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Activists hail a watershed moment in gay rights movement

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 11:56 AM EST, Sat February 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gay rights proponents say there has been sustained momentum in the effort to bring change
  • Activists credit Barack Obama for creating a more tolerant climate
  • The Boy Scouts of America is expected to make a decision on its anti-gay policy
  • The Supreme Court will hear two same-sex marriage cases in March

(CNN) -- In the next few days, the Boy Scouts of America is expected to announce whether it plans to change its longstanding national policy against openly gay members.

Many parents of Scouts have voiced their concerns, saying homosexuality goes against the teachings of their faith. But many others find the ban on gays out of sync with the ideals of scouting -- and of the nation as a whole.

The Boy Scouts controversy perhaps illustrates where America stands on gay rights.

Divided, still. But many more Americans empathize with gay Americans today. Many of those who have been crusading for decades to win more rights now say they have reached a precipice.

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Polls show the public has gradually become more accepting of same-sex marriage, for instance. More Americans favor it in 2013 than oppose, according to the Pew Research Center.

Veteran activists feel America has reached a watershed moment in its writing of gay rights history. Defeats now -- whether with the Boy Scouts or in upcoming Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage -- would break with the momentum that has been steadily building for many months.

"Watershed? No, it's a tidal wave," said Mark Segal, a longtime activist who is often called the dean of gay journalism -- he is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News.

Segal and other activists liken their struggle for civil rights to the battles against sexism and racism, except their movement has yet to yield laws that afford them the full protections and rights given to women and racial minorities.

But they are hopeful, given the progress in recent months, that they will see the fruition of their struggles in their lifetime.

San Francisco activist Cleve Jones said in all his 40 years of work, he has never seen movement like this.

"Two-thousand-twelve was an extraordinary year," he said. "We've begun 2013 with a remarkable and moving statement. The burst of progress has been sustained."

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Big things are about to happen, he said, including the Supreme Court decisions.

He was confident the court would rule in favor of gay rights.

"The opposition is just melting away," Jones said about public opinion on homosexuality. "We have reached the hearts and minds of the American people."

There is, he said, no turning back the clock.

A nod to Stonewall

Segal was 18 when he left home in Philadelphia for New York. He moved there because he was gay and wanted to be in a more accepting environment.

It was a time when the American Psychiatric Association regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder. Some were subjected to lobotomies as cures. Being gay could result in a life sentence: 20 states had laws that deemed homosexuality a reason for imprisonment.

One June 28, 1969, one month after he arrived in the city, Segal found himself on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, the heart of the gay community.

It was illegal then for bars to serve alcohol to gay customers. It was illegal to be in drag, or for same-sex couples to dance together.

Segal was in the Stonewall Inn when the police raided it, like they often did.

Only that night, for the first time, the gay men in the bar stood up against police aggression. Their rebellion sparked days of riots and Stonewall became the signature start of America's gay rights movement.

Segal, 62, went on to become a prominent gay rights activist. Two weeks ago, on Inauguration Day, he heard President Barack Obama's speech at home on television.

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"We the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth." Segal sat up, chills went down his back at the mention of Stonewall.

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He'd been beaten, arrested, called the worst of names. Now the president was equating gay rights to women's rights, to civil rights. He was pledging to make things right.

It was thrilling, too, for Jones, 58. He worked with Harvey Milk, one of America's first openly gay politicians, who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until his assassination in 1978. Jones was also the man behind the AIDS Quilt, which documented the lives of thousands who perished in the epidemic.

"I am kind of beside myself. I have to pinch myself sometimes," he said. "I never thought I would live long enough to see this. Never. Ever."

He pointed to electoral victories in November in which voters in Washington, Maryland and Maine approved same-sex marriage. Six other states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York -- and the District of Columbia already recognized same-sex marriage. Gay couples can even marry now in the National Cathedral.

In Wisconsin, voters elected the country's first openly gay U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin. Shortly after, Richard Blanco became the first openly gay poet to read at a presidential inauguration. The Boy Scouts of America said it was reconsidering its anti-gay policy. Fast food chain Chick-fil-A, under fire in July for its financial support of anti-gay groups, stopped making those donations. Marriott Corp., founded by Mormons, joined a coalition of big businesses in fighting the Defense of Marriage Act.

On Tuesday, Obama announced an immigration reform plan that includes protections for same-sex bi-national couples. The next day, the Internet was on fire with objections to anti-gay comments made by San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culver. Culver apologized in yet another example of how much more tolerant America has become of gay Americans.

All this comes after Obama publicly endorsed same-sex marriage in May. The year before, the U.S. military repealed its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, allowing gay men and women to serve openly.

Jones credits much of the progress to Obama, anointed by Newsweek magazine as "the first gay president," after his endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Obama's election in 2008 was a milestone -- for black America and for gay America -- Jones said. But there was more to the story.

On the same day that Obama was elected in 2008, voters in California passed Proposition 8, which effectively banned same-sex marriages after the state's high court had ruled them legal.

