A year after marriage ruling, LGBT rights stuggles continue
NEW YORK >> On a Friday evening almost a year ago, the White House was awash in rainbow-colored lights, celebrating the momentous Supreme Court ruling that led to nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage. Across the country, gays and lesbians embraced and partied and in some cases scrambled to arrange can't-wait-another-day weddings.
"Love Wins!" was the catchphrase of the moment.
Since that ruling last June 26, same-sex marriage has been widely accepted as the law of the land, with only small pockets of defiance. Yet it has not been a year for LGBT-rights activists to bask in triumph, as starkly underscored by the June 12 attack that left 49 patrons and staff dead at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
"We're still living with this random violence that can strike at any time," said Ken Darling, owner of a gay bar in Minneapolis. "We had the White House lit up with colors, the Supreme Court finally acknowledges our right to marry, and at the same time this kind of stuff can happen."
In the aftermath of the attack, some conservative leaders have expressed a new degree of empathy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans — raising the question of whether the massacre could change the political equation on LGBT rights the way the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing of 1963 and other acts of violence against blacks helped change the course of the civil rights movement. Thus far, however, there's been no rush by Republican politicians to back a pending LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination bill in Congress or to enact state-level versions of that bill in the many states — including Florida — that lack such protections.
Even before the Orlando attack, LGBT gains were being challenged by many social conservatives who had opposed same-sex marriage. They have asserted that religious freedom is threatened by various legal advances for LGBT people, and they are trying to prevent transgender people from accessing public bathrooms and locker rooms on the basis of their gender identity.
Indeed, the "Love Wins!" slogan of a year ago has a blunt successor: "We Just Need To Pee."
LGBT-rights groups are playing both defense and offense, city by city and state by state. They're working to persuade more jurisdictions to broaden nondiscrimination protections, while fending off lawsuits and legislation by their opponents that threaten to weaken such protections.
"There's no question that momentum is on our side for equality," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "But there's no question our opponents are working harder than they ever have before to roll back our rights where they can."
Among groups engaged in multiple lawsuits is the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. Earlier this year it lost a bid to overturn a $13,000 fine against an upstate New York couple who, citing their religious beliefs, did not want two lesbians married at their wedding venue.
Kristen Waggoner, the alliance's senior vice president of legal advocacy, said such cases reflect "bullying tactics" by gay-rights supporters.
"The Supreme Court decision has sharply increased the polarization of our culture," she said. "It's not just about marriage. It's about silencing any dissent, and basically ridding our culture and marketplace of those who disagree."
In hindsight, the spread of same-sex marriage came relatively swiftly after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it in 2004. By the time the Supreme Court ruled, gay marriages were taking place in 37 states as a result of lower court orders, referendums or legislative action.
Since last June, however, the pace of gay-rights advances has been sporadic. There are still 28 states that don't cover gays and lesbians in their statewide nondiscrimination laws.
In state legislatures, about 200 bills were introduced this year that would have curtailed LGBT rights in some way, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most were shelved, defeated or vetoed, but a few have created a furor after being enacted.
North Carolina's legislature passed a law limiting protections for LGBT people and requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. A Mississippi law allows certain government employees and businesspeople to cite their religious beliefs as grounds for denying some services to LGBT people.
Mississippi's law is already the target of three federal court lawsuits. North Carolina's law has sparked widespread protests by activists, businesses and entertainers. Bruce Springsteen was among many performers canceling concerts in the state; Pay-Pal dropped plans for a new global operations center in Charlotte.
The ultimate goal for LGBT-rights activists is to win passage of a sweeping federal nondiscrimination law which would extend basic civil-rights protections to gays, lesbians and transgender people. At present, the measure has no chance of passage due to minimal Republican support; activists hope they can win court rulings that would accomplish some of the measure's goals.
As for same-sex marriage, national support for it is at an all-time high of 61 percent, according to a Gallup poll released in May.
The high court ruling has provoked relatively few instances of outright defiance. In Kentucky, county clerk Kim Davis spent a few days in jail after refusing to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples; Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore has been suspended for steps he took to resist the ruling.
It's impossible to calculate how many same-sex marriages have taken place as a result of the ruling, but it's certainly in six digits. Gallup calculated last November that there were about 486,000 same-sex marriages in the U.S. — 96,000 of them in the four months following the ruling.
In the 13 states where same-sex marriage remained banned until the ruling, there were many same-sex couples who'd waited for years for the chance to wed in their home states — forgoing the option of marrying elsewhere.
Among them were Gail Wischmann, a sheriff's office sergeant in Fargo, North Dakota, and Laurie Baker, an advocate for homeless people.
"We didn't want to do it until it could be legal for everyone," said Wischmann, 58, who'd known Baker for 20 years before they married on Dec. 26.
In Mississippi, one of the other states that held out to the end, Knol Aust, a 40-year-old web designer in Jackson, was predicting a backlash within days of marrying his partner, Duane Smith, three days after the Supreme Court ruling.
In many ways, their life is little changed from before that ruling, yet there are some welcome differences, like referring to "my husband" in conversations with other people.
"We'd sometimes say that jokingly before," said Aust. "It has a whole new meaning now. It feels good to finally be able to say that."
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