2013: A Landmark Year For Gay Rights

Liz Goodwin
Year in Review

From twin pro-gay Supreme Court rulings, to the president of the United States referencing "our gay brothers and sisters" in his inaugural address, to the first male pro athlete coming out of the closet, 2013 has been a "banner year" for gay rights.

In no other year has the battle for same-sex marriage — a centerpiece of the gay rights movement — gained so much momentum. A little over 10 years ago, such unions weren't permitted in any state. The majority of Americans were staunchly against gay marriage, according to Pew polls. Globally, not a single country permitted same-sex marriage until the Netherlands in 2000.

Years of campaigning started paying off at warp speed, prompting Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign to call 2013 "the gayest year in gay history." A whopping eight states allowed gay marriage this year, doubling the total count in the nation. Among them was Hawaii, where two women kicked off the same-sex marriage debate in 1990 when they applied for a marriage license. That led to the Bill Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enacted when gays could not marry in any state.

Nearly 23 years later, a landmark Supreme Court decision on June 26 struck down DOMA, in a 5-4 decision. Gay marriages must be recognized by the federal government for the first time. The ruling stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage bans illegal, although it did clear the way for legally wed gay couples to jointly file their taxes, seek immigration benefits, and qualify for other federal marriage privileges. That same day, the justices made gay marriage legal again in California, the nation's most populous state, by declining to overturn a lower court's ruling. A few months later, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex marriage.

"It's been such a banner year, it's been hard to keep up with," Richard Socarides, a gay rights activist and former adviser to Bill Clinton, told Yahoo News. "Acceptance of gays and lesbians as a cultural phenomenon has always led the political acceptance," he added. "2013 was a year where we started to catch up politically [to] where the culture was, and where the American people already were."

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A seismic — and generational — shift
The change in public opinion in favor of same-sex marriage is among the most dramatic on any public-policy issue in the past decade. And much of that shift is due to young people, born after 1980, coming of age and bringing with them more liberal attitudes on the subject. Seventy percent of millenials aged 18 to 32 said they support same-sex marriage in a March 2013 Pew poll, almost twice the 38 percent of baby boomers who back it.

That generational disconnect is also visible in some major cultural gay milestones this year. Actress Jodie Foster, 50, and NBA player Jason Collins, 34, both formally came out as gay in 2013 — the Foster at the Golden Globes and Collins in the pages of Sports Illustrated. But among many younger Americans, the idea of being in the "closet" itself is becoming increasingly antiquated. In California, high school students elected the nation's first transgender homecoming queen, and mainstream TV shows like "Glee" have depicted young, openly gay teen characters for years.

Partisan changes
Traditional partisan lines on the issue — with Republicans generally opposing gay marriage and Democrats more likely to support it — are also starting to break down. In November, seven Senate Republicans crossed the aisle to join the entire Democratic caucus in supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which will prevent businesses with more than 15 employees from firing workers for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

More than 100 prominent Republicans also urged the finding of a constitutional right to wed in a brief filed with the Supreme Court in February 2013. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced he supported gay marriage after finding out that his son is gay, becoming the first nationally elected Republican to do so. In September, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife served as witnesses to a same-sex wedding in Kennebunkport, Maine.

But support for same-sex marriage remains low — less than 30 percent nationwide — among people who identify as Republican, and among people who say they attend church weekly, according to a July 2013 Gallup poll.

[Read about the standoffs on the Hill in Chris Moody's look back on congressional inaction]

The next battlefield
Despite 2013's gay rights victories, same-sex marriage is still illegal in most states, and in many others, employers can fire workers solely for their sexual orientation without risk of repercussions.

Gay rights advocates say that keeping up 2013's momentum next year is crucial. The movement hopes to pass more same-sex marriage laws in New Mexico —the sole state that doesn't explicitly ban or permit the practice — and Oregon. Meanwhile, through a mix of court cases and legislative measures, activists hope to expand the marriage map to Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the following election.

Activists also hope to shepherd the Senate's Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bans employers from discriminating against workers solely for being gay, and which faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House. "The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs," a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.