"It was a slap in the face for younger generations," Jones said.

That was also a year that Sean Penn won an Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk. Jones said he believes the passage of Prop 8 along with the celluloid version of Milk's story helped galvanize a new generation of people to campaign for gay rights.

He has been working to sustain the momentum. Critical, he said, are the same-sex marriage hearings in the Supreme Court in late March. Jones is helping plan a day of action on March 25, the anniversary of the arrival of civil rights marchers from Selma at the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.

"How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in Selma.

That's how Jones looks at today's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement. "If someone had told me in 1972 I would be campaigning for joining the military or for marriage, I'd be laughing," he said. "Now I really believe I am going to see us win our political battle."

Progress, but not finished

Michael Shutt attended an "Out for Equality" ball during the inauguration festivities in Washington. Everyone, he said, was talking about the importance of the president's speech in terms of the movement. Just that people were talking about LGBT issues was a big step, Shutt felt.

He returned home to Atlanta to attend a five-day leadership conference of about 3,000 LGBT activists. Shutt, who is director of Emory University's LGBT Campus Life office, said one of his students was so moved that he cried through every session.

The mood this year was different.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which sponsored the "Creating Change" conference in Atlanta, said in her opening statement that for many years, participants have convened still feeling the sting of the ballot box. Other years, they came together to lift each other up in the face of legal losses and policy disappointments.

"This is not that year," she told the conference last week. "This year was the year when enough people stood together, joined together and said, 'Enough.'"

She mentioned progress in every sphere, a "watershed moment 40 years in the making." But she warned that much work remained to be done.

A loving gay couple can get married, have the wedding of their dreams, come home, put a picture on their desk of their honeymoon and then get fired, legally, for doing so.

"There are 29 states that lack any semblance of protections," she said. "LGBT people lack the very foundational protections that so many have sought in this country."

"We are so thankful for the progress we have made but now is not the time to rest," she said, "because there are so many people who are experiencing discrimination simply because of who they are and who they love."

Emory's Shutt said, for example, that much work still needs to be done with educating young people and providing ample support for LGBT students on college campuses.

Notre Dame announced in December that it will create services for LGBT students on campus, a huge step for a Catholic university. More than 220 colleges and universities have such services now, Shutt said. But there are more than 6,000 colleges in America.

"That gives you the scope of it," he said.

Shutt was born in 1973, the year that homosexuality was no longer regarded a mental disorder, the year that Lambda Legal and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force were founded. When he went to college at Michigan State University, the climate was not favorable for anyone to be openly gay.

Carey believes that one of Obama's biggest contributions through his public statements is that he has helped create a space for people who are supportive of LGBT people to stand up and say so. After Obama's remarks on same-sex marriage, she said, the NAACP and La Raza joined in his support.

"That made a difference," Carey said.

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A brother who paved the way

Susan Browning-Chriss wishes her brother had been able to listen to Obama's embrace of gay rights in his inaugural address.

He would have been thrilled, she is sure, to know the nation had come far enough to have a president stand on the steps of the Capitol and pledge equality for gay Americans.

"That was opening a door that will lead us to a lot of good places," she said.

Her brother Michael Hardwick was arrested in 1986 for having consensual sex with a man in his Atlanta home under an archaic sodomy law. He challenged the law and for a while made the rounds on television talking about the case.

He became an accidental activist; an ex-boyfriend even called him the Joan of Arc of the gay world.

His lawyers thought surely the Supreme Court would rule in Hardwick's favor. It didn't.

A dozen years later, in 1998, Georgia repealed its sodomy law after the state's high court declared it unconstitutional. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its own ruling in the Hardwick case when it struck down a ''deviant sexual intercourse'' law in Texas.

Hardwick didn't live to see any of the legal progress.

Devastated by his legal defeat, he died in obscurity in 1991, when AIDS was ravaging the nation and two years before a movie about the illness, "Philadelphia," portrayed the disease to mainstream America.

Two decades later, his sister hailed him as a pioneer, a man who helped make things better for her own two children, who are both gay.

"I am sorry he is not alive to see all the changes," Browning-Chriss said.

Browning-Chriss is thankful for the path her brother helped pave and content that her daughter can live happily with her partner, even have children.

Every movement has people who are out front, Browning-Chriss said. She is proud her brother was one of those people in a movement that has come of age.

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Hard-fought battle

In a few days the Boy Scouts will probably make a decision on its national policy. It has indicated that it may very well pass membership decisions to the local level.

In the meantime, the battle lines have been drawn, as they have been for every other hurdle faced by gay rights proponents.

Opponents of gay membership have urged people to contact the Boy Scouts and let their opinions be known. Proponents have done the same.

No one is doubting the importance of this particular fight or the ones coming up in the nation's highest court, but many gay rights proponents are buoyed in their belief that a majority of America now stands with them in achieving equal rights for LGBT people. For the first time, they feel victory within reach.

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