Gay Rights Advanced in 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, the year has seen clear progress for gay rights, with the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and New York State’s acceptance of same-sex marriages, changes that Rev. Howard Bess regrets some organized religions have opposed.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

About 40 years ago, while serving as pastor of a church in Southern California, I became aware that I had members of my congregation who were gay. Further, over a period of time, I discovered that I had parents of gay sons and daughters in my congregation.

Being a pastor became even more of a challenge when I discovered gay men and gay women in my congregation who were in heterosexual marriages that were not functioning well.

I tried to talk to my clergy friends, but no one even wanted to talk about it. I maintained many positive relationships with my fellow clergy, but in some ways I became the loneliest minister in the area. I committed myself to learning about the homosexual phenomenon.

I read everything I could find on the subject, though there wasn’t much on the library shelves. I talked with every gay person, who was willing to share his or her experiences. I got an education that had been totally ignored in college and the seminary.

Full civil rights for our African-American citizens was the hot issue of the nation then, yet I concluded that discrimination against gay people was just as evil as racial discrimination. My frustration also was founded in the reality that Christian churches were (and are) the headquarters of anti-gay discrimination.

My journey was made a bit easier because I had learned a profound lesson in seminary. As an ordained clergyperson, I was specifically forbidden by Jesus to judge and condemn. My call as a minister was to what the Apostle Paul called the ministry of reconciliation. My task was to assist in the reconciliation of gay people to God, to family, to spouse, to neighbor, and even to enemies.

In my relationships with gay people, my rejection of them was never a possibility. Reconciliation was always my task. Yet, as my thinking and understanding developed, I found that the feet of the opposition to gay rights were stuck in concrete. Making progress in the struggle for gay acceptance and the establishment of their rights was hard work and slow. At times the task seemed nearly impossible. But, finally, things are changing.

Protester against California’s Proposition 8

I am happy to report that 2011 has been a very good year for gay rights. Many positive things have happened, including:

–The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

President Bill Clinton made promises of support to the American gay population, including allowing gay men and Lesbians to serve in the U.S. military without discrimination. However, he ran into heavy opposition by top officers  in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. So, a flawed compromise emerged, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as a presidential order in 1993.

Under the policy, gay and Lesbian young people could serve in the U.S. military if they stayed in the closet. In return, the military was not supposed to investigate their sexual orientation. But DADT never worked the way some had hoped. Over the 18 years of the policy, more than 13,500 service persons were discharged from military service under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

President Barak Obama promised the gay population that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be repealed, and finally Congress repealed the policy and President Obama signed the legislation into law. It became effective on Sept. 20, meaning that official discrimination against gay people in the military is over.

–The approval of gay marriage in the State of New York. 

On June 24, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a measure that gives same-sex couples the same right to marry that historically had been accorded only to heterosexual couples, making New York the sixth state to grant gay people full marriage rights.

Either by legislation or by court action, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have granted marriage rights to gay couples. Yet, what is so significant about New York is its huge population, meaning that the trend is firmly established and there will be no turning back.

In any movement, milestones are important. The action of the State of New York is one of those milestones.

–Proposition 8 in California.

California is important because it is the state with the largest population. It is also important because Proposition 8 powerfully illustrates the intertwining of religion and politics.

The history of gay marriage rights in California is lengthy and has taken many turns. California passed a ballot measure banning gay marriage, but the California Supreme Court overturned the measure thus establishing the legality of gay marriage.

Opponents quickly put a referendum measure, Prop. 8, on the ballot in 2008. It said that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in the State of California. The measure passed, but a federal judge ruled that Prop. 8 was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. And in 2011, Prop. 8 was back in court possibly headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where gay rights activists may finally get a definitive ruling.

An important side issue in Prop. 8 is the involvement of two large religious bodies in the effort to pass the measure. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) led the effort, with Mormon sources raising more than half of the funds to support Prop. 8 and Mormons staffing over 80 percent of the workers going door to door on the measure’s behalf.

