For LGBTQ Americans, a Decade of Human Rights Milestones

Article by Mariah Phillips

Mariah Phillips is passionate about world affairs at 2U, Inc., where she specializes in the business, law, government, and tech verticals on behalf of programs like IR Online, American University's international relations online masters program.

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LGBTQ Americans have lived without equal rights since the country’s inception. But after decades of work by advocates in the more recent LGBTQ rights movement, legal gains have begun to accrue in the past ten years.

The magnitude of recent changes in status for LGBTQ Americans depends on your scale of measurement. It took a rights movement filled with years of protests, legal battles, and deaths before the 2015 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal. But it is also true that American marriage itself is an institution embedded in class privilege, and there are myriad other modes of legal discrimination remaining that impact the day-to-day livelihood of LGBTQ Americans across class lines.

International treaties on human rights have existed since soon after World War II, when Eleanor Roosevelt served as chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. But even those who outlined global definitions of human rights were aware the documents held little power to actually produce change within countries. Roosevelt described the challenge as “actually living and working in our countries for freedom and justice for each human being,” according to an infographic from the at American University.

Oppressed classes in the United States have fought for decades, if not centuries, to incrementally accrue basic rights afforded to privileged citizens. LGBTQ Americans continue to fight for the most elemental rights to live as themselves.

Within that long context, LGBTQ Americans have seen more human rights gains in the past fifty years than during prior U.S. history. Actions often attributed to part of the more formal American LGBTQ rights movement date back to the 1960’s, and efforts toward marriage equality took on an increasingly prominent cultural role in more recent years. Individual states began to legalize same-sex marriage starting with a Massachusetts court decision in 2004.

Changes increased after President Barack Obama took office.

In 2008, California briefly became the second state to legalize same-sex marriage through the state Supreme Court, before passage of Proposition 8 eradicated that milestone.

Soon after, in 2009, Obama made LGBTQ Americans a protected group under federal hate crime law. Passage  prohibited discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

That historic change was followed in 2011 by the repeal of the military’s official “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, which barred openly LGBTQ people from serving. “As of Sept. 20, service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country,”  In 2015, the military added sexual orientation as a protected group.

But before that 2015 milestone, Obama addressed another right many were fighting to extend to LGBTQ Americans: marriage. In a 2012 interview, he became the first U.S. president to openly endorse same-sex marriage. “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he said.

The milestones of the decade included the Supreme Court’s historic 2013 DOMA decision. Under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government could deny to same-sex couples legally married in their states benefits offered to other pairs. The Supreme Court declared that part of the law unconstitutional, meaning the federal government had to recognize legal same-sex marriages.

A 2015 Supreme Court ruling made same-sex marriage a federal civil right.

That year, Obama called for the end of conversion therapy and acknowledged transgender Americans during his State of the Union address. In 2016, the newly Minted Stonewall National Monument became the first part of the national park system created to honor LGBTQ rights.

During this period of changes in the political sphere, there were also massive cultural shifts in attitude. Modern Family debuted in 2009, depicting family life on a mainstream television show. Representation of LGBTQ characters increased with portrayals in Pretty Little Liars, Glee, How to Get Away with Murder and Transparent.

The rise of the internet and social media culture during this period also gave increased voice to marginalized groups. The LGBTQ web series Her Story, was nominated for a short from Emmy award, as LGBTQ writers and advocates discovered they could gain massive followings on social media, allowing new ideas to proliferate the culture.

But since 2017, optimism about LGBTQ rights has dwindled as the movement has faced new hurdles. President Donald Trump announced plans to ban transgender Americans from the military, and placed officials with anti-LGBTQ positions in roles of power. Many worry the administration is attempting to systematically undo the progress of LGBTQ rights made by the Obama administration.

Efforts to undermine LGBTQ rights are unfortunately par for the course of history, in which LGBT Americans have lived in a governmental system that does not represent them. While it’s difficult to see the potential for improvement on the horizon, we can at least look back at the progress we’ve made and hopefully make out an upward trend.