Gays in America

I'm Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, from VOA Special English. This week, we look at some of the legal and social gains made in recent years by homosexuals in the United States.

Earlier this month, a clergyman named Gene Robinson became a leader in the Episcopal Church. He is the new bishop in the small, northeastern state of New Hampshire. He is the first Episcopal bishop to say publicly that he is gay.

The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion. There are seventy-million Anglicans around the world. More than two million of them belong to the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Gene Robinson is fifty-six years old. He was married and has two adult daughters. He has lived with the same man for the past fourteen years. Bishop Robinson says other members and leaders of the clergy have been gay, but have not said so. He says he is being honest. He says he does not believe his sexuality will harm his leadership.

Bishop Robinson was elected in June as leader of Episcopalians in New Hampshire. Later, a national convention of church leaders confirmed the decision. The ceremony in which he became bishop took place at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. About four-thousand people attended.

Most of the people at the ceremony cheered Bishop Robinson. But some opponents also attended. A member of the Episcopal Church and two clergymen spoke in opposition. One speaker read a statement signed by thirty-eight Episcopal bishops. The statement said Bishop Robinson's relationship with another man violates the teachings of the church and the writings of the Christian Bible.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, expressed deep regret at the divisions in the Anglican Communion. As archbishop of the Church of England, he is the spiritual leader of Anglicans.

Anglican leaders in Africa have been especially critical of the choice of Gene Robinson as a bishop.

Some Episcopalians and other Anglicans say the dispute is just beginning. But the choice of a gay bishop is seen as another sign of wider acceptance of homosexuals in the United States.

In June, the same month Gene Robinson was elected bishop, the United States Supreme Court cancelled a law in Texas. That law made sexual relations between adults of the same sex a crime.

The Supreme Court was divided, six-to-three. But the majority found that the law violated freedoms under the Constitution. The ruling effectively rejected the last few laws of this kind in the United States. Supporters of gay rights called it a major victory.

Then, in July, the nation's largest private employer said it would increase protection of the civil rights of gay and lesbian employees.

Wal-Mart employs more than one-million people worldwide at stores that sell all kinds of goods at low prices. The company agreed to expand its equal employment rules. These rules already barred unfair treatment of racial and religious minorities and disabled people, among others.

Gay rights groups have been working to get more companies to extend similar protection. One group, based in Washington, D.C., is called the Human Rights Campaign. It says more than three-hundred of the five-hundred largest companies in the United States now have such policies.

Earlier this month, the Human Rights Campaign launched a public education effort through the media. The group says society would gain if all loving couples had the right to marry.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has been considering an important appeal on this issue. The case involves two women denied a marriage license. This is the document needed to have an official marriage ceremony.

Some clergy now perform religious ceremonies for couples of the same sex. But these couples lack the rights and protections traditionally given to husbands and wives.

In two-thousand, another state in the Northeast, Vermont, recognized civil unions. A civil union gives same-sex couples the responsibilities and legal protections of marriage. But no state recognizes two people of the same sex as legally married.

The United States Constitution does not define marriage. Some Republicans in Congress support the idea of a constitutional amendment. It would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

President Bush said in July that lawyers were looking at the best way to establish that idea in law. Mr. Bush said it is very important for society to welcome those with "good hearts." But, he added, that does not mean someone like him has to compromise on an issue such as marriage.

In October, the president declared an observance of Marriage Protection Week.

Roman Catholic leaders in America have added their voice to the opposition to same-sex marriage. Last week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement in the form of questions and answers. The document says the purposes of marriage are established by God. It says marriage is directly related to the common good of society. In September, the top committee of the bishops voted to support a marriage amendment to the Constitution.

About sixty million members of the Roman Catholic Church live in the United States. The country has a total population of almost three-hundred-million people.

Some religious groups in America offer support to gay men and lesbians. Others condemn homosexuality. Some groups want to make opposition to same-sex marriage an issue in the presidential election next year. Still other groups express no official position.

Current United States policy about gays in the military became law ten years ago. It was during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

The policy is called “don't ask, don't tell.” It says service members should not ask about the sexuality of other members. It says they should also not discuss their own sexuality.

Under this policy, however, the military can still dismiss gays. A private group, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, studies Defense Department records. It says the military dismissed just over nine-hundred people last year for homosexuality. That was the lowest number reported since nineteen-ninety-six.

In July of this year, a former Army officer began legal action to demand his retirement payments. He was dismissed in nineteen-ninety-seven, one week before he could have retired after twenty years in the Army. He also wants to have the "don't ask, don't tell policy" declared unfair.

In the area of education, gay and lesbian students now have a public high school especially for them. It opened in September in New York City. Many of the students accepted by the school were mistreated in other schools.

Supporters and a small number of protesters gathered outside for the opening of Harvey Milk High School. Harvey Milk was a gay county supervisor in San Francisco, California. He was shot to death in nineteen-seventy-eight.

The school has almost one-hundred students. Some educators praise the idea. They say the school provides a chance for the students to study in a safer environment. But others say the idea of such a school is like separating the races.

As time has passed, more people have publicly identified themselves as gay. Television programs and movies about gays are popular. One program is called "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Each week, five gay men help a heterosexual man look better and have a nicer home. Usually the goal is to improve his relationships with women.

Gay men and lesbians have gained influence in politics. Voters have elected them to local and state offices and Congress.

At the same time, activist groups have helped the fight against AIDS gain more money. During the nineteen-eighties, doctors in the United States first identified the deadly disease among gay men.

Some Americans believe homosexuality is wrong. But developments in recent years suggest that social acceptance of gays and lesbians in the United States has increased. One thing is sure: Discussion of these issues is out in the open in American life as never before.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.