LGBT equality take a massive step forward

  • Dallas Cowboys practice squad player defensive end Michael Sam speaks to reporters after practice at the team’s headquarters on Sept. 3, 2014, in Irving, Texas.
  • United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer, right, hugs the Rev. David Wesley Brown after a news conference June 24, 2014, at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. Schaefer, who presided over his son’s same-sex wedding ceremony and vowed to perform other gay marriages if asked, can return to the pulpit after a United Methodist Church appeals panel overturned a decision to defrock him.
  • In this photo taken March 22, 2014, two Ugandan homosexuals sit in the one-room safe-house where they now live, at an undisclosed location in Uganda. The enactment of Uganda’€™s new anti-gay law has spread fear among homosexuals, forcing many to flee to so-called “€œsafe houses,” often single rooms that are more likely to be locked up day and night because of safety concerns.
  • Laverne Cox at the 2014 Gay Pride March on June 29, 2014 in New York City.
  • Protesters wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin take part in a demonstration against the country’s “anti-gay” laws outside the Embassy of the Russian Federation in London, Feb. 14, 2014.
  • Two brides kiss during their wedding ceremony to each other at the wedding registry office in St. Petersburg, Russia,  Nov. 7, 2014. The two St. Petersburg women married in the official city ceremony, seemingly circumventing Russia’s ban on same-sex marriages. One of the brides was born a man but is undergoing hormone therapy and considers herself a woman. Though her male passport identity ensured the marriage was legal by Russian law, a St. Petersburg lawmaker has vowed to nullify their wedding. 
  • Comedian Jay Leno participates in a rally to protest draconian punishment of women and gay people announced by the Sultan of Brunei outside the Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Sultan, on May 5, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. The Sultan of Brunei is planning to implement a brand of Sharia Penal Code which calls for the stoning of people for various offenses including homosexual acts, adultery, sodomy and extramarital sexual relations, a move that has been criticized by The United Nations.
  • A same-sex couple get married at the Oakland County Courthouse on March 22, 2014 in Pontiac, Michigan. A Federal judge overturned Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage on March 21, 2014.
  • Tin Ko Ko (R) and Myo Min Htet (L) celebrate at their wedding reception at Yangon on March 2, 2014. This was first ever public gay marriage in Myanmar.
  • Christopher DiCapua, left, and Oscar Cabrera kiss after saying their wedding vows on May 23, 2014, at City Hall in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania became the final Northeastern state and the 19th in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage in May. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett said he would not appeal a federal judge’s ruling that overturned the state’s 1996 ban.
  • Massachusetts Attorney General-elect Maura Healey celebrates her victory over Republican opponent John Miller in Boston. Massachusetts became the first state to elect an openly gay attorney general on Nov. 4, 2014. Nationally, gay-rights activists worry that conservative gains in Congress will hamper their bid for federal anti-bias legislation.
  • More than 75 people gathered Feb. 26, 2014 in downtown Tucson, Ariz. awaiting word from the governor’s office about her action on the controversial measure SB1062 that would allow private businesses to refuse service to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transexuals and queer people based on the business owner’s freedom of religion. The governor vetoed the bill.
  • Plaintiffs, shown left to right, Kody Partridge, Laurie Wood, Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity and Kate Call, five of the six people who brought the lawsuit against the Utah’s gay marriage ban, stand together during a gay marriage rally, Oct. 6, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

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Let’s just start with marriage equality.

When the ball dropped at midnight on Jan. 1, 2014, there were 18 states where gay and lesbian couples could legally wed. Today, at 35 states, plus the District of Columbia, that number has nearly doubled – for the second year in a row – and now spans more than half the country.

What accounts for marriage equality’s spectacular rise? The biggest gains came in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals to hear marriage equality cases out of Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin – all of which saw their bans fall in both federal district and appeals courts. The justices’ move immediately legalized marriage equality throughout those five states, which are part of the 4th, 7th, and 10th circuits. But it also doomed bans in six others – Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming – which were bound to the same 4th, 7th, and 10th circuit rulings. When the Supreme Court declined to review those decisions, marriage equality effectively became law of the land in 11 more states.

But wait, there’s more! A day after the high court’s action, the 9th Circuit became the fourth federal appeals court in the nation to rule in favor of marriage equality, clearing the way for its expansion to another five states. Some Republican officials resisted, but eventually they too lost in court.

As a constitutional right, marriage equality seemed practically invincible. But then about a month later, its appellate winning streak came to an abrupt end. In November, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, becoming the first federal appeals court to rule against marriage equality since the demise of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. The 6th Circuit’s decision was a crushing defeat for gay and lesbian couples hoping to marry in those states. But it also created a so-called “circuit split” among the appellate courts, one that the nation’s highest would likely have to resolve. When the justices return in 2015, they could very well kick off the year with a decision to take on a marriage equality case and settle the matter once and for all.

Outside the courtroom, LGBT Americans broke broke barriers as well. In May, 24-year-old Michael Sam became the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team. Though he has since been cut by the St. Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, Sam’s acceptance into the country’s most popular sports league and the relative lack of controversy over his sexual orientation marked an historic achievement for LGBT equality.

The past year’s relationship between LGBT equality and religion, however, was a bit more complicated. As marriage equality began to pick up steam, a number of state legislatures considered so-called “religious freedom” measures designed to protect people’s “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” Proponents called the legislation a necessary precaution, but LGBT advocates warned it would become a license to discriminate on religious grounds.

But while 2014 saw the rise of the “religious freedom” movement, the year also saw tremendous activism on part of civil rights for the LGBT community. In February, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer buckled under enormous pressure from major corporations and killed a religious freedom measure that passed her state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The move effectively stopped similar bills dead in their tracks, save one in Mississippi, where a state Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) went into effect on July 1. Some red states are pushing religious freedom legislation for next year, but if what happened in Arizona serves as any indication, proponents are in for a tough fight ahead.

Nationwide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community collapsed this year, following the Senate’s historic passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in 2013. Convinced the measure was unnecessary, Republican House Speaker John Boehner never put the bill on the floor, and supporters ended up withdrawing support over a broad religious exemption. But workplace protections were nevertheless secured for approximately one-fifth of the U.S. workforce in June when President Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Obama also added explicit protections for transgender employees of the federal government to an existing order barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Internationally, however, 2014 was not quite the same windfall for LGBT equality – not even close. In January, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill criminalizing same-sex relationships with up to 14 years in prison. A month later, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a measure that carried life-long prison sentences for entering into a same-sex marriage, having sex with a minor, while HIV-positive, or even just repeatedly with a person of the same sex. Uganda’s law was later struck down in the country’s constitutional court on procedural grounds, but human rights advocates see the measure as part of a rising tide of homophobia throughout Africa and parts of Asia. Gambia – another African nation – recently passed a copycat version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, and the tiny Southeast Asian country of Brunei began implementing a Sharia-based penal code that will soon impose death by stoning as a possible punishment for same-sex activity.

Brunei’s law sparked an American backlash in Beverly Hills, but no anti-gay measure earned more notoriety this year than Russia’s so-called “propaganda” law, which bans the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships among minors. In the months leading up to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, western leaders and human rights advocates repeatedly decried the propaganda law and expressed concern that it could spark violence against gay athletes and visitors during the games. The Olympics came and went without incident, but the law lives on. So, too, does the fight for LGBT equality on the world stage.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography 

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