Amid Daily Struggles, Gay Rights Movement Embraces Watershed Moments
From the sparks lit at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 to the whirl of same-sex marriage laws, the gay rights movement has made a lot of advances. But has it now reached a plateau?
Nine states and Washington, D.C., now legally recognize gay marriage, and the Supreme Court will take up same-sex marriage cases this session. American support for gay marriage has crossed a threshold, the Pew Research Center finds, and now more people support it than oppose it.
With the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the Pentagon is moving toward extending some of the benefits for married heterosexual couples to same-sex couples.
In his inaugural address, President Obama mentioned gay rights alongside the civil rights and women's rights movements.
"For me, at my age to see the president of the United States ... compare gay rights to the civil rights movement — I never thought I'd see this day," says veteran journalist Hank Plante, one of the first gay reporters on TV. "A lot of people worked hard for this over the years. I just feel very grateful about it all."
Plante tells NPR's Jackie Lyden that the gay rights movement is "nearing an end." He says younger people feel even more positive than he does.
"This whole thing is generational," he says. "Young people, they don't care."
He notes a Public Religion Research Institute study in 2011 that showed 44 percent of evangelical millennials (those aged 18-29) support gay marriage. That's compared to 12 percent of evangelicals 65 and older.
Beyond Marriage Fight, Daily Battles
At 66, Plante believes there's "no question" gays will see full and equal rights in his lifetime. But he says there's still work to be done: The Supreme Court's decisions await, for example, as do employment protections for the LGBT community in certain states.
One of those states is Kentucky.
"It is still legal currently, in most of our state, to fire someone from a job, deny them a place to live, or kick someone off a bus or out of a restaurant if someone thinks that they're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," says Chris Hartman, who directs the Fairness Campaign, a gay rights advocacy organization in Louisville.
The Kentucky Civil Rights Act protects a number of things, including race, religion, color and disability, but not sexual orientation or gender identity.
"This type of discrimination occurs many places," Hartman says, "but in places that don't have these types of protections, people who are prone to prejudice or who would commit discriminatory acts are emboldened to do so when leaders in their community will not step up and extend these types of anti-discrimination and fairness protections."
There's a lot more work ahead before the fight is over, Hartman says.
"In a lot of places in the country, folks feel that we're so close, that marriage is sort of the final frontier. And, of course, Barack Obama has created some watershed civil rights moments," he says. "But in a state like Kentucky, where you can still be fired from your job, it feels like the battle has just begun."
Visibility And Representation
Part of the struggle has also been reflected in popular culture. Back in 1994, actor Wilson Cruz played one of the first gay Hispanic characters on TV, Rickie Vasquez in My So-Called Life. In the show, the teenager comes out to his family and then is kicked out of his house.
Cruz got the role when he was 19, and it mimicked his own life. He became homeless after he told his family he was gay. He says when he auditioned for My So-Called Life, he was just grateful the part existed — whether or not he was cast.
"I knew how powerful it would be to me to see it, and how powerful it would have been for me as a teenager to have seen Rickie Vasquez on television," Cruz says.
He says people still tell him how much the half-black, half-Puerto Rican character affected them.
"For the most part — even, sadly, still — most of the LGBT characters that we see are white men. ... And I was not. And Rickie really was saddling a few different communities," Cruz says.
Cruz wishes he could see more diversity on TV, even now. But there are characters that stand out to him, like Unique, the black transgender teen on Glee. Cruz expects these contemporary actors won't realize the impact of their portrayals until they're much older.
"I feel like the granddaddy of them all, and I couldn't be prouder," he says.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
It's a watershed time in the gay rights movement. Nine states and D.C. now legally recognize gay marriage. And in the spring, the Supreme Court takes on the Defense of Marriage Act. More Americans now accept gay marriage than oppose it, according to the Pew Research Center. And last month, President Obama mentioned gay rights next to civil rights in his inauguration address.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...the most evident of truths that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forbearers through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall...
LYDEN: After the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the Pentagon is moving toward extending certain benefits to same-sex couples. It's been a long and hard-fought struggle. Our cover story today: Is the gay rights war winding down?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: Hank Plante is a veteran journalist of 35 years and one of the first gay reporters on TV. And I asked him, from his sense of history, how far he thinks the movement has come?
