State of the Union: LGBT Rights in the US

LGBT, Politics, Rights

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. Support for and awareness of the issues facing the LGBT community are growing, with Facebook’s 58 options for gender identification serving as just one example. The past year has seen some large developments as state laws and Supreme Court decisions helped change the landscape of rights for the LGBT community. Here is where we stand today.

Homosexual activity legal in the U.S. since 2003

Sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex has been legal in the United States at a federal level since 2003. The Supreme Court decision in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case to strike down anti-sodomy laws brought the U.S. government into agreement with dozens of nations across the globe where homosexual activity was already legal. Another landmark decision occurred just last summer in the United States v. Windsor case, which granted same-sex couples legally married at the state level the right to be recognized at the federal level. And the restriction on LGBT individuals openly serving in the military ended in September 2011 after the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

Same-sex sexual activity remains illegal in approximately 80 nations, and in many of them, punishment for homosexual activity is time in prison. Uganda was in the news earlier this year for passing legislation under which those convicted of homosexuality face life imprisonment. Russia also made headlines during the recent Sochi Olympics for the country’s anti-gay culture. Although homosexual activity is not illegal in Russia, personal expression is severely limited.

Same-sex marriage legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C.

In the past year alone, the following 10 states have legalized gay marriage through court decision, legislation, or popular vote: California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Rhode Island. Laws banning same-sex marriage in the remaining 31 states are all being challenged as unconstitutional, and it is likely that in the next year or two, many more states will legalize same-sex marriage.

LGBT adoption rights vary greatly by state

Nearly all states allow LGBT individuals to adopt children, and some explicitly allow same-sex couples, whether married or not, to petition to adopt together. Several other states, including Mississippi and Utah, explicitly prohibit it. Adoption law is unclear in the remaining states. A handful of states prohibit an individual from adopting their partner’s child.

Laws protect against bullying and hate crimes

The majority of states recognize both sexual orientation and gender identity, or sexual orientation alone, in laws penalizing hate crimes. The attorney general has been collecting data on hate crimes since 1990, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 was the first federal law to specifically protect transgender individuals.

Gay bashing and bullying is still an issue, with Tennessee in the news this spring for its controversial bullying law, which permits speaking out against homosexuality for religious reasons.

Non-discrimination laws in government vary in private sector

A 1995 executive order signed by President Clinton forbids the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, and in 2010, President Obama added gender identity as a protected class under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Private employers are under no such restraints, although many gay rights advocates and lawmakers have tried to change this with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a piece of legislation that has been introduced in nearly every Congress during the past 20 years without passing. This act would prohibit employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite its passage in the Senate this year and its backing by President Obama, the act remains blocked in the House of Representatives.

Despite that, 21 states and Washington, D.C. prohibit discrimination in hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, many cities and counties have their own laws regarding LGBT employment discrimination policies.