Barriers remain despite recent gay rights milestones, advocates say

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 12:42 PM

A judge's order this week ending the military ban on openly gay service members capped a ground-breaking year for gay rights advocates, who have won a series of courtroom victories on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to adoption.

But several recent incidents have highlighted a harsher reality. At least five teens across the country have taken their own lives after allegedly being taunted as gay. This week, authorities arrested 10 people in the Bronx, N.Y., in connection with the brutal assault of two teens and an adult who police say were tortured for being gay.

And earlier this week, Carl P. Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor in New York, grabbed headlines for saying that children should not be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option."

The incidents have sparked outrage from gay rights advocates, who say they are evidence that America in many ways remains a hostile place for gays and lesbians despite the movement's significant and rapid progress.

"It's a very odd moment, because there's all of these horrific things happening, and they are happening at a moment when we're making faster progress than, I think, ever before," said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, an advocacy group.

This summer, supporters of gay unions won a historic victory when a federal judge struck down California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The decision followed a ruling in Massachusetts declaring unconstitutional the federal government's ban on recognizing legally married same-sex couples. Both decisions are on hold pending appeal.

On Wednesday, Florida officials announced they would comply with a court ruling that the state must drop its 33-year ban on adoptions by gays.

And a federal judge on Tuesday ordered the military to end its "don't ask, don't tell" policy forbidding gay and lesbian members of the military from serving openly. That decision came weeks after a federal judge in Washington state ordered the reinstatement of a decorated Air Force officer who had been dismissed for revealing she is a lesbian.

But the Bronx attacks, the rash of teen suicides and the remarks by a prominent politician - who later apologized - have cast a shadow over those gains.

According to police, the 10 men in the Bronx attacks lured the teens and a 30-year-old man into a home and "tortured" them for several hours while using gay epithets.

Last month, Tyler Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University student, jumped off a bridge after a sexual encounter he had with another man was caught on a webcam and broadcast. About the same time, Seth Walsh, an openly gay 13-year-old, hanged himself in his Fresno, Calif., home after complaining of bullying, according to media reports.

Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, shot himself after classmates mocked him by calling him gay, his parents told the Houston Chronicle. Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Indiana, hanged himself after enduring years of torment, a friend told news organizations.

And 15-year-old Justin Aaberg, who killed himself in July, was the third openly gay student from his Minnesota high school to take his own life in a year, according to media reports.

Gay rights groups acknowledge that it is impossible to fully know why someone commits suicide. However, they say the confusion, isolation and bullying that gay youths often experience can contribute to depression and self-destructive thoughts. They say intolerant remarks by community leaders do not help.

The advocates, who view their struggle as a fight for civil rights, add that social change often sparks negative reactions.

"Our gains are generally so hard won, and take place in the context of fairly vitriolic debate, so the message that goes out is not just what the victory is but also the horrendous debate that surrounds it," said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). "It makes each moment of progress something of a double-edged sword, particularly as it pertains to young people."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, has argued that it is unfair to blame society for the actions of a misguided bully, or a single troubled teen driven by unknown forces to take his or her own life. He blamed gay rights groups that encourage youths to embrace homosexuality at an early age.

"Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal - yet they have been told by the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment, that they are 'born gay' and can never change," he wrote in a column published by The Washington Post. "This - and not society's disapproval - may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide."

Ethan Geto, a longtime gay activist and lobbyist, said that the incidents of violence, while disturbing, should not obscure advances. Advocates point to public opinion surveys, include Post polls showing that 75 percent of Americans think gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, and nearly half think gays and lesbians should be allowed to legally wed.

"We have made fantastic progress. We are going at warp speed. This is the fastest civil rights movement in history," Geto said. "I sometimes say to younger gay people who don't appreciate this history that, [growing up] I was quaking inside a closet because, God forbid anyone found out I was gay, my family or classmates at school. I thought, 'I'd rather kill myself.' "

He added: "While obviously, in some communities, terrible incidents of terrible physical and emotional violence occur, it's a shadow of what it used to be like."

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