The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling one year ago Sunday legalizing same-sex marriage was a milestone young people in Long Island’s LGBT community said reassured them about their futures, and older members called a validation after years of secrecy and shame.
But the mass murder of mostly gay patrons at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this month — and hundreds of anti-gay laws and legislation introduced this year across the nation — make clear the distance still to go toward acceptance and security, advocates say.
“I think what happened in Orlando is a stark reminder of the hate and bias that still exist,” said David Kilmnick, founder and CEO of the LGBT Network, based in Woodbury. “Young people will share that there is plenty of homophobia and transphobia that still exist. . . . Real-world experience speaks volumes that no matter what laws are passed, that there is still a lot more work to do.”
In the year since marriage equality was legalized nationally in a 5-4 court vote, North Carolina passed legislation barring transsexuals from public bathrooms that don’t correspond to the gender on their birth certificates and banning localities from enacting LGBT anti-discrimination protections. Mississippi enacted a similar law.
The response to the Orlando killings “has been heartening and in itself is a sign of progress [and] acceptance . . . but every day we see so much discrimination, aggression and violence against the LGBT community,” said Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, the oldest national organization working toward their legal and civil rights.
Over the last year, she said, more than 200 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures, and state laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination are in effect in fewer than half the states. “The marriage equality ruling is not the milestone, it’s a milestone and it’s one stop” in a journey with “quite a ways to go.”
Yet Lisa Diedrich, who teaches in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies department at Stony Brook University, said she saw a generational shift among younger people toward acceptance of LGBT people and acceptance of marriage equality “has been one of the most significant shifts in attitudes in American society over the last 20, 30 years.” Despite lingering homophobia and fears, “students tend to be supportive,” she said.
She said that while not all LGBT community members agreed on the focus on marriage equality in the years leading up to its legalization, they understood its importance in “terms of civil and symbolic rights.”
The legalization of same-sex marriage removed a lasting and stinging stigma, said Alex Passante, 17, of Bay Shore, who will attend college in the fall.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get married legally and have a family and now I can look forward to my future instead of dreading it,” she said.
Jonathan LaFlare, 27, who works in the banking industry and lives in Lindenhurst, says he, too, now foresees a married life with children, something he always wanted but felt was not possible because “common society would look at me and my family funny. Now I don’t feel that way anymore. We’re not a freak.”
Although in the LGBT community many embrace marriage equality as a validation, others dismiss it and some critique the institution.
A recent meeting of SAGE, a LGBT Network group for gay, lesbian and bisexual seniors, included Bob Larsaro of Plainview, an 80-year-old practicing Catholic who was devotedly married to a woman for 50 years and said he believes traditional marriage is a religious rite for men and women.
Also in the group was Dennis, 75, who asked that only his first name be used. He said he doesn’t consider “a gay marriage a marriage . . . there needs to be a different word invented.”
And Linda Rich, 69, of Dix Hills, a retired school social worker whose partner died a few years ago, said that marriage wasn’t “on the radar” and wouldn’t have been likely because her partner of 38 years was reticent to openly declare her homosexuality.
Rich said marriage would have provided more financial security by giving her a share of her partner’s estate and pension after her death. “As it is, I got nothing,” she said.
But also at that table was Roy Schmitt, 68, of Lynbrook, a retired principal who, after a youthful marriage to a woman, married his longtime same-sex partner in Toronto in 2005. They have been together for 36 years.
“Getting married, it was huge,” he said. “I get all emotional: It meant that we belonged, we were valued, and we were accepted.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people represented about 20 percent of the 5,462 hate crime victims reported to the FBI by law enforcement in 2014 — a decrease overall from the prior year — although widely considered to significantly underrepresent actual hate crime numbers.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a New York-based counseling and advocacy group with national outreach, released its latest report on hate crimes against the LGBT community on June 14, two days after the Orlando massacre. Based on last year’s data collected from 13 coalition organizations in 11 states, the report analyzed 1,253 incidents of hate violence. States included New York, Texas, Colorado, Vermont, Minnesota, Missouri, Massachusetts, Michigan, California, Ohio and Arizona.
The report found “24 hate violence related homicides of LGBTQ and HIV-affected people in 2015, a 20 percent increase in the number of reports compared to 2014. People of color and transgender and gender nonconforming people made up the majority” of those victims. Of the 24 homicides, 16 were transgender and gender-nonconforming, including 13 transgender women of color. A total of 15 of the 24 homicide victims were black or Latino.
In addition, according to the report, “People of color and undocumented survivors were more likely to experience physically violent forms of hate violence,” with the most common types of reported incidents verbal harassment (15 percent), discrimination (14 percent), physical violence (12 percent) and threats or intimidation (11 percent). More than half involved people known to each other, including employers, landlords and family members.
Carol Quirke, professor of American studies at SUNY Old Westbury and director of the college’s Women’s Center, said there is a persistent fear of violence and rejection in the LGBT community even though she has seen a significant drop in homophobia over the past 12 years of teaching.
“We’re in a moment where both are true: marriage can be legal and people can still fear violence and are still incredibly anxious about coming out to their parents,” she said.
While there are those who critique marriage as an institution, federal recognition of “gay marriage was a huge coup for all those groups who brought this to fruition,” said Mary Jo Bona, professor and chair of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University, noting the new freedom to explore gender and sexuality.
“It’s clear that our students today feel that there is more possibility, that alternative choices are more acceptable,” she said.
But “there is still a lot of shame and discomfort with sexual orientation . . . it’s still an issue for people, and coming out is still a process.”
Jon Cooper, a businessman and the first openly gay Suffolk County legislator, said the difference now from his boyhood — when he knew of no visibly gay people and had no gay role models — is enormous.
“It will be the same as a gay couple looking back to when they couldn’t get married,” he said, likening it to when mixed-race couples were legally forbidden to marry in some states. “They will be incredulous that there were days when it was like that.”