From President Obama’s inauguration to the National Equality March, the last 12 months brought a variety of real and symbolic change for LGBT Americans. Marriage was the top story of the year, but here are the 10 other biggest stories of 2009.
Barack Obama becomes 44th president: Telling a massive National Mall crowd that, “all are equal, all are free,” Barack Obama became the nation’s 44th president Jan. 20. Gays from across the country joined the estimated 1.8 million people on Capitol Hill who watched Obama take the oath of office. Seconds after Obama took the oath, a detailed narrative describing Obama’s support for gay rights legislation was published to the White House web site. The page noted Obama’s support for a gay and transgender inclusive hate crimes bill, an employment non-discrimination bill covering gays and transgender people, and overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” among other issues. The section also mentioned Obama’s call to repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and his support for new legislation that would provide full marriage-related rights and benefits for same-sex couples joined in civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Nation mourns Kennedy: Sen. Edward Kennedy was remembered as the LGBT community’s “strongest advocate in the United States Senate” when he died in August at age 77. Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese noted that Kennedy championed LGBT issues in Congress before doing so was politically acceptable and offered a strong voice of support in the 1980s when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began taking the lives of gay men. Kennedy went on to become a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage and in 1996 was among 14 senators to vote on the Senate floor against the Defense of Marriage Act. He also spoke on the Senate floor against the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004. “Make no mistake,” he said, “a vote for the federal marriage constitutional amendment is a vote against civil unions, domestic partnerships and other efforts by states to treat gays and lesbians fairly under the law.”
Gay federal workers get limited benefits: President Obama took what activists described as his “first step” on gay civil rights in June when he signed a presidential memorandum granting a limited number of federal employee benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers. Among the new benefits were long-term care insurance and the use of sick time to care for a domestic partner and non-biological, non-adopted child. Additionally, the same-sex partners of U.S. Foreign Service workers were granted access to the use of medical facilities at overseas posts, medical evacuation privileges from such posts and inclusion of same-sex families in overseas housing allocations. Notably absent from the list was health insurance and retirement benefits. White House officials said the administration is prohibited from providing the perks to the same-sex partners of federal workers without a change in the civil service personnel statute and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Gay man leads U.S. Office of Personnel Management: John Berry became the Obama administration’s highest-ranking openly gay official in May when he was sworn in as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The ceremony notably occurred at OPM headquarters in Northwest Washington — the same building where officials once carried out a policy that allowed them to deny employment to gays seeking federal jobs. On hand for the event was longtime gay civil rights activist Frank Kameny, who was fired by the federal government in 1957 because of his sexual orientation. Berry lauded Kameny, noting that Kameny’s work made Berry’s appointment possible. “For that, Frank, I personally thank you for your leadership, your passion, and your persistence and express our nation’s appreciation for your courage in teaching America to live up to our promise and our potential,” Berry said.
Obama cheered at Pride event: President Obama and his wife won cheers and shouts of “I love you!” from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists during a White House celebration in June commemorating Pride and marking the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. The gathering came as many activists urged the president to take greater action on LGBT issues, including the repeal of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama told the crowd that the nation “cannot — and will not — put aside issues of basic equality” and that he seeks “an America in which no one feels the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love.”
Lesbian elected mayor of Houston: Gay rights advocates heralded the victory of lesbian Annise Parker in her bid to become Houston’s next mayor as a triumph for LGBT Americans. Parker, a Democrat and city controller for Houston, won the December election after taking 53 percent of the vote. Her win marked the seventh time she’d won a citywide election in Houston and made the city the most populous in the country to elect an openly LGBT mayor. Paul Scott, executive director for Equality Texas, said Parker’s victory was significant on many levels. “I think in some ways, we’ve seen the ceiling being broken, not only within the Houston area and Texas, but also nationally in terms of an open lesbian being elected into the highest-level office in the metropolitan area for the fourth largest city in the country,” he said.
Justice Department criticized for DOMA defense: Gay activists were outraged in June when the U.S. Justice Department defended the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act by citing child rearing and procreation as reasons why a court should dismiss a legal challenge of it. Some gay Democratic activists who supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election said administration insiders told them the president was not directly consulted on the brief’s wording, but he nonetheless drew significant criticism. When the Justice Department acted again in August to defend DOMA against a separate challenge, the language was toned down and included a note that “this administration does not support DOMA as a matter of policy, believes that it is discriminatory, and supports its repeal.”
Washington Blade ends 40-year run: After chronicling the LGBT community for 40 years, the Washington Blade published its final issue Friday, Nov. 13. Abruptly forced to close as its parent company, Window Media, went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the Blade was widely acknowledged as the LGBT community’s newspaper of record. It covered a range of issues — from the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to the advent of same-sex marriage — with a depth unmatched by mainstream media outlets. But coverage of local and national LGBT issues did not end when the Blade locked its doors. Strongly supported by Blade advertisers and readers, the newspaper’s staff quickly founded a new publication and distributed the first issue Nov. 20. The DC Agenda, a local, employee-owned business, is now in its seventh week.
Obama signs hate crimes bill: Despite several efforts to derail the bill, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in October as part of the Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Authorization Act. The act allows the Justice Department to assist in the prosecution of hate crimes based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, among other categories. “After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens form violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are,” Obama said. Opponents had argued the law was tantamount to creating thought crimes and could limit free speech rights.
National Equality March hits Washington: Tens of thousands of protesters descended on the nation’s capital in October to urge Congress and President Obama to extend full legal equality to LGBT people. Featuring a mix of veteran speakers and young faces, the weekend event included a march past the White House that ended outside the U.S. Capitol. Participants carried rainbow-colored flags and held signs calling for immediate action to enact equality. The bright, nearly cloudless sky and unseasonably warm weather welcomed crowds as several high-profile speakers called the participants to action. “If you believe we are equal, then it is time to act like it,” said Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist and one of the chief organizers of the march. “A free and equal people do not tolerate prioritization of their rights. They do not accept compromises. They do not accept delays.”