Why a Republican Congress means little for gay rights

Since they do useful work sometimes, I’m on the Human Rights Campaign’s mailing list. But the HRC disproportionately engages in political pandering over doing useful work, so I’m not a paying HRC member. Consequently, I receive one or two e-mails from them a week merely soliciting donations. (Even the ACLU only hits me up every month or so.)

If you’re familiar with the computer industry and how certain companies market themselves, I bet you know the term FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. HRC knows gay-rights FUD better than the TSA knows airport security theatrics. They tell the freeloaders on their e-mail list (emphasis mine):

[Your name] – we’ve got only four weeks to prepare for the next twelve months of attacks from right-wing groups and lawmakers alike. Extremists are emboldened across the country – and now there will be even more of them in Washington. They’re likely to go after marriage equality in multiple states, to introduce new bans on adoption rights, and to fight tooth and nail to roll back the anti-discrimination laws we’ve already passed. Your membership gift will serve as a clear response to the urgent threats we face. …

The Republicans are coming! They’re pushing homophobic family-values platforms and trying to undo all our hard work! Without well-funded HRC lobbyists it’s back into the closet for us!

Okay, Republicans have regained some clout in Congress. Point being…? It’s stupid to conflate party affiliation with support for queer rights, and tie the composition of Congress to progress in general. Although competition for Senate seats has been neck-and-neck for the past decade, the passing 111th Congress is the first where the Democrats have held a clear majority since the 103rd (1993 to the beginning of 1995). Likewise, House Democrats were in the minority in the 104th through 109th Congresses (so 1995 to early 2007). Numbers may be found here.

In the four years since, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act has continued to languish, the Matthew Shepard Act finally lends federal protection against LGBT hate crimes, and Congress finally repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell just days ago. These are valuable accomplishments, but most progress in the past 15 years has come at the state level. Let’s look at just one example: Same-sex partnerships, unions, and marriage from 1995 through 2006, the year the Democrats regained the House.

1996 saw the federal Defense of Marriage Act pass overwhelmingly, with “yea” votes from 32 of 47 Senate Democrats, and 118 of 198 House Democrats. Gallup polls said only 27% of Americans supported gay marriage.

1997: Hawaii started registering “reciprocal beneficiaries” who are otherwise prohibited at the state level from marrying.

1999: California created the first state domestic partnership registry.

2000: Vermont introduced the first US civil unions.

2002: After 10 years, Republicans in Congress ceased blocking the implementation of District of Columbia domestic partnerships.

2003: The Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas invalidated laws in 14 states treating sodomy as a crime. (The first state sodomy law to fall was Illinois’ in 1962; Nebraska got rid of its own law in 1978.)

2004: Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. New Jersey and Maine enacted domestic partnership laws.

2005: Connecticut introduced civil unions.

2006: New Jersey passed a law allowing civil unions. Gallup reported that 42% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. However, in 2004, Gallup analyzed their questioning methodology and found that respondents were more likely to support civil unions over marriages, but also, the order in which respondents were asked about each option affected their responses. In 2004, 54% supported civil unions, but as in 2006, only 42% supported marriage.

Sure, most states ban same-sex marriage, lots of them won’t recognize marriages or other legal partnerships from other states, and many votes have failed. But partnership laws and bans alike weren’t even there before the mid-90s; and since then, there has been a powerful shift in public opinion, state legislatures, and state judiciaries. I think the momentum on the state level is what will eventually motivate Congresscreatures to do what they’ve failed to do in the past four years: overturn DOMA, pass ENDA, and so on.

Take heart and carry this cause over onto your 2011 New Year’s resolutions: “equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

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