2011: An Extraordinary Year For Gay Rights

Dec 31, 2011
Originally published on December 31, 2011 4:46 pm

This year was an extraordinary one for many things — especially gay rights. In September, the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy allowed gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve openly. And just this month, two female sailors became the first to share the Navy tradition of a "first kiss."

This summer, New York became the sixth and largest state yet — along with Washington, D.C. — to allow same-sex marriage. Phyllis Siegel, 76, and her partner of 23 years, 84-year-old Connie Kopelov, became the first same-sex couple in New York City to be legally married.

Siegel tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Sheir that saying "I do" was different from hearing it.

"I've heard those words before — [from] relatives, friends — but they never meant as much to me as that day," Siegel says. "What I did was feel a swelling inside of me. As corny as that sounds, that's what I felt."

It was Sunday, July 24, and each women wore white pants and a blue shirt — blue being the color of fidelity. Siegel says marriage has created a special bond.

"We call each other 'wife' and just laugh because it's so nice," Siegel says. But, she adds, they're like any other couple.

"We have our little spats, and then we make up, we tease each other," Siegel says. "It's just great. It's on a different level, I can tell you that. I can't define it anymore than that."

She says the biggest thing she was thinking at the moment she and Connie kissed for the first time as a married couple was how much she loved Connie.

"I didn't plan the kiss on the cheek and lightly on the lips," Siegel tells Sheir. "I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, but I wanted it to mean something ... Talking to you is making me feel it again, and I'm becoming a little breathless."

'A Good Year To Be Queer'

Among those applauding the recent strides in gay rights is columnist and activist Dan Savage, who told Sheir that it was a "good year to be queer." Last year, he and his husband, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project, a series of YouTube videos designed to help prevent suicide among LGBT youth. This year, the pair co-edited a book inspired by the videos.

Savage says it was a "very consequential year" with the end of "don't ask, don't tell"; passage of the New York Marriage Equality Act; and Hillary Clinton's speech last month to the United Nations on LGBT rights.

"[Clinton] stood up for half an hour and lectured world leaders on the fact that gay rights are human rights," Savage says. "LGBT people in America were just staggered when she began the speech and was talking about LGBT rights all over the world and didn't stop."

Savage says the passage of the New York Marriage Equality Act signified a change in people's attitudes toward the LGBT community.

"Increasingly, people are seeing LGBT people as not these sort of existential, scary, bogy-monster threats to the institution of marriage, but people who have a right to equal treatment under the law," Savage says.

As for the adjustment process for soldiers who have come out since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," Savage says it's a non-issue.

"The head of the Marines, who was the most vocal and high-profile opponent of repealing DADT, has admitted now that he was wrong," he says.

Savage describes how the DADT repeal even got its iconic image in mid-December, when a lesbian sailor won the right to be the first off her ship after 80 days at sea to kiss a loved one, who was also a lesbian sailor.

A Sea Change

Savage says that a couple of years ago, he was at a park in Seattle when a limo pulled up and a wedding party got out. The bride and groom had their portrait taken, and everyone began to applaud. He was standing next to a gay couple he didn't know, and one of the men asked Savage, "We're always happy for them, would it kill them to be happy for us?"

Savage says that because there was no public ceremony attached to same-sex relationships, straight people who were supportive didn't have a chance to express it.

"Increasingly, straight people are demonstrating their support in ways that really touch my heart and terrify Tony Perkins [of the Family Research Council]."

The biggest issue in 2012, he says, will be the presidential election. While President Obama "isn't perfect," Savage says, there may be "an evolutionary leap" after the 2012 election.

"We're going to see more marriage equality battles, and we're going to see us starting to win some at the ballot box," Savage says.

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Transcript

REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir, in for Guy Raz.

The last day of the year can be a time to reflect on the past 12 months, and in the case of 2011, what a big 12 months they were. It was a banner year for a lot of things: from uprisings and Occupy to, as we'll hear later in the show, Mercury missions and mice. Yes, mice. But first, you can't talk about the year that was without mentioning gay rights.

In September, we saw the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." So now, gay, lesbian and bisexual people can openly serve in the military. Just this month, two women sailors became the first to share the Navy tradition of a first kiss. And, of course, in June, New York became the sixth and largest state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex marriage. And the first same-sex couple to say I do in Manhattan...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: By the laws of the state of New York, I now pronounce you married. You may seal your bows with a kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SHEIR: 84-year-old Connie Kopelov and 76-year-old Phyllis Siegel.

