The momentum and progress for legal and social equality that the LGBTQ community has endured over the last several decades have been nothing short of inspiring and long overdue. As a product of the early 1980s, I’ve personally seen great wins and improvements for my friends and peers within the community throughout the years! While there are still areas for improvement, which I know as a reader of this blog you’re acutely aware of, I’d like to highlight some of the major wins the community and allies have achieved in recent years. 2020 was such a challenging year in so many ways that reflecting on some major victories seems worthwhile in this Season of Thanks.
Civil Rights and Other Legal Protections for LGBTQ People
There are two ways to achieve change and those are through legislative changes (laws) and social changes (culture). Since I’m a family lawyer based in Columbus, OH, I’ll primarily be speaking about the legal progress we’ve seen throughout the States.
Public awareness and momentum began to take shape when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) established the national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in 1986. While the subsequent decade was filled with minor wins and many setbacks, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) began establishing additional rights for LGBTQ people across the country in 1996 and continuing into the present. In addition to national SCOTUS rulings, municipal and regional court decisions have also been passed in a variety of jurisdictions to provide more localized rights and achieve some level of equality in areas that matter to many. Some of the more notable accomplishments in the legal arena include:
Employment Discrimination for LGBTQ Workers
Until recently there were only twelve (12) states that had clear laws on how employers could not discriminate against prospective employees or existing employees based on their sexuality or identity. Those states included: California, Connecticut. Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the list also included the District of Columbia. While 12 states out of 50 weren’t the majority that many of us wanted, many municipalities outside of those states and countless educational institutions and corporations created pledges and internal processes to achieve equality for those in the LGBTQ community.
Life marched forward, until this year, on June 15, 2020, when the SCOTUS came to a landmark decision on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By issuing their opinion on three pivotal issues and cases, the SCOTUS Justices affirmed that LGBTQ people are protected by Title VII. This decision, which was a long time in the making, should be celebrated for the momentous occasion it is! If you’re unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s the piece of legislation that protected individuals from being discriminated against based on their race, color, religion, sex, and/or national origin. For nearly 60 years this important piece of U.S. labor law did not include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, so having this decision land in favor of further protections is a great step in the right direction!
Legalizing Same-Sex Marriages
Same-sex marriages entered more widespread conversations during the 1970s when courts began receiving lawsuits from LGBTQ couples who were seeking the same legal recognition for their relationship as their countrymen received elsewhere in society. While these lawsuits piqued the interest of many, they ultimately failed to achieve any notable change or gain significant traction for the cause. Life continued for approximately 20 more years without anything happening until 1993 when Hawaii’s Supreme Court suggested during the decision for Baehr v. Miike that the state’s role in prohibiting same-sex marriages could be viewed as unconstitutional. While the immediate impact of this ruling was only felt locally in Hawaii, like elsewhere in the path to equality, it paved the way for future change.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage following a court decision some 6 months prior. What’s notable about this legislative win is that it kicked the barn door open for more states to follow and they fell in line quickly and with enthusiasm! By 2014, ten years later, same-sex marriage was legal in 35 out of 50 states, but the biggest win came one year later in 2015. On June 26, 2015, the SCOTUS legally struct down to remove all state bans on same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Not only was this a national legalization, but the SCOTUS required all states to honor out-of-state marriage licenses in an attempt to ensure their intent on the verdict couldn’t be subverted by any loopholes for those couples that choose to move.
The appeal to allow and legalize all forms of marriage not dependent on sexual identity is rooted in the fact that before these decisions, couples in love and sharing their lives could not engage as a couple as their peers did elsewhere. This meant such valuable resources and assets, such as Social Security benefits, veterans’ benefits, health insurance, Medicaid, hospital visitation, estate planning (aka next of kin), retirement savings, pensions, family leave, and immigration might not be supported in each jurisdiction. Having access to and being able to forecast your future together financially and legally is important, so these steps guaranteed that these same-sex couples could support one another equally as others have for generations prior.
Adoption Rights for LGBTQ Couples
As noted above, the June 26, 2015, SCOTUS decision that removed all state bans on same-sex marriages was huge! There is however another parallel area to this topic that’s equally important to creating a familial unit and legacy, which is same-sex adoption rights. Before 2015, same-sex couples did not enjoy any consistency across state lines on this matter. As an example, some states banned same-sex adoptions completely without exception, while others allowed it only if one adult in the couple was the biological parent to the child. Some of the more progressive states allowed it, but families wanted and deserved more.
When the SCOTUS decision became law in June 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states and according to the 2010 U.S. Census we now have over 115,000 children under the age of 18 years old who are being raised by same-sex parents in nearly every single county in the country. It will be exciting to learn what the tallies total in the coming years, as we just participated in the most recent U.S. Census in 2020 (they occur once every 10 years).
Social Changes for LGBTQ People
I mentioned at the start of this article that I’m a product of the early 1980s – 1982 to be exact. I also mentioned that there are two ways to enact change; one being legislatively (ie: laws) and the other is socially (ie: culture). While my expertise is in law, I’d like to mention some notable social changes we’ve seen that have aided the cause for equality across the LGBTQ community.
