December 28, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
2011: A year of milestones, tragedies, courtroom fights

The story of the year was the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Here are our picks for the rest of 2011’s top LGBT news stories.

#2 N.Y. approves marriage

New York Couples

New Yorkers celebrated same-sex marriage during June Pride. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Empire State became the sixth and most populous state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage in June when the legislature passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law a bill legalizing marriage rights for gay couples.

Upon passage of the legislation, Cuomo said New York has “finally torn down the barrier that has prevented same-sex couples from exercising the freedom to marry and from receiving the fundamental protections that so many couples and families take for granted.”

The achievement marks the first time that a Republican-controlled legislative chamber — in this case, the New York State Senate — passed legislation in this country legalizing same-sex marriage.

The law went into effect in the state on July 24. Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd, a lesbian couple from Buffalo, N.Y., wed in Niagara Falls at midnight and became the first couple in the state to benefit from the law.

 

 

#3 Rep. Barney Frank retires

Barney Frank

Rep. Barney Frank announced in November that he wouldn’t seek a 17th term in the House. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The longest-serving openly gay member of Congress announced in November that he wouldn’t seek a 17th term in the U.S. House.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), 71, was first elected to Congress in 1980. The lawmaker made his sexual orientation known in 1987 — becoming the second to do so after Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.).

Frank said redistricting in Massachusetts and his desire to retire before reaching age 75 prompted his decision not to run.

“I have enjoyed — indeed been enormously honored — by the chance to represent others in Congress and the State Legislature, but there are other things I hope to do before my career ends,” Frank said.

The lawmaker is credited with helping shepherd through the passage of hate crimes protections legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the 111th Congress. But Frank was criticized by transgender activists in 2007 for dropping gender identity protections from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The gay-only bill ultimately died in the Senate.

His most enduring legacy will likely be the passage of Wall Street reform legislation commonly known as Dodd-Frank, which he pushed through as chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

#4 Obama won’t defend DOMA; Boehner hires counsel

John Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would hire counsel to defend DOMA in court after the Obama administration said it would no longer do so. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Obama administration made a significant reversal in policy in February when it announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

In a Feb. 22 letter, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder notified Congress that laws related to sexual orientation, such as DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, should be subjected to heightened scrutiny.

“The president has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional,” Holder said.

Obama’s decision riled House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who accused the president of abandoning his constitutional duties. In March, Boehner convened the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which on a 3-2 party-line basis voted to defend the law in court in the administration’s stead.

To assist the House general counsel in defending the law, Boehner hired private attorney Paul Clement, a U.S. solicitor general under former President George W. Bush. The cost of the private attorney was initially announced at a blended rate of $520 an hour and total cost cap of $150,000, but Boehner later bumped up the cost cap to $1.5 million.

#5 Giffords shot; gay intern hailed as hero

Daniel Hernandez

Gay intern Daniel Hernandez was credited with helping to save the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The nation recoiled in horror in January after pro-LGBT Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) became one of 20 people shot people by a gunman during a town hall event in her district.

Daniel Hernandez Jr., a gay 20-year-old who had worked as an intern for Giffords for just five days at the time of the shooting, was credited with providing the first aid that saved her life.

“The attitude that I had,” Hernandez said, “was trying to make sure that those who had been injured were going to be OK, so to try to provide whatever first aid I could until someone else could come in and take over.”

Medics arrived on the scene to take Giffords and others to the University Medical Center in Arizona. Giffords slowly recovered and made her first appearance on the House floor in August to vote in favor of the agreement to raise the debt ceiling limit.

At a memorial service, President Obama called Hernandez a “hero” during his eulogy. The White House invited Hernandez — along with his father, Danny Hernandez Sr., — to sit alongside first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address in January.

#6. Clinton, Obama endorse int’l LGBT rights

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton delivered a sweeping pro-LGBT speech in December calling for other nations to respect gay rights as human rights. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December gave a high-profile speech in Geneva, Switzerland in which she spoke out against human rights abuses committed against LGBT people overseas.

During the speech, Clinton reiterated her previously held belief that human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights and said LGBT people overseas “have an ally in the United States of America.”

“It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave,” Clinton said.

Clinton gave the speech on Dec. 6 in observance of Human Rights Day, which recognizes the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly. More than 1,000 diplomats and experts were in attendance.

