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Gay life: Change and challenge

By Jonathan Mandell
CNN
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(CNN) -- To understand how much gay life in the United States has changed -- and how challenging it remains -- consider the story of the Dillards, Sharon and Tanya, who describe themselves as "a typical family with soccer, brand new puppies, church, choir and not enough time in the day."

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The Dillard family -- clockwise from left, Tanya, Sharon, Emma, Sam -- moved from Oklahoma to Massachusetts, and are moving back.

When Sharon was born in 1962, homosexuality was treated in the country as a sin, a crime and a mental illness.

It was only in 1974 -- the year after Tanya was born -- that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders.

In 2003, the year Sharon and Tanya became a couple, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the laws in states that singled out same-sex relations for criminal prosecution.

Is homosexuality still viewed as a sin? A recent Gallup Poll found Americans nearly evenly split between those who saw homosexual relations as "morally acceptable" (47 percent) and those who saw them as "morally wrong" (49 percent).

Some religious denominations now welcome gay parishioners and accept openly gay members of the clergy. The Episcopal Church in America has even consecrated an openly gay bishop. But some of those same denominations, including the Episcopalians, are now threatened with schism as a result.

Sharon, who grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, has a saying about the reaction of the religious in her home state: "In Oklahoma, I have more people praying for me than with me."

THE ISSUES

Job discrimination: While a growing number of companies in the United States provide benefits and protections for their LGBT employees, it is still legal in 33 states for an employer to fire employees based on their sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and legal in 42 states to do so based on gender identity. Several members of Congress in April introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007, the latest version of some three decades of federal legislative efforts to address the issue, none successful.

Hate crimes: There have been more than 113,000 hate crimes since 1991, according to the F.B.I., which says that 14 percent of them were motivated by a bias against sexual orientation. The House of Representatives voted in May to add gender, sexual orientation, and disability to the categories already covered by federal hate crimes law. President George W. Bush has promised to veto.

Military service: In the two recent CNN-sponsored debates, all eight Democratic presidential contenders indicated they wanted to change the "don't ask, don't tell" policy so that gays and lesbians could serve openly in the military; all 10 Republican contenders said they did not.

In one instance, the couple applied for membership in a Lutheran church in Oklahoma. Though they were eventually accepted, it was only after much debate and an unprecedented vote by the elders of the church.

A couple of years after they met in Ponca City, Oklahoma, Sharon and Tanya decided to make a big move to Massachusetts, which since 2004 has been the only one of 50 states to permit same-sex couples to get married legally. More than 8,500 couples have done so, including at least one couple from Oklahoma.

They did so for at least three reasons. First, both wanted to adopt the son and daughter that Sharon had adopted as a single parent.

Second, Tanya was a police officer and says she started having problems on the job because of her sexual orientation.

Third, the couple say they wanted to "validate" their relationship.

The were legally married on January 21, 2005, in a small ceremony at the courthouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at which time Sharon took Tanya's last name of Dillard.

Now, the Dillards have decided to move back to Oklahoma -- one of 27 states that have passed an amendment to their constitutions outlawing same-sex couples from getting married and denying recognition of such a marriage "performed in another state."

In doing so, they will be forced to navigate a shifting patchwork of state and federal laws giving them different rights in different states.

But they say they want their children to be near their grandparents, and Sharon has "a wonderful job offer in Oklahoma," where she'll be working as director of oncology services at a university medical center. "We are hopeful that views are beginning to change there."

Anthony Wilfert is hoping change will come too -- to the military. For him, though, it will come too late.

Now 22 and originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Wilfert reached the rank of sergeant while serving for three years in the Army, including a recently completed 12-month tour of Iraq. Then he was discharged for being gay.

"There are many, many gay and lesbian and bisexual members of the military who are hiding," he said.

But how many? How does one count people who are hiding? As visible as homosexuality has become, especially in politics and popular culture, there are still some basic questions about what supporters now call the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community that are only beginning to be answered.

"Sexual orientation is not a routinely asked question on surveys," explains Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Gates has nevertheless pieced together a picture based on what little data exists, with the aid of what he calls "statistical wizardry."

Gates offers as a "reasonable estimate" some 8.8 million Americans who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. "We know very little about transgender," he says.

He extrapolates from U.S. census data that there are at least 770,000 same-sex couples who live together, and that such couples live in 99 percent of all counties in the United States.

"About 27 percent of same-sex couples have children in the home," Gates says. Most are natural-born offspring and the remainder are adopted, stepchildren, or relatives such as nieces and nephews.

Using the same statistical methods, Gates estimates there are some 65,000 gay and lesbian Americans on active military duty or in the reserves.

For all the furor over gays in the military and same-sex marriage there are a number of other significant issues separating the LGBT community from the rest of society.

Issues like job discrimination, anti-gay hate crimes, health issues, hospital visitation rights and the right to determine medical treatment for a partner are very important, not only to the LGBT community, but also to a society at large that needs to deal with the legal, social, economic and moral implications of these issues. Still, gay marriage and gays in the military feature prominently in public discourse and are already big issues in the 2008 presidential campaign.

There are strong emotions on both sides. It was his emotions, Wilfert said, that finally provoked him to take a stand.

"I was sick of hiding who I was; it's exhausting coming up with some lie about having a girlfriend back home, it really is," he says. "And I no longer wanted to work for an organization that was discriminating against me."

He waited until he was home from Iraq -- "I wanted to serve my country" -- and then he wrote a note to his commander, revealing his sexual orientation. He was discharged shortly afterward.

"It's a touchy subject, but America will have to come around to accepting a change in the policy," said Wilfert, now living in Nashville, Tennessee. "Each new generation has accepted more diversity. Eventually, with the new generation, it's going to change." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Gay and Lesbian Relationships

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