First, it depends on to whom you are comparing the union. Comparing the United States to China would favor China if you’re looking at budget surpluses, but if you’re examining the environment for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, the United States is far and away the better state in which to live.
Second, the state of the union depends on what time frame against which you are making your comparison. The environment for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is decidedly much better now than it was in, say, the 1950s.
In the 1950s, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic book characterized same-sex attractions as part of a mental disorder. U.S. Rep. Arthur Miller told his colleagues on the floor of the House in 1950 that he would like to “strip the fetid, stinking flesh off of this skeleton of homosexuality….”
And by 1953, President Eisenhower issued an executive order barring gays from civil service employment –- a bar that existed until 1975.
And third, the state of the union depends on what your vision for that union is. The 1950s look just fine to a person who longs for all Americans to conform to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — one man, his wife, and two kids, all white, all straight, all the time. But for people who are not all straight and all white all the time, the Modern Family is a happier union.
So, making an assessment about the “State of the Union” can be a very subjective exercise. There are, however, some objective measurements that can be found that enable people to apply to whatever place, time, or view of the union they wish in making their assessment. And, for LGBT people, here are a few of those to reflect upon:
Public opinion polls
In 1972, the first time the General Social Surveys asked whether homosexual relations were “wrong” or “not wrong at all,” 87 percent of respondents said it was “wrong,” 11 percent said “not wrong at all,” and 2 percent had no response. (The GS Surveys are a well-respected tool of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.) By 2006, 32 percent said “not wrong.”
At last January’s Proposition 8 trial, public opinion expert Gary Segura of Stanford University testified that public feelings about gays and lesbians was similar to that for Muslims after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. A “feeling thermometer” (by the American National Elections Studies) gauging people’s feelings (hot or cold) about various groups has consistently found respondents rating “gays and lesbians” with cool to cold numbers.
And yet, issue-oriented polls have shown steady improvement. Sixty-eight percent were against allowing gays to marry in the 1990s; though still in the majority, only about 47 percent are now. In the 1970s, 56 percent of people felt gays should have equality in employment; now, 89 percent do.
Today, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Of those, 13 also ban discrimination based on gender identity.
Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation cover 44 percent of the U.S. population, and laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity cover 29 percent of the population.
Looked at another way, 56 percent of the population has no law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. But 30 years ago, there were no laws anywhere prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
By the end of the 1980s, only Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. By the end of the 1990s, it was 10 states and D.C. So half of the 21 states that have passed non-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people has done so only in the past 10 years.
There are no laws today prohibiting sexual relations between consenting adult same-sex partners. That’s been true since 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, struck down state laws prohibiting same-sex sexual relations.
But there are amendments to the constitutions of 30 states that specifically bar same-sex couples from marrying. All were approved in the last 15 years. And there are statutes in other states that do the same.
There is also a federal law (the Defense of Marriage Act) that allows states to ignore the legitimate licenses granted for same-sex marriage in the five states and District of Columbia, who grant them, and that allows the federal government to ignore those valid marriage licenses.
And, though Congress passed and President Obama just last month signed a bill to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal law banning openly gay people from serving in the military, that law won’t be repealed until the military jumps through a number of hoops to satisfy an unprecedented “certification” process to satisfy opponents of repeal, that repeal won’t harm military readiness.
Hate crimes against LGBT people
In 2009, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement officials reported recording 1,482 victims targeted due to bias based on sexual orientation.
That’s about the same as it was five years ago and fewer than the 1,664 reported ten years ago. The Hate Crimes Statistics Act was enacted in 1990, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (including sexual orientation) was enacted in October 2009. FBI numbers are not yet available for 2010.
The income for the nation’s largest LGBT political organization –- the Human Rights Campaign and its affiliated Foundation — was $38 million for its most recent fiscal year, ending March 31, 2010. That dwarfs what the $846,000 the organization brought in when this reporter first surveyed national gay groups in 1987. But it represents a significant drop (17 percent) from the $46 million HRC collected in its fiscal year ending in 2009.
The nation’s largest LGBT legal group –- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund — took in $17 million in its most recent fiscal year, 2009, compared to $677,360 in 1987 and $26 million in 2008.
By comparison, the right-wing’s largest political group -– Focus on the Family — expected $100 million in 2010 and the largest right-wing legal group – the Alliance Defense Fund — has an annual budget of $32.7 million in 2009, according to its website.
And, yes, there are many more criteria anyone could use in assessing the state of affairs for LGBT people in the United States today –- the frequency of positive portrayals of LGBT people in popular media; the number and viability of LGBT news outlets, community centers, and political groups; and the scoreboard on important legal challenges in the federal and state courts.
It matters, too, whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress and who controls the White House.
And, it can also matter whether that person who does sit in the Oval Office uses that bully pulpit to urge the rest of the country to respect the union of all Americans includes LGBT citizens.