Gay rights advocates have expressed a lot of frustration lately — much of it aimed at the Obama administration — about the seemingly slow pace of reforms that seek to end discrimination against gay people. Indeed, watching the slow and painful death of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy over the last few weeks, when added to the inability of a Democratic administration and Congress in the last few months to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and to enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, has tested the patience of gay rights supporters.
It is important, however, to step back from the day-to-day civil rights struggles on behalf of LGBT rights to consider how far the nation has come on these issues in a relatively short period of time. When Florida’s Attorney General announced last week that he was not going to appeal the recent ruling by an appellate court striking down the state law banning gay adoption, he provided us with an opportune moment to reflect on where we are on LGBT rights in this country.
When the Florida law was enacted in 1977, more than forty states had statutes on the books making it a crime for gay people to have consensual sexual relationships in private, no state prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and no jurisdiction in the country recognized same-sex relationships in any way. Today, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to criminalize the intimate relationships of gay people, almost half of the states prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (and quite a few on the basis of gender identity as well), and about a dozen states provide significant recognition to same-sex relationships, with several of those allowing gay marriages.
One of the most remarkable transformations in social policy that has taken place since Florida enacted its adoption ban relates to the very subject of that law: the ability of lesbians and gay men to be parents. When the statute was enacted, there had been fewer than ten reported cases of openly gay people adopting anywhere in the country. Although there were some lesbians and gay men who were parents at the time, almost all of them had had children through prior heterosexual marriages. And very few gay parents were willing to be open about their sexual orientation because of the real likelihood that it might cost them their children. In fact, three years before the Florida legislature enacted the gay adoption ban, a jury in Dallas had stripped a lesbian mother of the custody of her son because she was living with her female partner, a case that received considerable coverage by the national press.
In stark contrast, there are today hundreds of thousands of openly gay and lesbian parents raising children across the country. There are no legal prohibitions limiting the access of lesbians to assisted reproductive technology. The vast majority of states do not legally bar gay people, whether single or in relationships, from adopting. And while some states prohibit surrogacy, most do not, making the pursuit of parenthood with the help of a surrogate mother an increasingly viable option for the gay men who can afford it. There are, in other words, many roads to parenthood for LGBT people today, with few legal impediments along the way.
It is unlikely that any of the Florida legislators who voted for the gay adoption ban in 1977 could have ever imagined the transformation that has taken place in American society on gay rights issues. It is true that it should not have taken thirty-three years to get rid of a law, such as Florida’s, that was enacted to send a message of disapproval of gay people. Indeed, it is astonishing that under that law, no group of individuals other than gay people–not murderers, not child abusers, not perpetrators of domestic violence–were categorically denied the opportunity to adopt children regardless of qualifications or circumstances. But this kind of law is increasingly becoming anachronistic in today’s America.
So before we get back to the daily reports on the status of the moribund “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and before we return to the efforts to repeal DOMA and enact ENDA, let us take stock of the LGBT movement’s remarkable achievements over the last three decades. Although there is undoubtedly still much work to be done, there are also may reasons to be proud of the ways in which the LGBT community, with the help of its straight allies, has helped to change the country in fundamental ways.