A Good Year For Gay And Lesbian Rights

Dec 26, 2011
Originally published on December 28, 2011 2:11 pm

In 2011, gays and lesbians made two important gains: the military's policy barring gays from serving was repealed and gay marriage was legalized in New York state.

"It's a huge, huge deal," says journalist Kai Wright of the vote by the New York state legislature, even though same-sex marriage is legal in several states. "Legally, big states are bullies, and it's going to be hard to move forward without squaring that with federal law and other state laws."

Wright sees the New York marriages coming into conflict with the military's new policy. He expects courts will have to decide whether or not spouses of service members are entitled to federal benefits.

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As we head into the holidays, we have a different spin on the familiar end of the year roundup. Natural disasters and a shaky economy have added up to a terrible year for a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world. But here at TELL ME MORE and across NPR we wanted to celebrate people, movements, and ideas that had a good year.

This week we'll be talking about women in music, African trends in fashion, and the power of protestors across the Middle East. But today we explore the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement which scored some big victories in 2011. New York State legalized same sex marriage and the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy – the one that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military – was repealed.

To look back at the year in LGBT rights, we're joined now by Kai Wright. He's a journalist who reports on race, sexuality, and health. He's also the editor of an online news site and he's the author of "Drifting Towards Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York." Welcome, Kai.

KAI WRIGHT: Glad to be here.

KEYES: So the first big victory for gay right supporters we want to talk about came over the summer.


SENATOR CARL KRUGER: Together in partnership, we are proving tonight that people that care can truly make a difference. I vote yes. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ayes 33, nays 29.

KEYES: That was New York state senator Carl Kruger during the vote that approved same sex marriage. You live in New York. What was that like and what has it meant for the state and the country in general?

WRIGHT: Well, I mean, it's a huge, huge deal. You know, wherever you stand on same sex marriage, it's one of those moments where there's a before and after in terms of where the country's at on LGBT rights. And you're looking at something that was so much more broad than the question of whether I, as a gay man in New York state have a right to get married.

Legally, big states are bullies. This is true on all kinds of law, certainly family law, and to have a state the size of New York with a law that recognizes same sex families and gay families, it's going to be hard to move forward without squaring that with federal law and other state laws. Politically, it's really important that this was a legislative victory.

You know, this wasn't a court victory. This was something that the New York state legislature through a long and ugly fight came to this decision. It required the Governor to invest in it personally in a really deep way, and both Democrats, who have been cautious about picking this kind of fight legislatively, and Republicans who support gay marriage, both had to kind of walk out on this in a public way that now can't really be reversed.

And then culturally, I can't say enough about this. Is that it, you know, it forces people – when you have these big moments like this it forces people to take a side and stand up and say, you know, what do I believe about this? And it creates a dialogue that it's hard to escape from.

KEYES: Here's the thing, though, Kai: more than 30 states still have constitutional bans on gay marriage. I mean, New York is a huge state. As you said, it's a huge thing that happened there but how much is that going to affect what others states are doing and what people, say, in the Midwest or in parts of the South feel about this where it's a little bit more conservative, you know?

WRIGHT: So it's going to get messier before it gets clean for sure. But it is really impossible for the nation to continue to have one set of family law for a state the size of New York that plays such an outsized role in our economy and so many parts of our society and to have federal law as well as many, many other states have different sets of laws. That is going to have to be resolved.

By New York doing this, discussion now cannot be stopped. We're going to have to have a resolution.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we're talking about how it's been a good year for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights with journalist Kai Wright who writes about race and sexuality and health. All right. We also saw this year the end of "don't ask, don't tell" after 18 years. Let's listen to one reaction from that day.

HEATHER BAPTISTE: It was a tearjerker. It was. Because you just remember the struggle. And we're here for the same thing. And it's a beautiful thing to be able to fight for that.

KEYES: That was Heather Baptiste of the U.S. Air Force. Obviously, that policy had an immediate affect on gay service members, but you say that impact goes far beyond the troops. Talk to us about why.

WRIGHT: Well, it's another one of these forcing functions. You know, so now you have all of these service members who can serve openly, who are going to build families, but those families aren't recognized by federal law. You're going to expect to see appeals, both administratively and in the courts, about whether or not spouses of service members are entitled to federal benefits.

KEYES: What about the T in LGBT? Transgender rights? On one hand, it was Chaz Bono on "Dancing with the Stars," whatever you think about the dancing that was happening on there.


KEYES: But on the other hand, more than a quarter of transgender people surveyed by the National Center for Transgender Equality say they've experienced physical violence because of their identity. Are transgender rights lagging behind in this movement?

WRIGHT: Well, absolutely. That, I think, if you go by any measure, whether you look at personal health, if you look at people who are likely to be victims of hate crime attacks. If you look at all of the things that we measure a society as to what we consider people to be at risk when they're facing these things, you see transgender people reporting at the top.

My own belief is that the real issue in all of the LGBT is the T. Gender politics is really what we're talking about here, and whether or not people fit the gender roles that we believe they should have. No, I think what is impressive, however, and what's important, is that when you look at young folks that's the kind of politics I'm seeing develop and that's a place where you're seeing young transgender people and young people who are lesbian and gay but who have gender identities that don't fit the stereotype and are standing up for themselves and are saying I can identify myself both sexually and as a gender however I please. And I have that right and I'm going to stand up for it.

KEYES: I want to talk briefly about areas where this wasn't a good year for LGBT rights. For example, I have friends – one lives in D.C., one lives in Belarus – who still can't get married and are commuting back and forth. Is there any indication when federal law might catch up with things that are happening in New York?

WRIGHT: Well, 2012 will likely be an eventful year. There are a number of cases winding their ways towards the Supreme Court. There's the challenge to Proposition 8 and whoever loses that will certainly appeal to the Supreme Court. There is a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act that I believe we're waiting to see if the court will hear.

There are a number of them winding their way up and it is likely that the court will have to address one of them in 2012. So I think soon we're going to start getting more clarity. And who knows what's going to happen from there.

KEYES: All right. We've got to leave it there. Kai Wright is a writer and journalist who reports on race, sexuality, and health. He is the editor of and author of "Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and the Coming of Age on the Streets of New York." He joined us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. Thanks, Kai.

WRIGHT: Thank you.


KEYES: Just ahead, Nicki Minaj, J. Lo, Adele, Christina Aguilera. The list of top female performers producing smash hits have been endless this year. As part of NPR's series celebrating people, movements, and ideas that had a good year in 2011, we look at the women in music that rocked. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.


ADELE: (Singing) I heard that you're settled down, that you found a girl and you're married now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.