LGBT equality take a massive step forward
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.