A Decade of Wonderfully Dizzying Progress for Gay Couples

As the clock ticked off the final minutes of the 20th century, Joyce and I shivered at the Lincoln Memorial while President Bill Clinton marked the magical moment by saluting the past and welcoming a new millennium.

“As we marvel at the changes of the last hundred years, we dream of what changes the next hundred, and the next thousand, will bring. And as powerful as our memories are, our dreams must be even stronger,” Clinton declared.

Our heads and hearts that night were dizzy with dreams of the future. But, looking back, what most surprises me about our new millennium’s kickoff decade is how much the gay-rights movement’s gains have had to do with couples.

As Clinton spoke, Vermont’s high court had ruled gay couples had to be given equal treatment to married couples. The following July, Joyce and I, then a couple of 15 years, drove to the green mountain state to be among the first joined in a civil union.

Just three years later, Canada opened marriage to gays, so we flew to Toronto to wed.

Marrying truly was a dream come true, one Joyce and I had wished aloud for as we joined thousands that chilly night in counting down the final seconds of the old era. We’d firmly believed we would marry, but hadn’t expected another country to grant our wish.

The next year, 2004, Massachusetts joined the marriage parade. Just how much of a speedy change machine has this winding-down decade been? It began with zero married gay couples in our country. It’ll end with more than 35,000 couples having tied the knot in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and California. New Hampshire will greet the coming decade with gay weddings in January.

Other big gains: The Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling that the constitutional right to privacy extends to gay couples.

Among this decade’s memorable state-level gains: Gay and transgender protections were enacted in Colorado (2007), Illinois (2006), Iowa (2007), Maine (2005), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2003), Oregon (2008) and Washington state (2006). Gay-only protections became law in Delaware (2009), Maryland (2001) and New York (2003). Trans safeguards were added to gay-rights laws in California (2003), Washington, D.C. (2006), New Jersey (2007), Rhode Island (2001) and Vermont (2007). This rapid progress means 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, protect gay workers, and 11 states and the District of Columbia also cover gender identity.

Several religious denominations took important steps: In a stunning development last month, the Mormon church threw its weight behind a gay-rights ordinance in Salt Lake City. This month, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected the second openly gay bishop, Mary Glasspool. If she’s formally approved, she’ll join Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who became the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in 2004.

All the movement hasn’t been forward, though: 28 states this decade joined Alaska in shoving gay marriage bans into their constitutions. In California, that meant gay marriages stopped after the November 2008 elections. One big challenge of the next decade will be to begin undoing all this damage.

Another huge disappointment: Congress’ foot-dragging on repealing the military’s anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law. In this decade alone, 7,500 patriotic gay men and lesbians were kicked out. I predict this un-American law will be erased in the coming decade — with help from the military brass.

And while I’m predicting, I’ll say voters in California and Maine — where a gay marriage law was repealed last month — will do an about-face well before 2020. Congress will outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and in an overdue salute to this progressive new millennium, will finally start treating gay couples just like our heterosexual friends and neighbors.

But first I’ll pause to fondly remember this Valentine’s Decade.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group