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Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Gay Rights Heroes of 2010

By Michael A. Jones -

As the final hours of 2010 wrap up, it’s worth taking a look back at the names and players who helped make this year a dynamic one for LGBT rights. From historic victories in Congress to bold individual acts for equality, 2010 was quite the year to remember. Here’s to the folks who helped prove what. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand once said to that the battle for LGBT equality is the civil rights struggle of our time.
Constance McMillen: At just 18-years-old, Constance McMillen became a household name after standing up for her right to take a same-sex date to her senior prom. The Mississippi student fought back hard, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), against the Itawamba County School District. The end result? Constance scored a legal victory, with a $35,000 settlement and a promise by the school district to enact sweeping non-discrimination policies. To top it off, Constance became a leading advocate for federal level policies like the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and was the Grand Marshal of the NYC Pride Parade.
Dan Savage and the folks at the “It Gets Better” Project: Little did writer/blogger/sex columnist Dan Savage know that a brief YouTube message to LGBT youth would launch one of the most successful video projects in history. But sure enough, Savage’s three-word message to LGBT youth facing bullying and intolerance became one of 2010’s biggest memes. Individuals started weighing in with their own “It Gets Better” ideas, and celebrities soon followed. Then came the political heavyweights, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to UK Prime Minister David Cameron to even President Barack Obama himself. Talk about legitimacy, and talk about great advocacy to reach out to LGBT youth.
Wendy Walsh and Tammy Aaberg: These two mothers have heartbreaking stories to share. Both of their sons, faced with horrendous anti-gay bullying in their school districts, turned to suicide as a way of escaping harassment. Wendy’s son Seth took his life in September. Since then, Wendy has partnered with the ACLU to call for passage of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and to push the Tehachapi Unified School District in California to strengthen their anti-bullying policies. Tammy’s son, Justin, took his life in July, and since then Tammy has been extremely vocal in challenging the Anoka-Hennepin School District, Minnesota’s largest, for not doing enough to address anti-gay bullying. Tammy and advocates have focused in on the district’s bogus “neutrality” policy, which ties the hands of educators to deal adequately with the threat of anti-gay bullying by preventing teachers from talking about LGBT issues in the classroom.
Kelly Glossip: Want to learn about why the Defense of Marriage Act is a vile and unjust law? Look no further than Kelly Glossip’s story. Kelly’s partner of 15 years, Missouri State Highway Patrol Officer Dennis Engelhard, was killed in a tragic auto accident on Christmas Day 2009. But because Missouri does not consider same-sex relationships to be valid, Kelly was not eligible to receive any of the survivor benefits that heterosexual spouses of state police officers would get. Kelly has now taken his story public with a heartfelt video, and filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU to challenge the constitutionality of denying same-sex partners certain benefits.
All the players in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate: When President Obama signed legislation that will eventually repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it was a victory for thousands of activists who have worked hard and long to end the military’s discriminatory ban on openly gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers. There were individual activists like Dan Choi, Eric Alva, Marjorie Witt, Victor Fehrenbach, Autumn Sandeen, and countless others, all LGBT veterans of the military. There were groups like the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Servicemembers United, GetEqual, the Human Rights Campaign, the Palm Center, the Log Cabin Republicans, and many others. There were blogs like AmericaBLOG, Pam’s House Blend, The Bilerico Project, GoodAsYou, and so many others, not to mention countless petitions here on There were politicians like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Rep. Patrick Murphy, Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sen. Mark Udall, to name a handful. And there were strong military voices like those from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and hundreds of retired military leaders. This was a victory owned by many people, groups, and leaders. And a victory that we can all celebrate as one that will make our country not only stronger, but more just.
Frank Martin Gill: Up until 2010, Florida banned LGBT people from adopting children. The reason that ban ceased? Because of a court case brought by Frank Martin Gill. In September, the 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld a previous ruling that said there was “no rational basis” for the state of Florida to ban LGBT people from adopting children. That ruling put closure on a case that dragged on for years. But talk about a major happy ending. Gill told reporters after the court’s ruling: “I really felt relieved for the first time -- and a sense of pride for what we accomplished for the state of Florida.''
Equality Utah: When 2010 started, Equality Utah put forward a bold statement: In 12 months time, they would work like hell to make sure that 10 Utah cities/towns/municipalities enacted non-discrimination ordinances that included protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Sure enough, they put their money where their mouth was and got it done. In December, Grand County became the tenth Utah area to enact an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance. And Equality Utah’s work isn’t done yet. Together with other LGBT activists in the state, they have their eyes on Ogden, hoping that the city will become the eleventh in the state to enact sweeping anti-discrimination protections.
Ted Olson, David Boies, and the American Foundation for Equal Rights: It’s hard not to reflect back on 2010 without holding up Ted Olson, David Boies, and the folks at the American Foundation for Equal Rights, for their work challenging the constitutionality of California’s marriage ban, otherwise known as Proposition 8. This bipartisan team scored a major victory when Judge Vaughn Walker ruled in August that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, and now they’re awaiting word from the Ninth Circuit as to whether that ruling can stand. While nobody knows the future, this team could be taking the issue of marriage equality all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and help pave the way for nationwide marriage equality.
Azwan Ismail: It’s amazing to see the power of one voice in the wilderness. In Malaysia, that voice belongs to Azwan Ismail, who recorded an “It Gets Better” video and told the entire country of Malaysia: “Saya Gay, Saya Okay.” (It’s OK to be gay.) Sadly, Azwan’s video didn’t sit well with a number of religious activists in the country, who used the video to condemn homosexuality and issue calls for Azwan’s life. It’s been taken down from YouTube, but Azwan told a local publication that he had no regrets. “I feel there is not enough Malay voices talking about homosexuality." Perhaps Azwan’s voice will open doors for others in the country to speak up for LGBT rights.
GLAD: Here’s to a 2011 where GLAD changes their name from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders to, simply, “Legal Powerhouses.” What an effective organization at achieving LGBT equality through the courts. In 2010, GLAD won a major victory in a court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As federal Judge Joseph Tauro ruled in July, “As irrational prejudice plainly never constitutes a legitimate government interest, this court must hold that Section 3 of DOMA as applied to Plaintiffs violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” It’s nice to see the words “irrational” and “Defense of Marriage Act” paired together by judges. That happened because of GLAD’s diligent work.
Of course, this is just a quick snapshot of some of the major forces for LGBT equality in 2010. This list could go on and on – there’s Amber Yust, Will Phillips, the students who inspired the world to wear purple to speak out about LGBT suicide, the activists and politicians who helped deliver civil unions to Illinois, and many more. Got some others you’d like to share? Feel free to let us know.


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