After marriage equality, new issues move to the forefront
By Matt Pizzuti
2015 marked major milestones for LGBTQ Americans, but they came only after a long and arduous struggle for change. At the time of the Stonewall Riots, marriage equality was hardly yet even a dream for queer people, who sought merely the right to exist in American cities without fear of public shame and persecution from police–let alone was there any thought to what kind of battles would come after marriage equality was won.
Now, the LGBTQ community has not only achieved that goal but has become as much or more engaged in broader, coordinated struggle for justice–for immigration rights, for refugees, for gender diversity and for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, a response to the high-profile stories of black Americans killed by police.
For decades following the AIDS crisis, the community shifted towards an overwhelming focus on legal recognition of same-sex relationships. There was growing critique from within parts of the community that the cause was disproportionately important to white, healthy, relatively privileged cisgender lesbian and gay couples. While others pointed out that gaining the fundamental rights and economic protections of marriage were an important step in addressing LGBTQ poverty, access to healthcare, and other vital needs. But marriage was more than that; although legal marriage wasn’t personally relevant to every individual in the LGBTQ community. Over the last few decades a person’s position on “gay marriage” came to be seen as a litmus test of their support for LGBTQ people in general–an emotional symbolism suggesting whether LGBTQ people should be affirmed or devalued.
Stepping back, it’s remarkable how quickly things shifted. In 1996, a Pew poll found that 65 percent of Americans opposed granting lesbians and gays the right to marry, and in 2001 opposition was 57 percent. Conservative activists discovered in the early 2000s that putting a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot was an effective way to boost Evangelical turnout, and between 1998 and 2008, more than half of all states banned same-sex marriage that way in one punishing defeat after another.
But as Americans got to know LGBTQ people better in pop culture and as more of their friends and loved ones came out, their opinions changed. There were painful surprises: in 2008, the same year that Americans elected Barack Obama their president, voters in liberal California revoked the right for same-sex couples to marry. Yet by the time voters in Washington State stood up for marriage equality by a 54-46 margin in 2012, it was clear the tide was turning. In 2015, Pew found the national polling numbers had roughly reversed since 2001; 55 percent now supported marriage equality, to 39 percent opposed.
In January, federal judges across the country had already been taking cues from the United States Supreme Court’s 2013 decisions that struck down California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Though the high court had not overtly stated whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, many federal judges in lower courts across the country believed the 2013 decisions indicated as much and believed it was only a matter of time before the Supreme Court would rule on the issue. Court decisions overturning state-level same-sex marriage bans came out at an accelerated rate starting in 2013, and by the end of 2014 more than two-thirds of states had pending pro-equality rulings or outright marriage equality.
2015 began with most LGBTQ activists waiting for the Supreme Court to act, and early in the year, it did.
January 16: the United States Supreme Court announces it will hear four same-sex marriage appeals cases in 2015, combining them into one case, Obergfell v. Hodges. Most court observers realize that this could be the case that resolves the issue of marriage equality in the United States for good.
February 5: Trans woman and former Army intelligence specialist Chelsea Manning, imprisoned for her role in the 2010 Wikileaks incident in which large amounts of classified information was released, wins the right to transition therapy while incarcerated.
February 13: Facing fast-developing ethics charges, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber resigns from office. Secretary of State Kate Brown ascends to the governor’s office, becoming the first openly bisexual governor in U.S. history.
March 2015: A massive European study spanning 14 countries finds that no HIV-positive participants using HIV-suppressing drugs to achieve an undetectable viral load passed HIV to an HIV-negative partner, even through unprotected sex. The findings indicate that treating HIV-positive people with medication is an effective way to protect their sexual partners from acquiring the virus.
March 25: A national outcry erupts after Indiana Governor Mike Pence signs into law the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, allowing individuals and companies to use religious beliefs as a defense for certain actions against LGBTQ people and others. Several major companies publicly threaten to withdraw their business from the state of Indiana, while several outside state governors and city mayors, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, ban public funds under their discretion from being used for travel to Indiana.
April 2: Indiana’s Republican-led legislature heeds nationwide protests by amending the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to offer protections for LGBT people. Also during this month, legislators in several other states abandon their attempts to enact legislation similar to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.
April 28: The Supreme Court hears arguments on whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The widely-publicized hearing lasts about three hours, but a ruling won’t come out until late June.
June 2015: Former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner comes out as a transgender woman while appearing as the first trans person on the cover of Vanity Fair.
June 24: Jennicet Gutierrez, a Latina trans woman, and undocumented immigrant interrupts President Barack Obama speaking to a private audience at a White House Pride event to protest deportations. After being drowned out by the mostly-LGBTQ crowd at the event and removed from the room by security, Gutierrez explains her concern for trans women in immigration detention centers and states that she had not gone to the event planning to protest. The event provokes a debate within the LGBTQ community, but many people are supportive, pointing out Gutierrez’s success in drawing wider attention to the conditions trans people faced in deportation centers. The event foreshadows what types of political concerns will rise to the surface for the LGBTQ community in a post-marriage-equality America.
June 25: A New Jersey court rules unanimously that “ex-gay” conversion therapy should be considered fraud.
June 26: In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples in all 50 states have the same right to marry as different-sex couples. Most jurisdictions comply immediately, and tens of thousands of same-sex couples across the country immediately obtain their marriage licenses.
July 2015: Kim Davis, a county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, who recently upon her fourth marriage became a born-again Christian, defies court orders by refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Though she was not the only county officer in the U.S. to refuse to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, Davis gains national publicity as a symbol of the opposition to LGBTQ equality, and several prominent Republican presidential candidates speak out in her defense.
July 13: The Pentagon announces plans to create policies that would officially allow transgender people to serve openly in the military by early 2016. Unofficially, up to 15,000 trans people had already been serving openly since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2011.
July 27: The Boy Scouts of America lifts its ban on openly gay adult leaders.
August 4: When out gay director Roland Emmerich releases the theatrical trailer for the movie Stonewall, LGBTQ commentators immediately raise concerns that the story of a significant turning point in the modern LGBTQ rights movement has been “whitewashed.” The ensuing public debate furthers the suggestion that trans representation and intersectionality will be as is essential to a post-marriage-equality LGBTQ America as marriage equality was during the preceding 25 years.
August 25: Black Lives Matter holds a rally in Washington D.C. to protest violence against black trans women.
September 3: Rowan County, Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis is sentenced to jail for defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that required same-sex couples have access to marriage licenses. The next day, same-sex couples in the county begin receiving marriage licenses.
September 25: The film Stonewall is released in theaters and receives mostly poor reviews criticizing its script and its backseat portrayal of trans people and people of color. The film earns less than $180,000 at the box office.
November 3: Voters in Houston reject an equal rights ordinance protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination after an anti-LGBTQ campaign seeks to provoke a fear that male sexual predators would pose as trans women to gain access to women’s’ restrooms. Meanwhile in deep-red Utah, Salt Lake City residents elect lesbian mayor Jackie Bickupski.
November 16: The Journal for the American Medical Association publishes results of a study finding that Truvada pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill taken daily by an HIV-negative person to prevent transmission of HIV, is close to completely effective in blocking HIV infection when patients adhere to their daily regimen. The findings demonstrate that the medication is a transformative step in combatting the HIV epidemic in those who are most at risk, particularly trans women and gay men.