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The Gay Year in Review: The Top 10 News Stories

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Dec 31, 2008

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Dickens' beginning of "A Tale of Two Cities" is a favorite of anyone searching for the right words to sum up an era. But they seem particularly appropriate to LGBT Americans looking back on 2008.

The year included some of our biggest successes and most painful defeats. It showed us winning elections and losing our rights. Several nations in Africa paid us special attention of the worst kind, while a few others turned a corner and gave us our rights.

Here are the highlights and lowlights of 2008, in ascending order.


10: Abroad, Setbacks in Africa, Ahead in Southern Asia

In Africa, the news was unremittingly grim: breakdown of civil order in Somalia and the Congo. The chaotic regime of the evil (and virulently homophobic) Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s strongman. Genocide in Darfur.

Amidst all this horror, the continent’s leaders knew who to blame: gay men. The list of nations that took it upon themselves to oppress, harass, exile, beat, imprison or even execute gay men (and some lesbians) is depressingly long, but includes Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt and Kenya.

In South Africa, the nation’s president’s past refusal to acknowledge HIV as the cause of AIDS was estimated to contribute to the death of 350,000--and counting. The country enshrines gay rights in its constitution, but still roving bands managed to gang rape a lesbian, among other atrocities.

In South Asia, the news was better. The tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal overthrew its ancient monarchy and recognized gay rights. It may even recognize gay marriage.

China’s leaders realized that AIDS existed there, and that gay men would have to become part of the solution, not merely blamed. India began the process of decriminalizing private, consensual gay sex.

And in Austria, the death of the ultra-right wing leader Jorge Haider led his aide to confess to a passionate love affair. Haider (pictured) was married at the time of his death.


9: Gay Athletes Shine at Olympics

The Beijing Olympics were a giant coming-out party for gay athletes. There were out-athletes from all over the world who competed in sports ranging from volleyball to archery. American Robert Dover, for example, competed as an equestrian.

But the one person who emerged as the Comeback Kid was an unassuming Australian named Matthew Mitcham. This 20-year-old overcame huge obstacles to take the 10-meter platform Gold Medal from the Chinese with the single most highly rated dive in Olympics history.

Mitcham was the first Aussie to win gold since 1924 and became a hero at home. He also caused controversy when NBC edited out shots of his partner, whom he hugged and kissed during media interviews. NBC Sports later apologized.

Mitcham is a new hero for a new century.


8: Barney Frank Shows His Muscle

It’s hard to remember a time when no member of the U.S. Congress would dare step out of the closet. Few probably recall Gerry Studds, who was forced out of the closet only after it was discovered that he was having an affair with a 17-year-old page.

Those days were not far away at all, but they seem so now. If there is a silver lining in the horrible financial meltdown, it’s the new prominence given to Barney Frank (pictured).

As chair of the powerful House Financial Committee, the Democratic representative from Massachusetts became the most quoted, interviewed and influential member of that body besides Speaker Pelosi.

The right tried to tie Frank to his relationship to an executive with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And he got into an on-air shouting match with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. But he never broke stride.

Joining Frank and Tammy Baldwin is Jared Polis, from Colorado. The most notable aspect of his campaign was that no one, including his GOP opposition, made anything of his sexuality. When it’s not news, it’s news. Of a good kind.


7: Obama Giveth & Taketh Away

We (or most of us) worked hard to elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States. And he, in turn, promised to be the most gay-friendly president in history.

Although he does not favor gay marriage, he did oppose anti-marriage state amendments and the Clinton Era Defense of Marriage Act.

So why, after he was elected, didn’t he pick an out-gay person to be in his cabinet? We were still wrapping our arms around that one when he chose Pastor Rick Warren, head of a mega-church out West and outspoken opponent of gay unions, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

Warren tries to "cure" gays of, well, their gayness. Otherwise, they’re not welcome in his church. He’s against reproductive choice.

The ensuing outcry threatened to overwhelm Obama’s policies, and his "people’ were left to do damage control while he went on vacation.

Stay tuned.


6: Anti-8 Protests Go Viral

After California voters passed an initiative banning gay marriage (see below), the effect was immediate. Using the Internet as an organizing tool, thousands of people made plans for protests.

The turnout in cities large and small became a groundswell. It was the first mass movement that arose from the bottom up, using the power of the Internet.

