By Scott Theis, Managing Editor
Same-sex marriage and gay rights have been the topic of much debate since 1996 when the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law. Over the course of the last year, DOMA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The result was that the Federal Government would have to recognize same-sex marriages as long as they were performed in states where it was legal. But, the Supreme Court did not extend the right to all 50 states. This forced gay rights activists to start a drawn out state-by-state legal battle to overturn state bans. The month of February saw an uptick in victories for gay rights activists while simultaneously states tried new tactics to halt that progress. And, in one African nation, punishment for homosexuality (which was already illegal) was made more severe.
Domestically, February alone saw two US Federal Courts overturn bans in Virginia and Texas on same-sex marriage, making them the third and fourth state victories this year bringing the total of states to 21 overall. The verdicts were stayed on the same day the decisions were handed down pending appeal. The Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring, has said the state will not defend the ban and will actually argue for the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit. Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe, agrees with the Attorney General’s decision as do the people of Virginia where support for same-sex marriage has reached 55% according to an NBC News/Marist Poll. The Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, has said he will be filing an appeal with the Supreme Court. Support for same-sex marriage among Texans is only at 34% according to polling data from Public Policy Polling.
Along with the busting of bans, the state of Kentucky lost a lawsuit that will now force them to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other states. A US District Court Judge found that Kentucky’s law treated “gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them.” The case solely dealt with the issue of recognition of already legal marriages. There is currently another suit contesting Kentucky’s ban working its way through the court system.
Gay rights activists continue to win legal battles, but there were also some barriers broken in the world of sports this past month. Former Mizzou defensive linemen and NFL hopeful Michael Sam declared to the world he was gay on ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines’. There has never been an openly gay player in the NFL, although, a number of former players have come out after retiring. While Sam is hoping to make it to the NFL, Jason Collins became the first openly gay active player in any of the four major sports leagues in North America. Collins came out last May in an issue of Sports Illustrated after the conclusion of the ’12-’13 NBA season. He was a free agent at the time and did not play this season until he signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 23. Many gay rights activists feel these are encouraging steps towards social equality as professional sports have been viewed as a largely “homophobic environment.”
The month was not without its share of potential setbacks for gay rights though. Multiple state legislatures including Kansas, Mississippi and Arizona passed “Religious Liberty” bills. The bills allow businesses and religious organizations to refuse service to homosexuals if goes against their religious beliefs. Some bills even went so far as to allow discrimination by government workers leading to concerns that emergency service workers like policemen and fire fighters could refuse to help homosexuals. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer decided to veto her state’s bill after enormous pressure from the likes of Apple and the NFL to do so. Many state legislators have also decided to pull support from the bills they initially voted for after public backlash.
Gay rights also took a hit internationally last month as Uganda signed stronger anti-gay legislation into law. Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, signed the bill after numerous threats from Western countries that they would pull financial aid if The President did so. The law states that homosexual acts could be punishable by up to life in prison. The original proposed bill included the death penalty as a potential punishment, but was subsequently removed after pressure from Western countries. The law also criminalized not reporting homosexuals or homosexual acts prompting one tabloid to publish the names of 200 homosexuals. In response to the new law, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Now that this law has been enacted, we are beginning an internal review of our relationship with the government of Uganda.” Homosexuality is now criminalized in 38 of 54 African nations, according to Amnesty International.
The forward momentum of gay rights in this country has sped up dramatically over the last decade. Gay rights activists feel that equality is a birth right of all people and not just of those who happen to be heterosexual. The prevailing belief is that in the near future, the Supreme Court will finally take up one of these same-sex marriage cases to give us a definitive answer on the issue. Until that day, activists are going to keep trying to win the battle state-by-state.