Gay and lesbian advocates heralded the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as an historical milestone - but battles remain for gay-rights proponents, particularly on the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage.
The repeal of the law that forbade gay and lesbian soldiers from being open about their sexuality was the first time Congress has voted in support of a bill ending a form of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The repeal signals a "sea change," in the status of gay and lesbian people in the broader society, said Kate Kendell, the Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. The battle for gay and lesbian rights "isn't the same as the fight for racial equality," said Ms. Kendell, "but surely when the government gets out of the business of sponsoring discrimination, the attitudes and opinions of the wider culture move to embrace greater inclusion and acceptance."
Yet the gulf on gay rights remains deep when it comes to other issues. Congress never passed the so-called Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and it remains legal in 29 states to fire people based on sexual orientation. In American business, offering domestic partnership benefits and protection from discrimination has become increasingly common. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights organization, some 89% of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 57% provide domestic partner health insurance benefits to employees.
Gay marriage remains a battleground. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that 52% of Americans support the federal government giving legal recognition to marriages between couples of the same sex, while 46% do not. Currently five states and the District of Columbia permit gay marriage, while 38 states have either laws or amendments against same-sex marriage.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina was among the eight Republicans who voted in favor of the repeal, and the only Southerner. He said the timing of the change was wrong, but the repeal was the right thing to do. "Given the generational transition that has taken place in our nation, I feel that this policy is outdated and repeal is inevitable," Sen. Burr said in a statement.
In 1993, when the policy was introduced by President Bill Clinton, NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls found no more than 43% of Americans supported lifting restrictions on gays in the military. This May, a CNN poll found that 78% supported the idea.
Some conservative groups lined up against the repeal. "The rush to repeal DADT...is a slap in the face of the American people who are tired of bully politics," read a letter to Congress signed by 90 members of the Freedom Federation, a coalition of conservative groups.
In the South, the reaction was mixed, particularly in areas with large military populations such as the Carolinas.
Ilario Pantano, a Marine Corps veteran and former GOP congressional nominee, criticized the repeal effort on his radio show, which airs in southeastern North Carolina. Mr. Pantano said Republicans and conservative Christians who didn't speak out against "are taking a cowardly position on an issue that's Biblically wrong," as well as militarily wrong.
In the last decade, gay-rights advocates have changed their message to focus less on the right to be different and more on the desire to join in the rights of mainstream society. That has come about, in part, as more gay Americans have come out to friends and family. Today, about 4% of Americans identify as gay or lesbian, said Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute, at the University of California at Los Angeles Law School, which studies sexual orientation in the law and public policy. Data from the Census Bureau in 2009 said there about 581,000 cohabitating same-sex couples in the U.S.
"For the first time, we're talking about how [gay] people aren't just victims, they can be heroes," said Mark Kleinschmidt, the gay mayor of Chapel Hill, N.C. and the son of a military officer, who watched the "Don't Ask" coverage on CSPAN. "That's transformative."
Mr. Kleinschmidt, 40, said he would likely have gone into the military himself, but "that decision was made for me," he said. "It had nothing to do with my ability, just something about me that they didn't want. That wasn't going to be true for another generation."
So, where is the United States Constitution being discussed? Where?
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