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With Bush on the attack, but public opinion polls shifting...
Are gays and lesbians better off?

October 3, 2003 | Page 8

FIVE YEARS ago this month, the deadly beating of gay college student Matthew Shepard made national headlines, drawing attention to the horrors of antigay bigotry in the U.S. On the anniversary of his death, SHERRY WOLF looks at the state of gay rights today.

MATTHEW SHEPARD'S beaten and bloodied body was discovered lashed to a fence in a Wyoming prairie on October 7, 1998. The 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was kidnapped, robbed and brutalized the night before by two openly antigay bigots became a national symbol of homophobic violence and resistance to it.

In dozens of cities not known for progressive attitudes toward lesbians and gays, such as Nashville, Tenn.; Houston, Texas; and Des Moines, Iowa, hundreds turned out for rallies and vigils to publicly mourn and protest Shepard's murder. The Wyoming football team wore "Tolerance" decals on their game helmets to express their opposition to the gruesome attack.

In New York City, 5,000 marched in a funeral protest down Fifth Avenue--despite police harassment--and the city's skyline was lit with lavender lights to honor Shepard. Even the House of Representatives was compelled to pass a resolution that condemned Shepard's killing and urged members of Congress and every U.S. citizen "to denounce this outrageous murder of another human being."

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IN THE aftermath of this summer's Supreme Court ruling which finally struck down anti-sodomy laws in the 13 states that still had them, many ask whether there has been much progress for gays and lesbians. The picture is mixed. However, public opinion toward gays and lesbians is far more progressive over the last decade than official policy under both the Democrats and Republicans would suggest.

A front-page New York Times article in August arguing that there's been a public backlash against gays and lesbians cited a Gallup poll taken the week after the sodomy decision. The poll showed that 48 percent of Americans said gay marriage should be legal, and 46 percent said it shouldn't--a significant change from early May, when 60 percent said such activity should be legal, and 35 percent said it should not.

But a poll is not a backlash. In fact, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that same month showed 53 percent favoring civil unions that would give gays and lesbians the same legal rights as married couples. And a New Jersey poll this summer showed 57 percent in that state support gay marriage. Over 80 percent, according to Gallup accept the idea of including homosexuals under the protection of equal opportunity provisions in the workplace.

Even on the controversial issue of gays in the military, a 2001 Gallup poll shows 72 percent support gays being allowed to serve openly. Sixty percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, believe that "homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal," up sharply from the last time they asked that question in 1996 when only 44 percent thought so.

Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay advocacy group, cites studies showing that 40 percent of Americans know someone who is gay and that it has had a tremendous impact on transforming people's attitudes in favor of gay rights. Yet it's still legal in 36 states to fire someone for being gay. According to a 1997 General Accounting Office study, there are more than 1,000 federal rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities that same-sex couples are currently denied since they are not permitted civil marriage licenses.

Those rights include protections as fundamental as being able to visit a partner in the hospital and make decisions for them should they be unable to, the ability to inherit property without a will or tax penalties and access to social security survivor benefits. A married gay Canadian couple was recently turned away at the border when they tried to fill out a single customs form--like other married couples.

Democratic President Bill Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) actually codified that discrimination into law. And a decade after Clinton promised that "don't ask, don't tell" would allow gays to discretely serve in the military, more than 1,200 service members each year are dismissed for being gay.

Why the discrepancy between public opinion and the laws? The far right is often fingered as the primary culprit. Take hate-monger Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), who made headlines in May by comparing gay sex to incest.

Santorum's bigoted remarks about gays and lesbians came just months after Sen. Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) pro-segregationist rant lost the racist his position. Yet Santorum got off without even a slap on the wrist. And Bush's verbal attacks on gays' right to marry and his administration's current crusade to get a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman is a clear attempt to shore up his hard-right supporters in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision.

But the Democratic Party and its liberal defenders have not only failed to stop the right; they have helped shape antigay policies. Sadly, by accepting the logic of lesser-evilism, many gay rights advocacy groups have become ineffective at fighting antigay legislation and attacks by the right.

Though Democrats initially denounced the Republican-inspired DOMA, 118 of them voted for it. Clinton signed it into law in 1996 while campaigning for his second term. Despite the fact that and his "don't ask, don't tell" policy led to witch-hunts of gays in the military, gay press such as The Advocate, Lambda Legal Defense and AIDS activists in ACT-UP insisted that gay rights supporters vote for a second Clinton term and not mobilize protests that might embarrass Clinton.

What did gays get for their loyalty to the Democrats? According to the Washington Post, Clinton held a closed-door meeting in 1997 with advocates of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)--which would have ended antigay workplace policies, with notable exemptions for small businesses, the armed forces and religious organizations. Clinton's "support" for gay civil rights was so half-hearted that he refused to use his influence to even get a vote on ENDA onto the House floor.

Clinton's own Presidential AIDS Panel criticized his administration for failing to show a "coherent plan of action" against AIDS in 1998, despite the abundance of evidence indicating the effectiveness of preventive efforts, including needle exchanges. By the 2000 campaign, gay rights issues were not discussed by the two major parties because each had virtually identical positions. Both Al Gore and George Bush endorsed the Defense of Marriage Act.

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IN THE late 1980s and early 1990s, protests against gay bashing and for AIDS drugs and gay rights exploded onto the streets of dozens of cities in response to the reactionary policies of the Reagan and Bush I administrations. These protests gave confidence to millions of gays and forced a bigoted Bush administration to fund AIDS research and back down from the verbal belligerence towards gays that marked previous administrations.

Thousands of workplaces were pressured to provide domestic partner benefits to lesbians and gays. Yet there has been no national protest for gay rights since the 1993 demonstration of hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C., where the incoming Democratic administration was praised for its promise to improve the lives of lesbians and gays.

But the Democrats have reneged on those promises. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have been reported killed in attacks since Shepard's murder, though the actual number of deaths is likely higher because many antigay attacks go unreported.

The strategy of electing Democrats to deliver civil rights for lesbians and gays has been a dismal failure. Rather, public protest has been the main factor in shifting public opinion in favor of gay rights in the past. A visible, active and vocal fight that unites people of different sexual orientations is needed to challenge legal discrimination in workplaces and housing, and physical attacks on the streets.

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