HANK PLANTE: I certainly think that the gay rights war is nearing an end. You know, I got a provocative email from a friend who's a very prominent gay journalist, and it had two words: It's over. I don't know, Jacki. It's like - I'm sure you've covered your share of campaigns. At some point, you look around at the other reporters and you all kind of go, you know, this really feels over.
LYDEN: What about for younger people? I mean, do you think that they feel the same way that you do about the movement and how it's evolved?
PLANTE: No. They feel much more positive than I do because that's the reason that it's over. This whole thing is generational. Young people, they don't care. They have gay friends, even young evangelicals. There was a very interesting poll that was done in 2011 by the Public Religion Research Institute, and it showed nearly half of young evangelicals support gay marriage compared to only 12 percent of evangelicals who are over 65.
LYDEN: So you've covered gay rights for decades. What are some of the standouts in terms of the arc of the movement?
PLANTE: Well, of course, beginning with Stonewall in 1969. But you know what I think really turned things around - and it sounds strange to say this - is the AIDS tragedy actually benefitted gay rights. First of all, it brought a lot of gay people out of the closet, but also I think that straight people gained new respect for members of the gay and lesbian community as they saw gay people stepping up and helping their friends. Obviously continues to be a horrible tragedy, but if anything positive comes out of it, it'll be that.
LYDEN: I'd like to ask you something personal. Thirty-five years of being an out gay reporter, how does it look today from the way it did when you were a younger man?
PLANTE: Oh, it's actually wonderful. For me, at my age to see the president of the United States use his inaugural address to compare gay rights to the civil rights movement - I never thought I'd see this day. And, you know, a lot of people worked hard for this over the years. I just feel very grateful about it all.
And I don't want to minimize that there are battles to be fought. One is Proposition 8, which is the gay marriage case in California that comes before the U.S. Supreme Court. And then DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. And then the Employment Non-Discrimination Act also has to be dealt with in Congress. And, you know, you can still be fired in 29 states just for being gay.
LYDEN: You are - I hope I'm not outing you here - 66?
PLANTE: I'm openly 66.
LYDEN: And so in your lifetime - and there are plenty of good years left - gays will see full and equal rights under the law in the United States.
PLANTE: Absolutely. No question about it. Any poll that you look at shows that the vast majority now in America supports fully for rights, including marriage equality for lesbian and gay people.
LYDEN: One of those 29 states where you can be fired for being gay is Kentucky. Chris Hartman directs the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, a gay rights advocacy organization.
CHRIS HARTMAN: What is still legal currently in most of our state, to fire someone from a job, deny them a place to live or kick someone off a bus or out of a restaurant, if someone thinks that they're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
LYDEN: Aren't gay people covered by the same laws that would protect against discrimination based on race or religious affiliation?
HARTMAN: Unfortunately not. Both the federal and our state's Civil Rights Act do have discrimination protections based on someone's race, religion, color, national origin, familial status, disability. In Kentucky, even your smoking status is protected. But we do not have those same types of protections based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identities.
LYDEN: Are there any specific cases of bias in Kentucky that you've had to deal with?
HARTMAN: Unfortunately, yes. As recent as last year in the city of Richmond, Kentucky, we had a young lesbian couple taking maternity photos in a park. They were asked by their photographer to share a brief kiss. When they did, a park attendant approached them, said we don't accept your kind here and forced them to leave the premises.
LYDEN: How about in housing?
HARTMAN: In Elizabethtown, a gentleman - he and his partner who had been looking for their perfect apartment, they found it after months of searching. They went to sign the lease, and they were told in no uncertain terms that they would not rent a one-bedroom apartment to two people of the same gender.
LYDEN: Do you think that this type of discrimination is more pervasive in rural areas?
HARTMAN: It certainly is a problem in places that don't have these types of discrimination protections and what we call fairness laws. This type of discrimination occurs in many places. But in places that don't have these types of protections, people who are prone to prejudice or who would commit discriminatory acts are emboldened to do so when leaders in their community will not step up and extend these types of antidiscrimination fairness protections. It's true in most of Kentucky and in all Southern states that do not have these antidiscrimination fairness ordinances.
LYDEN: So do you think that there's quite a ways to go before activists can declare that the war for gay civil rights has been won?
