America's Changing Attitudes toward Homosexuality, Civil Unions, and Same-Gender Marriage: 1977-2004

Article excerpt

Equal rights for lesbians and gay men may be the greatest civil rights battle of the 21st century. Recent activism and initiatives to solemnize same-sex marriages or legalize civil unions have brought unprecedented public attention to the concerns of gay men and lesbians. Although many states and couples have begun legal battles that may last for many years, the legal rights of same-gender couples and their families remain uncertain. In the court of public opinion, however, Americans' attitudes toward homosexuality, civil unions, and same-gender marriages are slowly crystallizing. As with race relations and women's rights, over the past 25 years Americans' stance toward gay men and lesbians has become more positive, while at the same time many continue to oppose targeted policy and specific rights for this group. The next 25 years may produce a rather dramatic legal and cultural transition, and social workers must stay abreast of the issues to serve all their clients effectively.

LEGAL UNIONS

Although Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples in May 2004, additional states, including California, Vermont, and Hawaii, recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships for same-gender couples. Civil unions and domestic partnerships, however, are not marriages. The question of whether same-gender couples should receive the same rights and protections as married heterosexual couples remains unanswered as a matter of public policy. Until very recently, the majority of Americans believed that marriage between same-gender couples was wrong (Walen, 1997). In 1999 two-thirds of Americans thought that gay and lesbian couples should not have the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to marriage (Newport, 1999).

Recent media attention toward civil unions and same-sex marriage, however, may have contributed to shifting the balance of American opinion more toward support of some legal recognition of same-gender relationships. In a Gallup poll conducted May 2-4, 2004, 49 percent of respondents agreed that same-gender couples who enter a civil union should have the same rights as a heterosexual married couple; 48 percent of respondents opposed this idea (Moore & Carroll, 2004). Although these findings do not show overwhelming support for civil unions or same-gender marriage, they demonstrate an increase in support for gay and lesbian couples compared with surveys taken in the late 1990s. In addition, as Kurtz (2000) suggested, even Americans opposed to solemnizing same-gender marriages may still not consider homosexuality to be wrong or a sin.

TOLERANCE AND EQUAL RIGHTS

Public acceptance of solemnizing same-gender marriage is often seen as one step toward full acceptance of gay men and lesbians in general and as a measure of their political and social influence as a group. Although much progress has been made, lesbians and gay men continue to face discrimination in several domains. Following is a survey of issues that this population faces in the workplace, politics, education, and the military.

Workplace

As same-gender couples work toward legal recognition of their relationships, they also desire greater rights and benefits for their partners and their families. Recently in New Hampshire, the Lebanon School Board signed a three-year contract with the teachers' union to extend health benefits to the partners of gay employees by a 6-2 vote. In doing so, the board was recognizing an institution that the state has not legalized. In addition to the school board, five other New Hampshire employers have extended health insurance to same-sex couples, including three corporations and two public schools (Davis, 2004).

Regarding medical decision making, a new bill in Annapolis, Maryland, garnered a House committee majority vote to create a state registry of domestic partners with the Department of Health that would grant them the right to make medical decisions for each other, a privilege formerly denied same-sex couples (Parker, 2004). …

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