The protests engulfed some private citizens who had supported the marriage ban, including a Sacramento theater director and the head of the Los Angeles Film Society.

The Mormon Church came in for special acrimony, as the main contributor to the "Yes on 8" campaign.


5: ’Milk’ Points to Past Victories

It was a good time to be reminded that the struggle for gay rights has been going on for some time.

The film "Milk" arrived with a good deal of hype, and for once, the product lived up to expectations. Sean Penn embodied the personality and spirit of Harvey Milk, a middle-aged man who reinvented himself in the maelstrom of San Francisco’s Castro in the 1970s and rose to political power before being murdered, along with the city’s mayor.

Along with the triumph of "Milk," which looks set to do nicely at awards season and at the box office, there was a tragedy that touched many of us.

Heath Ledger wasn’t gay, but his portrait of Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain" became a touchstone. His death, apparently an accidental overdose of pain killers, in New York City, immediately turned him into a potent symbol of a generation--a James Dean for our age.


4: Lawrence King Highlights Increased Anti-Gay Violence

A 15-year-old boy in suburban California became an unwitting symbol of the horrific violence that continues against gay men, lesbians and the transgendered in this country.

Lawrence King was shot in school by a classmate. His "crime" was not conforming to the code of teenage behavior.

In Memphis, Duanna Johnson was a transgendered person who was videotaped being beaten by police. Her crime: cross-dressing. She was later found dead; her killer has not been found.

At the very end of the year, another horrible murder showed how random such acts are. Two brothers from Ecuador were walking in Brooklyn, N.Y., when men came out of a van, shouted anti-immigrant and anti-gay epithets and beat one of them to death.

These deaths and others made 2008 a year in which anti-gay violence increased, according to statistics from several organizations.


3: Connecticut Legalizes Gay Marriage

In the midst of the agony about Proposition 8 in California, a major victory across the country nearly went unrecognized.

So let us take a moment to praise the good people of the Nutmeg Stage. Little Connecticut, proper, churchgoing, quaint New England Connecticut formalized gay marriage.

True, it was done through the courts. But the state’s Legislature made it clear that it would probably have done so eventually anyway. And the state’s Republican governor said she won’t oppose it.

Most importantly, the state’s residents showed a clear distaste for enshrining discrimination when they firmly voted down a state constitutional convention. The measure, on the November ballot, would have had one sole purpose: to ban gay marriage. It was heavily supported by the Catholic Church, but surveys showed a clear majority of residents likes things the way they are.

Connecticut thus becomes the second state, next to neighboring Massachusetts, to legalize gay marriage--and keep it legal.


2: California Legalizes Gay Marriage

You probably know where this is going. But it was still a huge story. When California, which is not only the largest and wealthiest state in the country but has the 10th-largest economy in the world, does something, it’s news.

The state’s highest court in May ruled that gay men and lesbians had the right to marry. It was a major victory for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (pictured), who staked his political future on this fight.

Tens of thousands of couples legalized their relationship, as county clerks rushed to get up to speed about how to phrase marriage contracts. Even the GOP governor recognized the economic benefits.

Alas, the euphoria proved to be short-lived.


1: California, Florida, Arizona Ban Gay Marriage; Arkansas Bans Gay Adoptions

The now-notorious Proposition 8 was put on the ballot by a group of activists intent on banning California’s newly proclaimed gay marriages. Thanks to the state’s history of ballot initiatives, the state’s voters were allowed to express their feelings about the court’s decision.

Many believed that the outpouring of support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama paradoxically might have helped 8 pass, especially because of his support among black voters. The firestorm of controversy between blacks and gays threatened to cause a breach between the two groups that hasn’t healed yet.

The Mormon Church became the most active participant in the "Yes on 8" campaign. The church found itself on the defensive for its political involvement, and some Mormon-owned businesses were targeted for boycotts.

But the passage of an anti-marriage amendment in neighboring Arizona was perhaps even more heartbreaking, because the state’s citizens had previously voted down just such a measure--the first (and thus far, only) time an American electorate had done so.

Florida took a step further with a constitutional initiative that passed with over 60 percent. And in Arkansas, an especially cruel law will now not let gay couples or unmarried straight ones adopt children, leaving thousands of children without prospective loving foster parents.

Such was the paradoxical mood of the electorate in 2008.


Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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