HARTMAN: Absolutely. In a lot of places in the country, folks feel that we're so close that marriage is sort of the final frontier. And, of course, Barack Obama has created some watershed civil rights moments. But in a state like Kentucky, where you can still be fired from your job, it feels like the battle has just begun.
LYDEN: That's Chris Hartman, the director of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, Kentucky.
In Wyoming, Cathy Connolly is the first openly gay representative there. She's working to get gay rights legislation passed, a tough seat in a conservative state where Connolly is one of just eight Democrats of the 60-member House. She represents Laramie. Laramie is the city that became infamous for the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard who was targeted for being gay.
REPRESENTATIVE CATHY CONNOLLY: GLBTQ individuals don't want to wake up in the morning and say to themselves, oh, my goodness, I'm gay and I live in Wyoming. In fact, what we want to and need to do is just go to work, have our lives, live with our families, be active in our communities and just have sexuality like everyone else's sexuality, just be part of who we are.
LYDEN: And while Connolly says that Wyoming's come a long way, the job's not done.
CONNOLLY: We need relationship recognition. We need antidiscrimination laws. We need to be able to raise our families without needing to worry about legal documentation. So the struggle is not over with, especially not here in Wyoming.
LYDEN: Part of the struggle has also been reflected in popular culture. In shows like "Will and Grace" and "Glee" and nearly 20 years ago in the television show "My So-Called Life." In 1994, "My So-Called Life" developed a cult following, in part because one of its principle characters, the Puerto Rican teenager who comes out to his family and is then kicked out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MY SO-CALLED LIFE")
WILSON CRUZ: It's sort of like I don't have a place to live.
LYDEN: That's actor Wilson Cruz playing Rickie Vasquez. He got the role when he was just 19, and it mimicked his own life. He had just come out to his family, and his father kicked him out. He was homeless.
CRUZ: I lived in that car for a few months and on friends' couches until we started shooting the series "My So-Called Life."
LYDEN: Your parents just couldn't adjust quickly in those days?
CRUZ: My father couldn't adjust very quickly. My mother was fine. And I remember when I auditioned for Mary Goldberg and said to her, you know, regardless of whether or not I'm cast, I want to thank you. I'm grateful that they're even attempting to put this on television because I knew how powerful it would be to me to see it and how powerful it would've been for me as a teenager to have seen Rickie Vasquez on television.
LYDEN: To see an openly gay character on television, to see a role model that you could identify with.
CRUZ: Right. I mean, you know, for the most part, even sadly still, most of the LGBT characters that we see are white men and...
LYDEN: And you were not.
CRUZ: ...and I was not a white male. And Rickie really was saddling a few different communities. He was half black and half Puerto Rican.
LYDEN: Did people write to you? Did people say the fact that you play this gay Hispanic teenager on TV that it was something that helped validate their own lives?
CRUZ: Yes. People still write to me today about Rickie Vasquez. And to be sitting at a bar and having a young person come up to me in tears, letting me know how they were affected and how they were, for the first time, able to see themselves mirrored and their experience is still very, very moving to me. I can tear up right now just thinking about it.
LYDEN: No backlash then, I gather. Nothing...
CRUZ: No. I...
LYDEN: In the Hispanic community, for example.
CRUZ: We were waiting for it, let's be honest, and there was none. And I think that really had to do a lot with the way that Rickie Vasquez was written. He was the moral compass of that show. He was the perfect person to convey the message at the time.
LYDEN: When you watch TV today, do you see a kind of diversity, at least, when it comes to human sexuality that you think, wow, if I hadn't been that character all those years ago, maybe I wouldn't be looking at this?
CRUZ: I do. Do I wish I saw more? Yes. But when I look at, for instance, "Glee" and I look at an actor and a character like Unique who's a transgendered young girl, I think that actor won't know - be effective of that portrayal until - like I did - until he's much older and hears from fans. I look at Chris Colfer and the way that he's handled himself and how he's portrayed that character. I feel like I may be, you know, the grand daddy of them all. And I couldn't be prouder.
LYDEN: That's actor Wilson Cruz who played Rickie Vasquez, one of the first gay Hispanic roles on television. Today, the struggle for gay minorities is still harder. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs finds that gay people of color make up nearly 90 percent of the hate murder victims. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.