DECEMBER 31, 1999 • HOUSTON VOICE
The Gay '90s: 'Our' decade brings dramatic change
by LAURA BROWN
Despite some disappointments and setbacks along the way, the decade fulfilled its
promise of being the gay '90s—with dramatic changes that could not have even been
envisioned 10 years ago, leaders of several
national gay organizations said this week.
Perhaps the greatest change has come
in the treatment of HIV and AIDS, and
the subsequent social changes as many of
those affected by the virus adjusted to
living, rather than quickly dying, with
the disease. AIDS dominated many
aspects of organized gay life in the 1980s
and early 1990s, as countless friends and
lovers succumbed to the disease and
organizations, many gay-led, offered care
to the dying and comfort to the bereaved.
Out of the abject loss also rose a new
political spirit—a spirit born of the
activist ACT UP mantra, "Silence equals
Death"—that brought gay men and lesbians into the streets time and again, first
to fight for better funding and access to
HIV treatment, then for other gay rights
issues as groups like Queer Nation
formed chapters around the country
based on ACT UP's grassroots model.
But the face of AIDS, and many AIDS
organizations, changed dramatically in the
mid-1990s, when protease inhibitors became
available to treat the disease. Taken as part
of complicated medicine regimen dubbed
"drug cocktails," protease inhibitors offered
The brutal October 1998 killing of college student Matthew Shepard was covered more
extensively in the general press than any
other anti-gay crime and exposed the dears of
gays to the rest of the world.
the first real hope of significantly prolonging
the lives of those with HIV. Death rates
began dropping and headlines filled with
stories of those who appeared to have been
literally resurrected from the grave.
In the wake of the renewed hope, many
AIDS groups found themselves restructur-
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ing to focus on managing life with HIV,
rather than mostly on hospice and other care
for the dying. Agencies, many formed and
led by gay men in the beginning of the epidemic, also struggled to target their outreach and programs to people of color and
women, as HIV began spreading most rapidly in these populations.
Further study soon proved that protease
inhibitors were no miracle cure: Some
patients did not respond to the drugs, developed serious side effects, or were unable to
adhere to the complicated dosing schedules,
developing drug-resistant strains of HIV
and sparking fears of a new epidemic.
But the success of the new treatments for
many offered breathing room to activists
focusing on other gay rights causes, and the
later years of the decade offered victories
that would have seemed impossible 10
To be certain, major battles remain to be
won—as in 1989, the U.S. still has no federal
law banning job discrimination on the basis
of sexual orientation, no federal law recognizing the rights of same sex couples and no
law allowing federal intervention in anti-
gay hate crimes.
Yet an unprecedented level of visibility in
this decade has led to advances in the fights
for each of these, as well as myriad other
changes, both in public policies and private
opinions, which many say will pave the way
to larger victories to come.
The U.S. Senate fell only one vote short of
passing the Employment Non-
Discrimination Act to ban anti-gay job discrimination in 1996, and a bill to add sexual
orientation to federal hate crimes laws
passed the Senate in 1999 attached to a
spending bill, although it was cut from the
final version of the bill.
Meanwhile, gay lobbyists and their
Congressional supporters battled back
numerous anti-gay bills and amendments
during the heyday of Newt Gingrich's
"Republican revolution," including a measure that would have overturned President
Clinton's executive order banning sexual
orientation discrimination in the federal
civilian work force.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"—the 1993 "compromise" bill that banned gays from serving
openly in the military while supposedly
protecting them from witch hunts—and the
"Defense of Marriage Act," which banned
federal recognition of same-sex marriages,
were the only major anti-gay bills to pass
Congress in the 1990s, despite repeated
pressure from right-wing organizations.
Still, "the single greatest accomplishment
of the '90s was not legislative," said Wayne
Besen, spokesperson for the Human Rights
Campaign, the national gay rights lobbying
group. "Before the 1990s, when you heard
coming out stories, they always began with,
'I thought I was the only one,' and you don't
hear that anymore.
"In the 1990s, we blew the door off the
closet. ... Even though someone might not
know another gay person in their small
hometown, they know there are role models
out there, and they know there are places
they can go and be safe."
The historic efforts of this decade created
numerous markers of how far we've come,
from the growing attention to gay rights
issues in the current presidential campaign
to local victories ranging from more openly
gay politicians, and an increasing number of
local and state governments banning anti-
gay job discrimination and even providing
domestic partner benefits.
in addition, gay leaders pointed to the following as key moments of "our" decade:
• Gay youth come out
Gay youth are among the biggest beneficiaries of the role models and safe spaces
that emerged in the 1990s, creating an ever-
expanding area of civil rights activism that
was virtually non-existent until this decade.
"For all practical purposes, there was no
movement to end homophobia in schools 10
years ago, and the entire LGBT youth movement was very embryonic," said Kevin
Jennings, who founded the Gay Lesbian
Straight Education Network in 1990 and
now serves as its national executive director.
"Ten years ago, gay youth were an issue
no one wanted to touch—the gay movement
didn't want to give the right-wing the
ammunition of us being recruiters, and the
mainstream education community didn't
believe there were gay students. ... I think
there has been a complete sea change, from
an issue no one even acknowledged, much
less addressed, in 1990 to a front-burner
issue now," he said.
Jennings attributed the "sea change" to
young people coming out at earlier ages
and "demanding to be treated equally,"
as well as an ever-increasing number of
schools recognizing their duty to educate
and protect all students.
• Fighting anti-gay
tide in court
In the face of sometimes hostile school
systems and public officials, gay youth
joined other gay rights activists in taking
their battles to court, resulting in key
legal victories that will influence policies
for years to come.
In one of several landmark legal decisions
of the 1990s, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court
of Appeals ruled in 1996 that public schools,
and school officials, may be held liable
under federal law for failing to address anti-
gay abuse of a student by other students.
Jamie Nabozny, a student from
Wisconsin, sued his school district after
enduring years of anti-gay abuse in middle
school and high school, and his case offered
powerful leverage to gay youth facing discrimination around the country.
"From youth issues, to sodomy laws, anti-
gay referenda, family law and custody, marriage, the military, asylum, immigration,
employment, HIV issues—from all of these
issue areas I can pull out key cases, and it is
an amazing thing to me," said Kevin
Cathcart, executive director of the Lambda
Legal Defense & Education Network, the
national gay legal group involved in many
of the precedent-setting cases of the 1990s.
"There has been dramatic change in the
last 10 years, ... and I don't think anyone