Clark A. Pomerleau
Over the 1990s and 2000s, new drug therapies prolonged the lives of people living with AIDS. Although radical, multi-community AIDS activism continued, work for mainstream legal protections and rights dominated activism. LGBT Americans and supporters sought inclusion in the military, antidiscrimination law, and marriage equality. After a campaign promise to end military exclusion, President Bill Clinton responded to push back from military leaders with a compromise. He supported Congressional law that instructed LGBT service members to remain closeted and military officials not to pursue people for discharge. Ironically, this “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy increased discharges and continued violence against gay service members until its repeal by President Obama ended sexual orientation (but not gender identity) as a factor in 2010 (10 U.S.C. § 654; H.R. 2965, S. 4023). President Clinton was more effective with his executive order to end antigay discrimination in federal government in 1998 (Executive Order No. 13087, 1998).
Violence against LGBT Americans continued, including rural murders of Brandon Teena and then Matthew Sheppard that gained such media coverage they eventually became movies. Outrage against antigay violence and prejudice led New York ACT UP members to form Queer Nation in 1990 and inspired groups like the Pink Panthers (1990) and Lesbian Avengers (1992). Their direct actions were defiantly queer to liberate sexuality and gender from heteronormativity. A particularly controversial tactic was exposing the closeted homosexuality of antigay politicians and pundits. New federal hate-crime tracking confirmed the scope of anti-LGBT violence. Over ten percent of violent crimes motivated by bias against the victim’s identity were based on sexual orientation, in third place behind race and religion. Congressional passage of the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act (1994) included gay bashing as a federal crime to ensure fairer trials (H.R. 3355, Pub.L. 103-322).
State legislatures and popular ballots featured both antidiscrimination and antigay measures, creating grassroots organizing for and against protecting LGBT Americans from being rejected from jobs, fired or excluded from housing and public accommodations. Cultural conservatives lamented gradually increasing acceptance of LGBT people as celebrity musicians and television stars slowly started to come out and weathered backlash to continue their careers. Meanwhile, the Hawai’i state supreme court win, Baehr v. Miike, temporarily legalized same-sex marriage there in 1996. National LGBT organizations pushed to extend marriage equality nationwide. Over the next decade states split on whether to ban or legalize marriage equality. Popular support steadily grew over the 2000s, reaching sixty percent in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the fourteenth Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.
Groups that centered young, trans, poor, and minority people warned in the 2000s that hate crimes legislation and nondiscrimination laws connected to it would further hurt the most marginalized Americans. Dean Spade cautioned that hate crime mandatory extended sentences strengthened “the criminal punishment system” that targets poor (trans) people of color (Spade, 2015; SRLP, 2009). Likewise, some feminist and queer activists opposed the costly push for marriage equality as only supporting heteronormative relationships (Chauncey, 2004; Duggan, 2011; Warner, 1999). Paula Ettelbrick, among the first, argued in 1989 against sanctioning one family form instead of destigmatizing unconventional relationships and sexual expression. Lisa Duggan has argued for broad coalitions to gain universal benefits instead of tying needs like health coverage to employment and marriage (pp. 14-16).