Landmark Year For Gay Rights

From Wal-Mart to Bride's magazine, from the U.S. Supreme Court to the Episcopal Church, 2003 produced gay rights breakthroughs so diverse and profound that even veteran activists were stunned.

"We are witnesses to our own liberation," said Kate Kendell, head of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. "By any standard of measurement, 2003 stands out as a year of unprecedented forward progress, visibility, dialogue and equality."

The historic chain of events - equally stunning to conservative forces - began in June, when the Supreme Court overturned Texas' anti-sodomy law, in effect decriminalizing gay sex in the last 13 states where such laws were on the books.

Over the next few months, the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop; Wal-Mart, the country's largest private employer, extended its antidiscrimination policy to gays and lesbians; Bride's magazine featured its first article on same-sex weddings; California lawmakers granted same-sex couples nearly all the rights of married spouses; and Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court ruled gays had a constitutional right to marry.

Even while anticipating bitter struggles ahead, particularly over marriage, gay-rights activists interpreted the events as a sign that most of their goals would be achieved, and sooner rather than later. Foes of gay rights, conversely, hoped the landmark court rulings would provoke a backlash that at minimum would thwart recognition of same-sex marriages.

"There's no question that homosexuals are seeking to fulfill their basic mission, which is to replace the one-man, one-woman relationship and create a new sexual diversity in America," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

"The courts are tilted politically in their favor, but the grass roots is overwhelmingly opposed to that agenda."

Opinion polls suggest that most Americans do oppose gay marriage, though sentiment is more evenly divided on whether same-sex couples deserve the same legal protections as heterosexual spouses. Gay-rights advocates took heart in a Gallup Poll showing broader support for gay marriage among young Americans, a finding that conservatives blamed on gay-friendly television programming.

Indeed, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," with its high-spirited gay makeover team, did so well on the cable channel Bravo that parent NBC showed reruns on network TV and arranged for the Fab Five to spruce up Jay Leno on his "Tonight Show."

"One of the things that impresses me most about 'Queer Eye' is that it shows straight men being comfortable and open with gay men in a way we haven't often seen on television," said George Chauncey, a history professor who heads the University of Chicago's Lesbian and Gay Studies Project.

Other new, gay-themed TV shows - joining established hit "Will & Grace" - included the ABC sitcom "It's All Relative" and Bravo's "Boy Meets Boy."

Laura Grindstaff, a University of California-Davis sociologist who studies popular culture, said the new shows differ markedly from earlier TV depictions of gays.

"The gayness, the queer identity, is not presented as an issue or problem to be solved - it's there as part of everyday life," she said.

"These shows present gays as fun, endearing and smart."

Some Americans, gay and straight, wondered if gay issues were getting too much attention.

"Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. Plenty of Americans are tired of hearing about it," wrote Jay Croft, a gay columnist and features editor with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I'm really worried that this is all happening too fast, that the backlash could become permanent."

Some of the deepest divisions occurred in mainline Protestant churches, notably among Episcopalians as openly gay V. Gene Robinson was consecrated the bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson's elevation triggered a left-right rift that is still developing and could ultimately split the church.

"What happened in the Episcopal Church shows irreversibly that there is a debate among people of faith over homosexuality," said Chauncey. "It will never be possible again for the Christian right to claim there is only one Christian position."

In Allison Park, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb, the Rev. Doug Pratt of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church said he and his congregation would insist that any member of the church's clergy, even in a future era of gay marriage, be celibate except in the context of a heterosexual marriage.

"There must be no thought police to force us to change our views," he said. "I can't put any court decision above the Bible."

In October, Judy Shepard issued a statement marking the fifth anniversary of the murder of her gay son, Matthew, in Wyoming. She welcomed gains achieved by gays, but said lawmakers should do more to curtail anti-gay hate crimes and prevent job discrimination.

"It is as if we are living in two Americas, one that tunes in to 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' but turns a blind eye to the injustices gay and lesbian people still face," she said.

Shepard cited reports of dozens of hate crimes during 2003, including the killing of a 15-year-old lesbian in Newark, N.J. She didn't mention the efforts of anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps to erect monuments in Wyoming, Idaho and Tennessee asserting that her son went to hell because of his homosexuality.

Nonetheless, many gays and lesbians believed acceptance was on the rise.

Mark Lewis and his partner, Dennis Winslow, are among seven New Jersey couples suing for the right to wed in their home state. Lewis said their legal efforts, and relationship, are supported by neighbors.

"We live in an apartment with senior citizens, immigrants, single parents - all kinds of not Ozzie and Harriet living situations," Lewis said. "These people have their antennas tuned to inequality, and they don't like to support it."

Said Kate Kendell, involved in gays-rights advocacy since 1988: "We're at the tipping point where most people are simply not willing to engage in the fight against us if it's about name-calling and hostility toward their fellow Americans."