Media Representation of the LGBTQ Community
For those of you around my age, you’ll likely recall such weekly staples as TGIF Primetime TV on ABC where we enjoy Steve Urkel and other funny characters each Friday night. Earlier in their weekly line-up, ABC also aired a show by longtime TV celebrity, Ellen DeGeneres, appropriately named Ellen. The Ellen show was Ellen DeGeneres’ first successful sitcom production in a long series of shows, but for those of you who don’t remember or are too young, she did something back in 1997 that rocked the gossip columns. Ellen came out as a lesbian on the cover of Time magazine with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” in April 1997. To make sure America heard her, not even two weeks later her character on her sitcom also came out as gay.
While having a cast member or character with an openly gay personality is commonplace in today’s culture, back then it was incredibly uncommon and uncharted. Obviously, we can see how brave Ellen was as a trailblazer to address her industry and the general population with such honesty, but can you imagine the impact omitting such an important part of her life would have had on others who followed shortly thereafter? We certainly wouldn’t have had the 11 seasons of Will & Grace, which was the first primetime show to be anchored around a primarily gay cast of characters to such popularity and success. While that series faced some critique from the LGBTQ community on not doing enough to challenged incorrect stereotypes, I believe that it helped put gay culture into the forefront of American discussions.
Since Ellen’s declaration on Time magazine and the Ellen show, we have seen a huge wave of acceptance and support for LGBTQ characters, actors, and actresses. By no means am I saying it’s perfectly equal now in the volume of representation, but we’ve made strides in the right direction as a country. An article that exemplifies this and something I enjoyed reflecting on was from INSIDER with their article titled, “The most groundbreaking LGBTQ characters and relationships on TV.” Whether it comes from Orange is the New Black showcasing many lesbian and transwomen or Modern Family showing an example of gay men adopting children, these shows are helpful, by and large, to increase acceptance and awareness.
It certainly didn’t start in 2020, but 2020 saw the emergence of the most elected officials that belong to the LGBTQ community than any time prior. These politicians will now join the highest-ranking and sitting LGBTQ elected officials, such as Oregon and Colorado Governors, Kate Brown and Jared Polis, respectively. I thought addressing LGBTQ politicians had an appropriate home in this section of this conversation as politics (and politicians) tend to begin with popular social followings that segue into legislation roles, once elected. So in some ways, politicians can be both pop culture and law-themed.
According to the LGBTQ Victory Institute there are over 840 LGBTQ people currently serving in elected offices across the U.S. While that figure isn’t as high as it can go, and it should climb as time goes on, that’s a great step forward. In the most recent elections in November 2020, courtesy of ABCNews.com we saw the following roles filled by LGBTQ politicians:
- Delaware elects 1st openly transgender state senator
- Tennessee General Assembly gains 2 openly LGBTQ politicians
- Vermont Legislature adds 1st openly transgender member
- Georgia elects 1st openly LGBTQ state senator
- Georgia reelects 1st openly gay state representative
- New York elects 2 openly LGBTQ Black members of Congress
- Kansas elects 1st openly transgender lawmaker
What I find promising about the recent trend towards electing LGBTQ politicians is how the spread of those elected and their states vary so much from previous generations in those same locales. It’s becoming increasingly clear that regions from yesteryear that would be discriminatory towards this community are changing, albeit, slowly.
Stonewall Inn and Gay Pride Events
As with many historical events, good outcomes can come from the tragedies of our past, and the LGBTQ community did just that in response to the raids on the Stonewall Inn of Manhattan, NY in 1969. For those unaware, police raids on gay bars were commonplace in the 1960s, however, their raid attempt that night with the patrons at the Stonewall Inn didn’t go according to plan as police officers quickly lost control of the situation. The tensions felt that night spilled over into subsequent protests and clashes the following days and nights, eventually culminating in grassroots efforts by allies and community members to champion the rights of LGBTQ people.
On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Inn raid, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco hosted the first organized Pride events across the country. Critics of the community were in for a surprise because one year later, on the second anniversary of the raid, gay rights groups had quickly expanded to every major American city, as well as Canada, Australia, and throughout Western Europe. While not minimizing the length of time between the early 1970s to the present, what’s comforting to see is that in 2019 over 4 million people attended the Manhattan event alone. If you pair other large metropolitan American cities into the mix, such as San Diego, Boston, Portland, Denver, San Francisco, Miami Beach, St. Louis, and so on, you can see the sheer volume of progress in support for the community.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There are remaining hurdles that need to be addressed and we’ll likely find new obstacles in years to come. That said, don’t forget the power of culture or societal changes and how that can impact laws – and how those laws impact lives! If anything, I hope my collection of milestones above can serve as a clear reminder of how people banding together to impact change can work out well, even if a little slower than we’d want. Keep fighting the good fight and I look forward to seeing what we can all accomplish together!