2014: The year of marriage and other top national, international stories

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals seeking to preserve bans on marriage for same-sex couples. President Obama finally signed a long-sought executive order protecting LGBT people who work for federal contractors. And an openly gay college football player kissed his boyfriend in front of a television camera after becoming the first openly gay player to be hired by a professional team.

Oh, yes, and the Republican Party won a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Those are likely to be the most remembered events for LGBT people for 2014—a year packed with many important events, both symbolic and significant, but a year that nonetheless played second fiddle to 2013. Many of the LGBT headlines in 2014 centered on marriage because, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. That prompted court after court to echo that decision, in U.S. v. Windsor, while striking down state bans on such marriages around the country.
Polls indicated that public opinion about same-sex relationships improved more dramatically this year than on any other controversial issue, with 58 percent telling Gallup that “gay and lesbian relations” are “morally acceptable.”

And a federal district court judge appointed by Republican President George W. Bush declared a marriage ban in Pennsylvania unconstitutional, adding, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard [such bans] into the ash heap of history.”

By this time next year, there’s a good chance that bans on same-sex marriage will be on the ash heap of history, and the Supreme Court could make that happen as early as next month.
But, first, here’s a look back on what the LGBT history books will likely record as the political and legal events of 2013 which had the greatest impact on LGBT lives:

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an Orders List Oct. 6, the first day of its 2014-15 session, denying petitions from five states seeking to preserve bans on same-sex marriage. The refusal to take up the appeals meant that at least six justices did not feel the appeals merited consideration (it takes four justices to agree to hear an appeal before it can be taken up by the full court).

And, given that the refusal to hear the appeals meant that same-sex couples could suddenly get married in a whole host of new states, it signaled that those six justices will almost certainly vote to overturn state bans on same-sex marriage once the court does take a case. Just one month after the Supreme Court denied to hear the appeals, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals became the only federal appeals court to have upheld the constitutionality of such bans. In doing so, it prompted a new round of appeals, ones seeking to strike down the state bans, and ones the high court will now almost certainly review or reverse without argument. Meanwhile, by year’s end, same-sex couples could obtain marriage licenses in 36 states (though appeals were still alive in eight of those states). By January 5, couples can obtain marriage licenses in Florida, while that state’s appeal continues. By comparison, at the end of 2013, same-sex couples could marry in only 17 states.

President Obama signed an executive order in July prohibiting businesses that hold contracts with the federal government from discriminating against employees or potential employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Almost as important as the executive order itself, the new executive order neither expanded nor removed a relatively narrow exemption put in place by President George W. Bush –an exemption that allowed “a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society” to discriminate. A small group of religious leaders has urged the president to include a “robust religious exemption.” On December 3, the Department of Labor issued is final rule for implementing the new executive order, Executive Order 13672, and the Federal Register published that rule on December 9. It will take effect in April 8, 2015, and is expected to help as many as 14 million workers.

The U.S. Department of Education released guidelines in May to clarify for schools receiving federal aid that Title IX of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination “extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” The DOE’s guidance made clear that its Office of Civil Rights “accepts such complaints for investigation.”

The U.S. Supreme Court allowed a closely held family company, Hobby Lobby, to deny certain health coverage for employees under the company’s health plan by saying the owners have religious objections to providing the coverage. LGBT legal activists called the decision a “dangerous and radical departure from existing law,” saying it could provide a means for employers to discriminate against LGBT people by denying coverage for such things as reproductive insemination, gender reassignment treatments, or HIV prevention efforts.

Several state legislatures, including Georgia, attempted to adopt new bills to allow people to claim that discriminatory treatment of others is an exercise of their religious beliefs. The bills in those states were clearly aimed at allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation, but most fizzled out under pressure from major corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Delta, and Home Depot.

The Vatican under Pope Francis continued to send out occasional pro-LGBT messages, following on his comment last year that it wasn’t his duty to judge a gay person who was seeking to follow Christ’s word. A Vatican document released in June called on the church to treat LGBT people with more respect, and four months later, another document produced by a Catholic leaders meeting in Rome noted that the support gay partners provide each other is worthy of respect. But the final report issued from the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops eliminated all such language, saying there were “no ground whatsoever…for assimilating” gay relationships into the church.

Several African nations, including Uganda and Nigeria, passed archaic laws against the existence of gay people, making same-sex relationships and activities punishable by death. In February, a mob in Nigeria dragged 40 men it believed to be gay out of their beds and into the streets where they were beaten with wooden clubs. President Obama issued a statement saying Uganda’s law would “complicate” the relationship between Uganda and the U.S. But when the White House held a Summit on Africa in August, leaders of these countries were included.

The Winter Olympics, held in Russia, drew international attention to that country’s newly passed and harsh laws aimed at silencing LGBT people. The laws made it a crime to “promote LGBT equality in public.” The U.S. conveyed its more positive message for LGBT people, President Obama named openly gay athletes as three out of his ten-member official delegation to the event, and he canceled a one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though the International Olympic Committee did little at the time but voice its principle of non-discrimination generally, on December 8, it quietly passed an amendment to its Olympic Charter Principle 6, explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation and the only one with an openly lesbian mayor, finally passed a long-sought human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Mayor Annise Parker pushed for the measure and, when it passed, was threatened with a recall. But neither the recall nor a promised referendum on the measure ever made it to the ballot.

The Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate in November, giving the GOP control of both chambers of Congress and making the prospects for passage of any pro-LGBT legislation –including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act—virtually nil. But the truth is: ENDA and other pro-LGBT legislation had virtually no chance of passage while Democrats controlled the Senate, because Republican House Speaker John Boehner made clear, and made good, his promise not to give such legislation floor time. Meanwhile, a Human Rights Campaign survey this year found that 53 percent of LGBT people still hide their sexual orientation from almost everybody at work.