PHYLLIS SIEGEL: I've heard those words before - relatives, friends - but they never meant as much to me as that day. What I did was feel a swelling inside of me. As corny as that sounds, that's what I felt.

SHEIR: That's Phyllis Siegel. She'd been with Connie Kopelov 23 years before tying the knot.

SIEGEL: Talking to you is making me feel it again, and I'm becoming a little breathless.

SHEIR: It was a Sunday, June 24th. The women both wore white pants and blue shirts - blue being the color of fidelity. And though Phyllis will tell you marriage has changed some things...

SIEGEL: We call each other wife and just laugh because it's so nice.

SHEIR: ...she says, really, they're like any other couple.

SIEGEL: We have our little spats, and then we make up, we tease each other. And it's just great. It's on a different level, I can tell you that. I can't define it anymore than that.

SHEIR: Among those applauding the recent strides and gay rights is columnist and activist Dan Savage. Last year, he and his husband, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project, a series of YouTube videos to help prevent suicide among LGBT youth. This year, the pair co-edited a book inspired by the videos. And Dan Savage joins me now from the studios at KPLU in Seattle. Dan, thanks for being here.

DAN SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.

SHEIR: Dan, it seems like it's been a really big year for advances in gay rights. In fact, a recent article in The Guardian newspaper calls 2011 a good year to be gay.

SAVAGE: Why do they avoid the obvious rhyme: A good year to be queer?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: Do you agree with that?

SAVAGE: Yeah. It was a huge and very consequential year from the end finally of "don't ask, don't tell," gay marriage being legalized in New York state, in the legislature, which, in an instant, more than doubled the numbers of Americans who are living in states, six now, and the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal.

Hillary Clinton's speech to the U.N. where she stood up for half an hour and lectured world leaders on the fact that gay rights are human rights. We were all blown away. LGBT people in America just were staggered when she began the speech and was talking about LGBT rights all over the world and didn't stop. And it was historic.

SHEIR: You mentioned the passage of the New York Marriage Equality Act - arguably, one of the biggest victories for gay rights this year. What do you think this means then for the rest of the country?

SAVAGE: What this means is, you know, increasingly, people are seeing LGBT people as not these sort of existential, scary, bogey-monster threats to the institution of marriage, but people who have a right to equal treatment under the law and are no more a threat to the institution of marriage than divorced people remarrying or Jews marrying Catholics or any of the other sea changes we've seen in the, quote, unquote, "definition of marriage" over the years.

SHEIR: "Don't ask, don't tell," of course, officially ended this fall after quite a fight, and many soldiers have come out publicly since then. How would you describe the adjustment process, so to speak?

SAVAGE: It's been a nonissue. The head of the Marines who is the most vocal and high-profile opponent of repealing DADT has admitted now that he was wrong. The DADT repeal mid-December got its iconic image, much like the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square. On V-E Day, a lesbian sailor won the right to be the first off her shift after 80 days at sea to kiss a loved one, and she kissed her girlfriend who's also a lesbian sailor. This image was all over the world. It's in the front page of newspapers all over the United States.

SHEIR: So do you feel like there's a big sea change then in terms of the American public?

SAVAGE: A couple of years ago, I was at a park in Seattle that has a beautiful view of the city and there's always a crowd of people milling around taking photographs, and a limo pulled up and a wedding party got out. And this bride and groom were holding each other and having their wedding portrait taken, and everyone began to applaud. And I was standing next to a gay couple, but I didn't know. They're clearly gay. I was clearly gay. And we caught each other's eye and one said to me, you know, we're always happy for them. Would it kill them to be happy for us?

And what we're seeing now is increasingly straight people are happy for us too. And there are always straight people out there who were happy for us, but they didn't because there was no sort of public ceremony attached to same-sex relationships. They didn't have a chance to express it. And increasingly, straight people are demonstrating their support in ways that really touch my heart and terrify Tony Perkins.

SHEIR: So then, Dan, looking ahead at the next year, 2012, what would you say are the biggest issues that the gay community is going to be facing?

SAVAGE: The re-election of Barack Obama, who isn't perfect on our issues. He devolved on the issue of marriage equality. Then in 1996, he was a supporter of marriage equality. And then by 2008, he was opposed. But I believe the president is going to evolve on marriage equality, and we may see an evolutionary leap after the 2012 election. So I'm supporting him. We're going to see more marriage equality battles, and we're going to see us starting to win some at the ballot box.

