How 2013 Became The 'Gayest Year Ever'

Utah's surprise decision to legalize same-sex marriage caps a landmark year for gay rights. The last 12 months saw a huge string of victories, from state legislatures, to Congress, to the Supreme Court.

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It's the time of year when we look back on the winners and losers of 2013. And for gay rights groups, the last 12 months saw a huge string of victories, from state legislatures to Congress to the Supreme Court. The surprise ruling in Utah legalizing same-sex marriage is just the latest win. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on why some LGBT advocates are calling 2013 the gayest year ever.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At the start of this year, millions of people watched President Obama deliver his second inaugural address. Gay rights advocates were shocked and delighted to hear him speak forcefully for their cause.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forbearers through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.

SHAPIRO: With one alliterative phrase, the president connected women's suffrage, civil rights and the LGBT movement into a single fight for equality. And he went on.

OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

SHAPIRO: The justices of the Supreme Court sat just behind the president and a few months later, they delivered the biggest gay rights ruling in at least a decade. In a 5-4 vote, the court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

EDITH WINDSOR: Today is like a spectacular event for me.

SHAPIRO: Eighty-four-year old Edith Windsor challenged the law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. On the steps of the high court, Windsor remembered her wife and partner of 40 years.

WINDSOR: I mean, it's a lifetime kind of event. And I know that the spirit of my late spouse, Thea Spyer, OK, is right here watching and listening and would be very proud and happy of where we've come to.

SHAPIRO: On the same day, the justices struck down California's same-sex marriage ban. California was one of nine states, including Utah, to legalize marriage this year. That's as many as all the previous years combined. Evan Wolfson runs the group Freedom to Marry. He remembers 30 years ago when he decided to write his law school thesis about same-sex marriage.

EVAN WOLFSON: I had brought it to several professors and asked them to be the adviser to my paper. And many of them turned me down, some of them because it seemed too farfetched. It seemed too unattainable. And some turned it down because they probably thought it was a goal really not worth fighting for and, therefore, not particularly worth analyzing.

SHAPIRO: When Wolfson created Freedom to Marry 10 years ago, not one state allowed gay couples to wed. Today, almost 40 percent of Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is legal. On the other side, more than 30 states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage but that trend has been slowing. The last state to pass such a ban was North Carolina in 2012. Chad Griffin runs the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.

CHAD GRIFFIN: Look, in many ways, we have two Americas today, right. We have the coasts and a couple of dots in the middle where we have nearly achieved full legal equality. But then you have the rest of the country. You have the South and you have the Midwest. And those places, they only saw and read about those victories.

SHAPIRO: But even in the South and the Midwest, people are seeing more gay characters on TV, corporations are becoming more LGBT-friendly, and this year broke new ground in Congress, too. Right now, it's legal in many states to fire people for being gay. In the Senate, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act protecting LGBT workers came up for a vote and passed 64 to 32.

Not one lawmaker spoke on the Senate floor against it and some of ENDA's most vocal supporters were Republicans. And it prompted Mark Kirk of Illinois to give his first Senate floor speech since suffering a major stroke almost two years ago.

SENATOR MARK KIRK: I think it's particularly appropriate for an Illinois Republican to speak on behalf of this measure in the true tradition of Everett McKinley Dirksen and Abraham Lincoln, men who gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

SHAPIRO: Winnie Stachelberg has spent decades in Washington and she says the change here is dramatic. She's now with the liberal Center for American Progress.

WINNIE STACHELBERG: I was around in 1996 when the Senate failed, 49 to 50, to pass ENDA. And so 17 years later, that is a huge, huge step forward for ending discrimination in the workplace against gay and transgendered employees.

SHAPIRO: But Speaker John Boehner kept the bill from a vote in the House, meaning ENDA has not become law. Peter Sprigg is with the Family Research Council, a group that opposes ENDA and same-sex marriage.

PETER SPRIGG: Certainly, there were some victories for the homosexual activist movement this year. But some of the major issues were kind of half-victories.

SHAPIRO: For example, the Prop 8 Supreme Court ruling on California's marriage law was only a partial victory. It did not mandate same-sex marriage across the country. And Sprigg thinks the country could be entering a period of stasis on marriage, where the easy battles on both sides have all been fought.

SPRIGG: So I think we may be headed for sort of a standoff where the real battle will be to see if they can repeal any of the existing constitutional amendments which exist in a majority of states.

SHAPIRO: Beyond politics, gay people had some dramatic breakthroughs in 2013. This was the year Pope Francis reached out to gay Catholics in a way no pope has done before.

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: He said, if a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge him? This year, California and New Jersey became the first states to ban conversion therapy for minors; 2013 was the year the country's oldest and largest ex-gay group shutdown. Exodus President Alan Chambers.

ALAN CHAMBERS: I understand why I'm distrusted and why Exodus is hated. I cannot ask you to forgive me. That would be presumptuous. But please know that I'm deeply sorry.

SHAPIRO: On the Oprah Winfrey Network, Chambers apologized for the harm he and his organization caused gay people.

CHAMBERS: I'm sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to him, that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart.

SHAPIRO: So what's responsible for this massive national sea change? Chad Griffin of HRC attributes it to the same thing a San Francisco city supervisor talked about 40 years ago.

GRIFFIN: Harvey Milk said it in 1973. The most important thing we can do is come out - come out at home, come out at school, come out at church. Because when you know us, you don't hate us.

SHAPIRO: 2013 may have been the gayest year yet. But people like Chad Griffin argue that 2012 was also the gayest year to date and so was 2011 before that. For the last several years, the trend in this country has moved in only one direction. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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