The Mormon efforts were supplemented by the Knights of Columbus, a service organization related to the Catholic Church, providing the second largest source of funds. Of course, the Catholics and Mormons have every right to participate in a public debate and no one is suggesting that they did anything illegal or unethical. But the Prop. 8 struggle underscored what for me is a troubling role of religion in denying gays and Lesbians their basic civil rights.

Yet, all in all, 2011 was a very good year for gay rights.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected]. He is the author of the book, Pastor, I Am Gay.

6 comments for “Gay Rights Advanced in 2011

  1. DWH
    December 12, 2011 at 17:44

    There are Prima Facie Charter Challenges which #FIGHT4FamilyStatus which will lead to presumption of parentage for ALL INTENTIONAL parents using AHR or surrogates or sperm donors. The Family Status issue is the sleeping giant in workplaces, vital statistics ie. parent 1 and parent 2 and we shall see EQUALITY FOR MEN aka Fathers and papas. GAY MALE FAMILY in Calgary FIGHTING to be HEARD< Protected from BULLYS and HOMOPHOBES< #premier #alison #Redford as Justice Minister said "don't worry we have ppl working on that issue of lack of protection and gaps for ppl like you." I said everyday was important. NOW the precedent setting NEGLIGENCE of ALBERTA GOVT and its HISTORY of lack of protections and gaps for Gays is going to land Redford another dirty oil blackeye sadly through this modern gay stonewall with online clues like davinci style to avoid publication ban issues. WARRIORS UNITE and demand FAIR EQUAL and TIMELY protection for OUR CHILDREN. DWH

  2. bobzz
    December 6, 2011 at 17:58

    Even if I were not a Christian, same sex relations would be unthinkable (I used to be an agnostic). That said, same sex relationships is none of my business and none of the church’s business unless it is happening within the congregation where one worships. A good example of dealing sensitively with the topic is the Highlands Church in Dallas—yes Dallas. The minister Jim Reynolds has written an excellent book covering the topic, “The Lepers Among Us.” Same sex participants should have to same opportunities for good jobs, locations to live, etc. as anyone else. The idea that such marriages would become legal is none of my business and such a law would hardly change my orientation. Heterosexual should look after their own marriages, many in the church, that are falling apart. Ever since passage of no fault divorce laws, splits have multiplied. Gays and lesbians had nothing to do with that sad fact.

  3. deo
    December 5, 2011 at 20:48

    72% of the membership of black churches in California voted in favor of Prop 8. Black churches have a long tradition of political activism over the pulpit, which the Left thought was just fine when said activism coincided with their political goals.

    Why no outrage from the Left about black churches having the temerity to vote against the Left on Prop 8? Guess y’all wouldn’t want to alienate one of your sanctified constituencies. Your selective outrage is hypocrisy at its finest.

  4. BaltimoreBob
    December 5, 2011 at 17:54

    Nothing Wrong with Being GAY
    Only women thou should be allowed to have Sex with each other.

    Outlaw Sex between Two Men – it is Wrong.
    It even disgusts women.

    Righteous Robert
    Baltimore Bob

  5. Kirk Rowe
    December 5, 2011 at 17:11

    Not illegal, but should be! For a religiosity body to hide behind the constitution to exercise religious freedom but then practice politics from the pulpit is truely an ethical dilemma. Everyone should be able to practice freedom “of” religion, but it is truly an ethical issue when the religious leader(s), as with the Mormons, hide behind the constitution to politic from the “pulpit”. This lends itself to an issue that the founding fathers didn’t anticipate; the political process would be subverted by zealots who have a personal, institutional or religious agenda from which they utilize their position to campaign. Religious interference in the political process is as damaging as state or political interference is to our religious freedoms. Any religious group or leader that utilizes it’s position to influence a political debate should be regarded as a non-religious entity or labeled as a PAC. Individual freedom of speach and religious freedom does not translate to institutional campaining and influencing a political process. Seperation of church and state was meant to protect religious freedom but should be applied bilaterally. It is definately unethical for only a unilateral application.

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