For many gay people, this year began with high hopes following the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama who had promised "change we can believe in." But the enthusiasm and hope seemed gradually to deflate with the passage of weeks and months in which Obama concerned himself with the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing debate over health care. There seemed no movement on any gay-related issues.
But then toward the end of the year there were signs that gays had not been entirely forgotten. The ban on HIV-infected visitors and immigrants was lifted. Health benefits for domestic partners of gay federal employees was proposed in Congress and is given a "chance" of passage. The Justice Department announced that it would not prosecute people for possession of medical marijuana in states that permitted it. And a gay-inclusive hate crimes provision was slipped into a defense authorization bill.
Except for the first there is little evidence pointing to Obama as the person prompting any of these changes, but most of them certainly would not have happened under President George Bush, or under John McCain had he been elected president in 2008.
Although gay organizations have been pushing for hate crimes legislation for several years, from what I have seen the issue never seemed to catch fire with the gay population at large. The chief issues for gays have become the irrational and insulting gay exclusion policy of the military and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act barring federal recognition and benefits for legally married same-sex partners. Obama says he opposes both policies, but so far there has been no evidence of movement on either issue.
The narrow loss of marriage rights in Maine felt like a kick in the stomach. But the narrow victory of a measure in Washington state to expand domestic partner rights was a comparative bright spot. In that connection, let us not forget that the nation's largest Lutheran body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, last summer voted to approve the ordination of people in same-sex relationships. This is good news even for nonbelievers because America is still a largely religious country and the culture often takes its tone from what its churches say and do. So this is an important move toward the legitimacy of gay relationships.
What now? You would think that 31 straight losses in votes on gay marriage would be a clue to gay activists; and the victory for domestic partnerships would suggest a path to follow. But now activists in New York state are still trying to persuade the legislature to approve gay marriage there. A final positive vote looks increasingly doubtful. I'd like gay marriage as much as the next gay person, but it doesn't look like it is going to happen anywhere for a few years. Americans seem a less opposed to civil unions. So maybe we should take what we can get right now while we continue to work for our ultimate goal.
Americans' attitudes toward gays have moved slowly in a positive direction by about one half to one percent a year for the last several years. In a few years in most states we should have public support for most of our goals. Much of this is the result of the slow replacement of older anti-gay voters by younger, more gay-positive voters.
Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to influence the military's anti-gay policy. The initiative to end "Don't Ask, Don't tell" will probably have to come from within the military itself in signals to Congress. But the military is not immune to the trends in the civilian world, so every gain we make in the civilian sphere ultimately shows up the military sphere. And the military in turn is not immune to pressure from Congress. So pressuring Congress is one indirect route to follow.
Things have suddenly become interesting again.