The Stonewall Riots in 1969 are commonly accepted as the beginning of the gay rights movement. At that time, there was a New York criminal statute that allowed police to arrest people wearing less than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing1 (yes, that is what I just said), and there were numerous other laws that made being gay, or acting or appearing gay, illegal.
The police would routinely raid gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn, and would frequently harass and beat the patrons. On June 28, 1969, the police once again raided the Stonewall Inn, but this time the patrons fought back. Notice had been served that the gay community would no longer accept harassment, intimidation, or assault. The ensuring years saw gay liberation, the AIDS crisis, the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the Defense of Marriage Act and mini-DOMAs, and more.
Challenges For Lesbian and Gay Parents
Fast forward to 2003. Our son was an infant. He fell off the changing table while we were visiting my wife's sister in California. We were in a panic. Our son was in obvious distress; we didn't know what was wrong with him; we were new parents; and we were 3,000 miles from home. We went to the local hospital. As we were registering, the administrator asked "father's name?", and we said, "We are his two mothers; he doesn't have a father." She looked at us as if we were from another planet.
That was uncomfortable, but it got worse. As they were wheeling our son in for x-rays, we both naturally went in with him. The tech stopped us and said, "Only his mother can go in with him." We said, "We are both his mother." She was completely dumbfounded and stood there staring at us - not moving, not taking our baby into the x-ray room, not doing anything. Somehow, we managed to stay calm. I said, as steadily as I could, something to the effect of: "Our son has two mothers. He needs an x-ray and then has to be seen by a doctor. We are both coming in with you. Please get moving."
Fast forward to 2010. I have a client who is separating from her long-term partner. They are not married. They have two children - each partner gave birth to one child, but neither partner has legally adopted the child of the other. Obviously, they both want what is best for the children, but they are also breaking up, and people are generally not the best version of themselves when they are going through a breakup. At one point, they actually threaten each other that they will take "their" respective child - meaning that they will split up the siblings. At the time, there is no legal recourse for either to assert parental, custodial, or visitation rights against the other's child. Happily, we resolved the matter, and the siblings stayed together.
Now it is 2011. New York State passes marriage equality! My partner - by then we had been together 20 years - and I get married. Our son is healthy and strong despite the mishap when he was an infant, and he is our best man. But when we travel to other states, we still have to carry our adoption papers proving that my wife legally adopted him. We still have to carry our health care proxies appointing each other to make medical decisions because our status as spouses and the presumptive person to make medical decisions for each other is not a given in many states.
I handle second parent adoptions2 for numerous couples during these years - because even though our marriages are "equal" in New York, they are not equal everywhere else. There is no guarantee that our marriages will be recognized outside of New York State, and there is certainly no guarantee that, in the absence of a second parent adoption, our parentage will be recognized.
Marriage Equality: Yes. Protection from Discrimination: Maybe.
Jump to 2015. The United States Supreme Court holds that gay people have a Constitutional right to be married.3 Couples who choose to can now be married everywhere in the country. Euphoria! Except it quickly becomes apparent that you can "be married on Sunday and fired on Monday" in many states, because those states do not have laws that protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Many states still permit discrimination against LGBT people in housing and numerous other areas. The Supreme Court announced in April of this year that it will decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination based on sex, bars discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. So we will soon have a definitive statement on whether, if you're married on Sunday, you can still be fired on Monday.
It is now 2019. Marriage equality is the law of the land. Polls show that almost 75 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage.4 And yet. The United States Supreme Court has upheld the President's ban that prevents transgender people who want to serve our country and defend us from serving in the military.
So-called "religious freedom laws" are legalizing and institutionalizing discrimination. Tennessee has a law that allows mental health counselors to decline to see LGBT clients based on the counselors' religious beliefs.5 The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) granted South Carolina a waiver from federal non-discrimination requirements for its foster care program, so it can now refuse to allow prospective parents who do not share their religious beliefs to even apply to become foster parents. HHS has formally established a conscience division that will allow medical practitioners to deny treatment to LGBT people on religious grounds and will allow other glaring discrimination. Freedom of religion is a paramount American value - but permitting religion or "conscience" to be used as a justification for discrimination just legalizes discrimination.
I marched on Washington for LGBT rights in 1987 and 1993. I represented and continue to represent many LGBT clients who do not have equal protection under the law. Sixteen years ago, I had to stay calm when a nurse treating my infant son couldn't fathom that he could have two mothers. We still carry our son's adoption papers when we travel.
Sometimes it's "one step forward, two steps back"; and sometimes it's "two steps forward, one step back." The moral of the story is that we all have to keep pressing forward - for gays, lesbians and transgender folks, and for everyone else who is a minority or outcast - until we can all share in the "blessings of liberty."6