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The media’s portrayal of the communities around us can strongly influence our opinions. Historically, the media’s portrayal of the LGBTQ community has mostly been negative. The media can play a role in shaping political attitudes towards sexuality and minorities in general, especially affecting the views of easily impressionable, younger individuals, and people who are ignorant and haven’t necessarily been around certain groups of people. This essay will discuss about the history of media coverage on same-sex marriages in the United States.
Historical documents do record several examples of same-sex couples living in relationships that functioned as marriages even if they could not be legally recognized. The history of same-sex marriage laws in the United States dates from the early 1970s. LGBT individuals lived in a kind of underground and were routinely subjected to harassment and persecution, such as in bars, restaurants, and other public places. In fact, gay men and women in New York City could not be served alcohol in public due to liquor laws that considered the gathering of homosexuals to be “disorderly.” Back then being homosexual was considered to be taboo. It was something that no one talked about or shared with people openly because it was immoral. Even though homosexuality has been around since ancient Greece, it was something that would not be normalized for a very long time. In the late 1980s, activists debated whether marriage rights should be at the forefront of campaigns for LGBT equality. Some of the oldest groups saw marriage as some sort of contradiction of the radical origins of the gay rights movement in the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s. The first official lawsuits were seeking legal recognition of same-sex relationships. This eventually brought the question of civil marriage rights and benefits for same-sex couples to public attention though they proved to be unsuccessful. Same-sex marriage continued to be a reoccurring issue in the late 1980s. The subject became increasingly prominent in U.S. politics following the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr v. Miike. The Court suggested the possibility that the state’s prohibition might be unconstitutional. That decision was met by actions at federal and state levels to restrict marriage to male and female couples, notably the enactment at the federal level of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was strictly for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states.
Throughout time socially conservative groups continued to draw opposition and the topic of same-sex marriage continued to be an issue. Congressman Bob Barr and Senator Don Nickles, who were both members of the Republican Party at the time. They are the ones who introduced the bill that eventually became D.O.M.A. in May 1996. It passed both houses of Congress by large, veto-proof majorities, with opposition coming from an estimated one-third of the Democratic caucus in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Clinton, who was president at the time criticized the law as ‘divisive and unnecessary,’ but signed it into law in September 1996 anyway. Section II of the act allowed states to deny recognition of same-sex marriages conducted by other states. Section III codified non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including social security survivors’ benefits, bankruptcy, insurance benefits for government employees, immigration, and the filing of joint tax returns. It also excluded same-sex spouses from the ideas of laws protecting families of federal officers laws evaluating financial aid eligibility, and federal ethics laws applicable to opposite-sex spouses. Overall, it made everything twice as for same-sex couples to tie the knot and thrive together financially.
Throughout all this, the media remained present but also quiet. In news media, homosexuality was rarely explicitly mentioned, and it was often portrayed as a sickness, perversion or crime. Reporters became less bias and more focused on the story. One of the first media covered LGBT events was the Stonewall Riot which took place in 1969. This was a series of spontaneous uprisings in New York and took place as a resistance to the discrimination that the LGBT community faced at the time. This marked the beginning of the modern LGBT movement that had taken an increasingly proactive stand in defining the LGBT community culture, specifically in mainstream media. LGBT activists began confronting repressive laws, police harassment, and discrimination. These demands for equal protection began to be viewed as legitimate news, but the legitimacy of the demands was still viewed as questionable to the public.
Political activists for the LGBT community began to pressure Hollywood production companies (News outlets and films) to end its constant negative portrayals of homosexuality in media. Responding to the movement, growing visibility in films began to emerge. However, themes of the reality for LGBT people were minimized or totally obscured. For example, in the news, the emergence of more bias explicit segments on the LGBT community began. In 1967, CBC released a news segment on homosexuality. This segment, however, was a compilation of negative stereotypes of gay men. The community was not happy about these constant negative forms of representation. The community wanted an increased positive presence and to end the bias homophobic portrayals of homosexuality in media. This eventually leads to the National Association of Broadcasters Code Authority agreeing to adopt the NAB Code to guarantee that the LGBT community would be fairly treated in media. Although this was not a binding agreement, networks began to take extra cautions and consult LGBT communities before running programs portraying homosexuality. This was definitely a step in a more proactive direction. This step eventually leads to the presence of LGBT characters in prime time television, although in minimal amounts or in episodes that concentrated on homosexuality. Nevertheless, these presentations were greeted as signs of greater social acceptance for the community.