On the same day, President Obama issued a memorandum to government agencies urging them to step up efforts against anti-LGBT human rights abuses abroad. Among other things, the memo calls on agencies to work against the criminalization of homosexual acts overseas and directs the State Department to lead a “standing group” to respond swiftly to serious incidents threatening LGBT human rights abroad.

#7 Jamey Rodemeyer commits suicide

Year In Review: 2011

A 14-year-old from Williamsville, N.Y. took his own life in September after his parents said he was subjected to bullying in school over his sexual orientation.

Jamey Rodemeyer, who attended Williamsville North High School, took his life in an apparent hanging. Prior to his death, he sent his last message in the form of a tweet to Lady Gaga, which read, “Bye Mother Monster. Thank you for all you have done. Paws up forever.”

Rodemeyer made a video for the “It Gets Better” project, a website dedicated to preventing teen suicide, in which he identified as bisexual and described the harassment he endured from other students.

“I just want to tell you that it does get better [be]cause when I came out for being bi I got so much support from my friends and it made me feel so secure,” Rodemeyer says in the video.

Rodemeyer’s death inspired outrage across the nation. Lady Gaga told her fans via Twitter she spent the days after his suicide ”reflecting, crying and yelling.” She later met with President Obama over the issue of bullying.

#8 GOP hopefuls tout anti-gay views

Rick Santorum

Former Sen. Rick Santorum said he would resinstate ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ if elected president. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Presidential election season officially kicked off this year as Republican candidates seeking to oust President Obama from the White House touted their anti-gay views.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum likely took the prize for emphasizing anti-gay positions most often in his campaign. In addition to pledging to reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Santorum said, “our country will fail” as a result of same-sex marriage. He also raised eyebrows in August when he said same-sex marriage is like “saying this glass of water is a glass of beer.”

Activists with Truth Wins Out revealed the therapy clinic that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) co-owns with her husband, Marcus Bachmann, engages in widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy aimed at turning gay people straight. The candidate has refused to answer questions about the clinic.

A total of five contenders — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Bachmann — each penned their name to an anti-gay pledge from the National Organization for Marriage. Signing the document commits them to backing a U.S. constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage and to defending the Defense of Marriage of Act in court.

#9 Prop 8 fight continues in California

Litigation seeking to overturn Proposition 8 progressed through the courts this year amid questions over whether proponents have standing to defend the law and whether the sexual orientation of the judge who ruled against the marriage ban should have disqualified him.

In the case of Perry v. Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January sent the question of whether Prop 8 proponents had standing to defend the amendment in court to the California Supreme Court. The question emerged after state officials declined to litigate on behalf of the same-sex marriage ban.

In November, the California high court issued a unanimous decision that Protect Marriage and other groups who worked to pass the anti-gay initiative in 2008 indeed could continue the case.

Another challenge to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision emerged in April after the retired magistrate told reporters he’s gay and has been living with a same-sex partner for 10 years. Proponents of Prop 8 said Walker should have recused himself from the case.

But in June, U.S. District Judge James Ware ruled that Walker’s sexual orientation wasn’t a factor in the judge’s decision to rule against Prop 8 and upheld the previous decision. The anti-gay activists appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments on whether Walker’s sexual orientation should have disqualified him as well as whether the tapes of the trial should be made public. The appellate court has yet to make a decision on any of these issues.

#10 Solmonese steps down from HRC

Joe Solmonese

HRC President Joe Solmonese announced in August that he would step down after six years at the helm of the nation’s leading LGBT advocacy group. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The head of the Human Rights Campaign announced in August that after six years he would be stepping down as president of the nation’s largest LGBT organization.

The co-chairs of the board of directors of HRC and its sister organization, the HRC Foundation, said Joe Solmonese will remain as head of both organizations until the completion of his contract in March to ensure a smooth leadership transition.

Solmonese oversaw the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 as well as passage of hate crimes protections legislation and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But he alienated many transgender activists in 2007 when he declined to oppose a decision by House Democratic leaders to remove protections for transgender people from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The search committee seeking Solmonese’s replacement is being co-chaired by board members Joni Madison of North Carolina and Dana Perlman of Los Angeles. The replacement has yet to be announced.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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