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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Gays and lesbians have adopted the phrase It Gets Better as a kind of slogan to assure young people that life won't always be so tough.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

From the perspective of people who are LGBT, life has been getting better in a very short period of time. The gay rights movement began less than 50 years ago. Today, supporters of same-sex marriage outnumber opponents.

MONTAGNE: Now the Supreme Court is about to hear two big cases that could shift the landscape for gay rights again. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this history of the bumpy road the U.S. has travelled.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Right now, gay rights groups are more wound up than they've been in years. Based on next week's arguments, the Supreme Court may dramatically change their fortunes for better or worse. The same feeling was in the air after police arrested two men in Atlanta in 1982. Those men were charged with sodomy, consensual sex in one man's home. The case went to the Supreme Court, called Bowers versus Hardwick.

Mike Bowers prosecuted the men, as Georgia's attorney general.

MIKE BOWERS: For me, it was just part of doing a job. I had a specific duty to carry out, and I tried to carry it out.

SHAPIRO: Bowers won by a 5-4 vote, and sodomy laws stayed in place until the justices overturned that ruling some 15 years later. Today, Mike Bowers says he always believed that sodomy laws would be the first domino to fall in a chain leading to marriage.

BOWERS: I predicted to a magazine writer that this was coming, and he called me one of the craziest people he'd ever talked to. Once you do away with the sodomy laws, it's just a short step to debating same-sex marriages, and I thought it was sure to come.

SHAPIRO: His legal team also argued that repealing sodomy laws would lead to polygamy, incest, prostitution and more. Those are not on the horizon, even as same-sex marriage is. It took a long time to reach this place, and the path included a lot of suffering for a lot of people.

When Congressman Barney Frank was a kid in the 1950s, gay marriage was inconceivable. He barely thought he could work in government as an openly gay person.

REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK: It never struck me as remotely possible that I could have an elected career, and even an appointed career. I assumed I would have to be very closeted to get that.

SHAPIRO: He finally came out publicly in 1987. Republican Senator Alan Simpson called him right away.

FRANK: And he said, Barney, I just want to apologize. I probably, knowing me, he had made some - kind of told some anti-gay jokes in your presence. I'll never do that again. I feel - you know, I feel terrible. It was very decent of him.

SHAPIRO: Millions of people around the country had similar experiences as they got to know gay people personally. Even fictional TV characters have made a difference. In the early 1990s, the media seldom told gay stories, unless the subject was people dying of AIDS. Then a show called "My So-Called Life" started in 1994. Wilson Cruz played the flamboyant teenager Rickie Vasquez.

WILSON CRUZ: I didn't see any images of myself on TV, and, you know, to have, you know, a character who was both Latino and gay, you know, said to me that I am a part of the fabric of American society.

SHAPIRO: When Cruz started filming the show, he wasn't speaking to his father.

CRUZ: When I came out to him on Christmas Eve, he threw me out, and I lived on the street.

SHAPIRO: That story became a plotline on the show. In this scene, Cruz's character, Ricky, shows up at a teacher's house, wet and shivering.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "MY SO-CALLED LIFE")

CRUZ: (As Rickie Vasquez) (Unintelligible) I'm sorry. It's so hard to be alone.

My father called me after seeing that episode and, because of seeing it, said that he understood better what it was that I went through.

SHAPIRO: People watching at home understood, too. Four years later, an awful, real-life story opened people's eyes even wider. In Wyoming, Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered for being gay. His mother, Judy Shepard, received tens of thousands of letters from strangers, including lots of mothers.

JUDY SHEPARD: Especially young moms who were just starting their families, who said, I will never teach my children that hate. So it's sort of a, you know, I'm going to be different as a parent, and I'm not going to teach hate to my kids, like maybe my parents taught me.

SHAPIRO: Her son's death seemed to flip a switch for many Americans. After seeing Matthew Shepard, it no longer felt like enough to say live and let live.

SHEPARD: He spoke to the straight community in a way that I'm not sure other incidents did. People recognized him as he could've been their neighbor, their son, their grandson.

SHAPIRO: Still, two years later, when Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions for gay couples, it was a national earthquake. Governor Howard Dean signed the bill in 2000.

HOWARD DEAN: The phone calls, from mostly out of state, were so awful. I actually took a turn, without identifying myself, answering the phone in the office just to see how hateful they were, and they were really repulsive.

SHAPIRO: What did you hear?

DEAN: Oh, I can't repeat that on a family program. But it was disgusting.

SHAPIRO: And it got worse. Dean says there were death threats.

DEAN: My security detail asked me to wear a bulletproof vest in the summer when I was campaigning, after I signed it.

SHAPIRO: For all the controversy, civil unions soon took a backseat to the push for marriage. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court allowed gay couples to wed. On May 17th in Cambridge, Rob Compton and David Wilson took their vows in front of their kids and grandkids. They were plaintiffs in the marriage case and among the first to wed.

DAVID WILSON: Rob, I commit to love you, until death do us part.

ROB COMPTON: David, I commit to love you, until death do us part.

SHAPIRO: As other parts of the country took steps in the same direction, a backlash began. On Election Day in 2004, 13 states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Kevin Engler sponsored the Missouri House bill. Today he says he has gay friends and colleagues, and he wants them to have legal protections, but not marriage.

STATE SENATOR KEVIN ENGLER: In Missouri, we still have a law saying that you can fire somebody if they tell you they're gay. And I don't think that's right, and I don't think we should be persecuting people. Nor do I think that we should allow the sanctity of marriage to be performed by gay or lesbian people.

SHAPIRO: Kevin Engler accepts that the country is moving away from his view. But he thinks it's a shift in the wrong direction.

ENGLER: Things, yes, do change to become the norm, but that doesn't mean that that's necessarily the right thing. It used to be once it was a shame and embarrassment if you were a single mother. Now, my local newspaper and in the country, there may be eight birth announcements in the paper and there won't be one or two that are married.

SHAPIRO: Today, 31 states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. It's legal in nine states and Washington, D.C. Barney Frank, who thought he could never have a political career as an openly gay man, married his husband last year just before he retired from Congress.

FRANK: My problem was, you know, from where I started, about - thinking about I'll never be able to come out, I'll never win. You go back to - you get to 2012, when my problem was dealing with hurt feelings from members of Congress I hadn't been able to invite to the wedding because we had to put a limited size on it.

SHAPIRO: Next week, the Supreme Court hears challenges to California's gay marriage ban and to the law known as the Defense of Marriage Act. These will be the next major steps on a path the country has traveled for decades. We won't know for months which direction the steps will be. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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