SHEIR: That's Dan Savage. He's a columnist, author, editor and gay rights activist. "It Gets Better: Coming out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living," the book he co-edited with his husband, Terry Miller, is in bookstores now. Dan, thanks so much for coming on the show today.

SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEIR: Of course, advancement in gay rights is just one of the numerous big news stories of this year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Moammar Gadhafi has been killed by rebels...

OBAMA: America's war in Iraq will be over.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Congress has passed a bill raising the government's borrowing limit...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: If a European bank goes down...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...and averting default on the nation's debts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...it could provoke a crisis of confidence...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I'm part of the Occupy movement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...that freezes up the global financial system.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: It's basically about social, political and economic reform.

SHEIR: James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us now, as he does most Saturdays, this time for a special look back at the year's biggest headlines. James, thanks for being here today.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Rebecca.

SHEIR: So one of this year's hugest stories was, of course, the death of Osama bin Laden. Just minutes after the announcement was made, we saw massive crowds outside the White House, the Pentagon, Times Square, ground zero. During President Obama's speech, there were like 5,000 tweets per second flying around the Twitterverse. What effect has that game-changing event had on the war on terror?

FALLOWS: Well, certainly, there's the impact of eliminating Osama bin Laden himself, the symbolic destruction and the literal destruction, too, with a man who had epitomized the attack from the United States over the past decade, the continuation of the degradation of al-Qaida's capability that we've seen in many ways over the past 10 years.

I think the most important ramification of this event we'll see in the year or two to come, which is whether or not it provides the opportunity and the pivot for the United States finally to move beyond a decade where its foreign policy was largely dominated by the so-called global war on terror to the exclusion of many other priorities of the United States. Certainly, the official end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq was one step in that direction, and we'll see what the other implications might be.

SHEIR: And then we have the Arab Spring, wave of protests and demonstrations, which brought change not only throughout the entire Middle East but around the world, right?

FALLOWS: It's striking, over the past decades, as the spread of democracy around the world has been discussed, there's always been this exception for much of the Arab world of why it was that as Latin America was largely democratizing, as East Asia was having a series of democratic revolutions over the last 25 years, this was not taking place in many Arab-Islamic countries. And I think the dramatic demonstrations we saw, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt and then throughout the region, while their impact is going to be mixed, one has to view this as a positive development for the world.

And I think if you look back to President Obama's speech in his first year in office in Cairo about American relations with the Islamic world in hoping to bring some of the same values to this part of the world we've tried to promote in other parts, we can see this as being a hopeful development it would had been in many ways a troubled year 2011.

SHEIR: And here in the United States, we've seen demonstrations of a sort to the Occupy Wall Street movement which began in September in New York. What sort of impact has that had?

FALLOWS: Already, our political discourse has changed. If you do simple word searches of news coverage over the past two or three months, you see much more mention of inequality and social mobility and issues such of those than you would have seen a year ago. What strikes me about this is that over the last 50 years or so, there's been a momentum in the United States and around the world towards the globalization of the economy.

And during that time in the United States, we've seen economic inequalities growing larger, we've seen various impediments to social mobility, which at different times in our history, have been matters of real, sort of political flashpoint importance. But somehow, they had not become as acute matters of political discussion as I think they may now be, thanks largely to the impact of this Occupy movement.

SHEIR: And speaking of economics, the European debt crisis, which started before 2011, but we really did see a lot happen this past year.

FALLOWS: We certainly did. And we're going to see more happen, I'm sure. In the decade since the end of World War II, the countries that over the centuries have often fought with each other and often had a very differing systems and values, have found ways to knit themselves together more and more closely. And of course, this movement has accelerated after the fall of the Soviet Union. But some of the tensions that were built into European Union two decades ago as it began having economic union and monetary union but not thoroughgoing political union, some of those tensions are now coming to the fore, as we see the way the Germans, for example, don't like the way the Italians, the Portuguese are managing their economies. So we've seen - the exposure of fault lines, I think, will tell us a lot about European politics and the world economy in the next year and many years to come.

SHEIR: I've been speaking with James Fallows of The Atlantic. He joined me here in our Washington studio. James, thank you.

FALLOWS: And happy New Year, Rebecca.

SHEIR: Happy New Year to you too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.