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Amid Daily Struggles, Gay Rights Movement Embraces Watershed Moments

Chris (right) and Renee Wiley pose for a wedding photo on Times Square in New York in December. Same-sex marriage in New York state became legal in July 2011.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Chris (right) and Renee Wiley pose for a wedding photo on Times Square in New York in December. Same-sex marriage in New York state became legal in July 2011.

From the sparks lit at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 to the whirl of same-sex marriage laws, the gay rights movement has made a lot of advances. But has it now reached a plateau?

Nine states and Washington, D.C., now legally recognize gay marriage, and the Supreme Court will take up same-sex marriage cases this session. American support for gay marriage has crossed a threshold, the Pew Research Center finds, and now more people support it than oppose it.

With the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the Pentagon is moving toward extending some of the benefits for married heterosexual couples to same-sex couples.

In his inaugural address, President Obama mentioned gay rights alongside the civil rights and women's rights movements.

"For me, at my age to see the president of the United States ... compare gay rights to the civil rights movement — I never thought I'd see this day," says veteran journalist Hank Plante, one of the first gay reporters on TV. "A lot of people worked hard for this over the years. I just feel very grateful about it all."

Plante tells NPR's Jackie Lyden that the gay rights movement is "nearing an end." He says younger people feel even more positive than he does.

"This whole thing is generational," he says. "Young people, they don't care."

He notes a Public Religion Research Institute study in 2011 that showed 44 percent of evangelical millennials (those aged 18-29) support gay marriage. That's compared to 12 percent of evangelicals 65 and older.

Beyond Marriage Fight, Daily Battles

At 66, Plante believes there's "no question" gays will see full and equal rights in his lifetime. But he says there's still work to be done: The Supreme Court's decisions await, for example, as do employment protections for the LGBT community in certain states.

One of those states is Kentucky.

"It is still legal currently, in most of our state, to fire someone from a job, deny them a place to live, or kick someone off a bus or out of a restaurant if someone thinks that they're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," says Chris Hartman, who directs the Fairness Campaign, a gay rights advocacy organization in Louisville.

The Kentucky Civil Rights Act protects a number of things, including race, religion, color and disability, but not sexual orientation or gender identity.

"This type of discrimination occurs many places," Hartman says, "but in places that don't have these types of protections, people who are prone to prejudice or who would commit discriminatory acts are emboldened to do so when leaders in their community will not step up and extend these types of anti-discrimination and fairness protections."

There's a lot more work ahead before the fight is over, Hartman says.

"In a lot of places in the country, folks feel that we're so close, that marriage is sort of the final frontier. And, of course, Barack Obama has created some watershed civil rights moments," he says. "But in a state like Kentucky, where you can still be fired from your job, it feels like the battle has just begun."

Visibility And Representation

Part of the struggle has also been reflected in popular culture. Back in 1994, actor Wilson Cruz played one of the first gay Hispanic characters on TV, Rickie Vasquez in My So-Called Life. In the show, the teenager comes out to his family and then is kicked out of his house.

Cruz got the role when he was 19, and it mimicked his own life. He became homeless after he told his family he was gay. He says when he auditioned for My So-Called Life, he was just grateful the part existed — whether or not he was cast.

"I knew how powerful it would be to me to see it, and how powerful it would have been for me as a teenager to have seen Rickie Vasquez on television," Cruz says.

He says people still tell him how much the half-black, half-Puerto Rican character affected them.

"For the most part — even, sadly, still — most of the LGBT characters that we see are white men. ... And I was not. And Rickie really was saddling a few different communities," Cruz says.

Cruz wishes he could see more diversity on TV, even now. But there are characters that stand out to him, like Unique, the black transgender teen on Glee. Cruz expects these contemporary actors won't realize the impact of their portrayals until they're much older.

"I feel like the granddaddy of them all, and I couldn't be prouder," he says.

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