An example of a pivotal step for the community would be the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr v. Miike. This was a lawsuit in which three same-sex couples argued that Hawaii’s prohibition of same-sex marriage violated the state constitution and created a lot of buzz within the media. Commenced in 1990, as the case moved through the state courts, the passage of an amendment to the state constitution in 1998 led to the dismissal of the case in 1999. Congressional Republicans used this possibility that the courts might invalidate Hawaii’s marriage eligibility requirements, as appeared possible following the Supreme Court of Hawaii’s 1993 decision in this case, as a reason for the enactment of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (D.O.M.A.) in 1996. This court decision suggested the possibility that the state’s prohibition might be unconstitutional. That same decision was met by actions at both the federal and state level to restrict marriage to male-female couples, notably the enactment at the federal level of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Legally, the first same-sex marriage wedding happened on February 12, 2004, in the United States. The wedding happened after the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, ordered city hall to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This decision from Gavin Newson resulted in the celebration of the first gay marriage in the United States between gay couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. The couple got the opportunity to tie the knot and get official recognition of their fifty-year relationship (Marriage Equality Act New York). Although steps are still being taken for equality every single day, this was a big step in the LGBTQ community. Despite the stereotypical depictions of gay people throughout times in the past, the media started to show more acceptance of people of this lifestyle with television shows such as Will and Grace and Queer Eye. This creates a positive representation of the LGBTQ community that really was not present before in the past. This increased amount of representation reflects the coming-out movement of the LGBT community. As more well-known faces in pop culture come out, the more gay-friendly shows develop. With the popularity of gay television networks, shows, music artists and fashion, different cultures are now exposed and able to learn about the gay community.
This also promotes LGBTQ people to come out of the closet. People of the LGBTQ community, especially youth, can face a lot of different challenges and experiences that make them more likely to develop a fear of social or family rejection, internalized negativity about their own personal identities and more. Visibility and representation matter in today’s society. One factor to consider is that when more LGBTQ people are included in the media this means that they are actually seen by society as opposed to being rendered unseen or invisible. When people are able to see something represented, they are better able to understand and grasp the concept of who those people are, and this creates an important shift in the social consciousness to include people from a range of various different experiences and backgrounds. Another vital piece to consider is that when others see representations of themselves in the media, this can create a great sense of affirmation of their identity. Feeling affirmed with one’s own sense of self can boost positive feelings of self-worth, which is quite different than feeling as if they are wrong or bad for being who you are. This visibility of diverse characters and people in the media provides an important reminder that there are people out there who are going through similar things as you may be going through. Overall this was a huge opportunity for people to fully be themselves in America without any restrictions or judgments.
On November 6, 2012, Maryland, Maine and Washington D.C. became the first northern states to legalize same-sex marriage through popular vote. Soon by 2014, gay marriages had become legal in states that contained more than 60 percent of the United States population. In some jurisdictions, legalization came through the action of state courts or the enactment of state legislation. More frequently it came as the result of the decisions of federal courts. Same-sex marriage has also been legalized in 21 Native American tribal nations as well. These were all strides in a more positive direction. During this same time the U.S. Supreme Court in the United States vs. Windsor tried to remove the law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage gave significant impetus to the progress of lawsuits that challenged state bans on same-sex marriage in federal court. Since then, with very few exceptions, U.S. District Courts and Courts of Appeals have found state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, as well as several state courts. The exceptions have been a state court in Tennessee, United States district courts in Puerto Rico and Lousiana. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals from that circuit’s decision. In June of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court removed state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states, and required states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. Same-sex marriage was officially legal in all 50 states.
The official decision stated “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. Informing a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
The U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states to allow same-sex marriage unleashed an outpouring of emotions both in favor of and against the landmark ruling. Feelings were definitely mixed about the ruling but hundreds all gathered outside the Supreme Court waving the U.S. and rainbow-colored flags and celebrating the decision. This was a historic, moment in the nation’s history.
By this time, it was still outlawed in only 13 states, and more than 20 other countries had already legalized gay marriage. Since this big step, a lot of things have changed and are still currently changing.
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