A Year in LGBT Issues

What we were talking about in 2011

DADT repealed. Marriage equality in the headlines. Bullying. Transgender awareness. And all of the LGBT issues on the front lines. Not even the presidential debates were spared from tackling some of the most talked-about issues today impacting the gay community. The Williams Institute at UCLA studied some of the most important developments in the last 12 months – highlighting not only the achievements in gay rights this year, but also what we may be able to look forward to in the new year.

“This year, the federal government demonstrated its commitment to collecting and utilizing research to inform policy that impacts the lives of LGBT families, workers, service members and youth,” explains Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute, and assistant dean of the UCLA School of Law. “On every major LGBT policy issue, we’re seeing the power of research in action.”

In 2011, there were a few changes in federal policy – like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the hopeful repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which eliminates rights for married same-sex couples – even in states where gay marriage is legal.

This year, the Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services also began gathering new data about the lives and experiences of LGBT people around the country. Not only does the research help debunk myths, but it highlights new needs and clarifies how best to draft future policy that is responsive and inclusive of the LGBT community.

“Research has long suggested that the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ would have no negative impact on military readiness,” says Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center. “Now, our job is to use research to highlight and address remaining issues such as the service of transgender troops.”

New York also became the newest state to legalize same-sex marriage this year. During the marriage debate in New York, it was estimated that the state would enjoy more than $100 million in new wedding spending in the first year alone. Other research on the state budget impact of marriage or civil unions informed debates that led to passage of civil unions in both nearby Delaware and Rhode Island.

Data from the 2010 Decennial Census was also reported during the summer. It revealed that 132,000 (20 percent) of the nearly 650,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. identified as spouses. More than one in six same-sex couples (17 percent) were raising children, but childrearing was more common among couples who identified as spouses (31 percent) compared to unmarried partners (14 percent).

A new report also found that 3.8 percent of adults self-identify as LGBT, 8.2  percent have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, and 11 percent report same-sex attraction. The data challenges the common perception that 10 percent of the general population is LGBT.

Understanding the nuances of the community also impacted international relations this year, as the Obama administration promised that aid would be based on human rights policies globally. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also gave an important speech about LGBT rights being “human rights” during a U.N. event.

“In her speech before the United Nations Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Clinton delivered the most expansive statement framing LGBT rights as human rights ever made by a high-ranking American official, raising the bar on American efforts at home and abroad to ensure equality for LGBT people,” explains Nan Hunter, legal scholarship director of the Williams Institute, and professor of law and associate dean for graduate programs and Georgetown University’s Law Center in D.C.

Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also announced in June that the Department of Health and Human Services will begin to collect and include health questions relating to sexual orientation, as well as begin a process to collect information on gender identity, under the Affordable Care Act in 2013. Such data collection has been done for other minority populations, but never before for LGBT people. The decision followed a first-time report, sponsored by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, which compiles what is known about LGBT health and outlines a future research agenda.

“The Department of Justice’s determination that courts should presume the unconstitutionality of laws that discriminate against LGBT people caused a shift in the Administration’s position in lawsuits testing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the Defense of Marriage Act,” says Jennifer C. Pizer, legal director of the Williams Institute, “and may signal the DOJ’s position in future challenges to laws and public policies at the federal, state or local level that disadvantage LGBT people.”

In Attorney General Eric Holder’s February 23, 2011, memo to Congress, he set out the DOJ’s position that classifications in laws and government policies based on sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened standard of constitutional review due to the long history of discrimination against LGBT people, among other factors.

While federal purges had been documented previously, there was little research that showed how those purges similarly ended careers at the state and local level. The DOJ’s position also informed a federal court ruling in the successful challenge to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (Log Cabin Republicans v. United States), where the court noted that the DOJ had taken the position that classifications based on sexual orientation should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, and no longer contended the policy was constitutional.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also awarded a historic $13.3 million grant to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center last year as a way to address the enormous problem of gay homelessness about the LGBT’s community’s youth.

“This year,” says Bianca Wilson, Williams Senior Scholar of Public Policy, “we began implementation of a first-ever federal research project that will improve services to LGBTQ homeless and at risk youth.”

Other issues that were on our radar this year:

It Gets Better: More and more celebrities and real people showed support for young LGBT people who are bullied.

Transgender Awareness: Chaz Bono became the first transgender person to appear on the popular TV show Dancing With the Stars. But his appearance on the show came with no shortage of controversy. Meanwhile, Harmony Santana helped pave the way for other transgender actors and actresses thanks to her acclaimed performance in the indie flick Gun Hill Road. She’s been living as a trans woman since last year.

Heroes: Daniel Hernandez, Jr., found his way into the spotlight after aiding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she was shot in Arizona this year. Hernandez was even honored at Equality Forum. Many openly gay and lesbian service members also put their own careers on the line during the controversial debates about DADT, yielding a new era for all LGBT military people in the U.S.

Sports: Several professional sports teams, including the Phillies, took a stand against bullying, while others were caught making homophobic remarks (we’re looking at you, Kobe). Meanwhile, guys like Gareth Thomas – an openly gay rugby player – prove that sexual orientation has nothing to do with scoring on the field.

Giving Back: Lady Gaga created a foundation to raise money for LGBT issues, reiterating her popular catch phrase about being “Born This Way.” Photographer Adam Bouska created his famous NOH8 campaign to protest California’s Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage (which is currently being repealed thanks to a gay judge who called in unconstitutional).

Entertainment: Shows like Modern Family and Ellen continued to show that being gay is a fact of life. Viewership for shows like these with LGBT characters or personalities only grew this year.

Obituaries: We also lost people this year, like Frank Kameny – one of the most influential gay activists in the country who helped eliminate anti-gay firing practices in the federal government. On a local level, we mourn the passing of R. Keith Burns, the executive director of COLOURS.

What do you think some of the most notable LGBT issues were in 2011? Please share them with us.