year, when President Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage in a flip-flop that he called an evolution.

Separately in 1996, a bill to establish anti-discrimination measures in the workplace for gays failed, though the vote was much closer.

Grim as the picture appeared then for gay rights activists, there were signs of a slow thaw in public attitudes. A few years earlier, fully 75 percent frowned on gay sex in the Social Survey. In 1996, more people thought extramarital sex was wrong than opposed gay sex.