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Background on LGBT Rights

A new pattern continues to emerge as courts, as well as local, state, and federal legislatures, spurred by cultural and political changes across the country: applying the principles of equality to sexual orientation. Just as acceptance of the LGBT community has moved from the fringe closer to the mainstream of American culture in recent years, the battle for equal rights for gays and lesbians has become a flourishing area of the law.

Proceeding in fits and starts, positive changes in how the law treats gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals has been less the result of a single court ruling or piece of legislation than collective response to the shift in public attitudes about homosexuality. Polls show an increased acceptance of gays nationwide - movies and television programs now portray more gay characters in an increasingly positive fashion and advertisers have begun appealing specifically and directly to gay customers.

Despite these gains, discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals is alive and well in America. Gaps in current federal law omit an entire segment of the population from a variety of laws protecting against a number of different arenas in which discrimination occurs: employment, health insurance, marriage, adoption, the justice system, and others. Simply put, LGBT Americans are still treated under law as second-class citizens.

Changes in laws affecting LGBT people have largely responded to the shift in public attitudes rather than driven them. For example, despite major attitude shifts in areas such as employment, custody, and domestic partnership, there have been few legislative gains. The prevailing national sentiment, it appears, remains one of tolerance toward sexual variation, but opposition to anything that could be viewed as promoting homosexuality.

As time goes on, we find LGBT issues attracting more and more attention. During the 2004 elections, issues affecting the LGBT community moved to the forefront of national debate when 11 states passed anti-gay constitutional amendments and political pundits debated the meaning of "moral values." 2008 also saw severe backward steps taken for equality. Three states (Arizona, California, and Florida) all passed marriage amendments denying civil marriage equality to same-sex couples. Additionally, Arkansas passed a ban denying adoption rights to same-sex couples.


In May 2003 when the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act was re-introduced, Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) confidently declared that the bill would "provide much-needed protection for all our lesbian brothers." While Graham’s is an extreme example of a semantic blunder, the issue of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is often a semantic labyrinth, since the terms are very specific and confusing, not to mention a slue of acronyms. Especially during L’Taken seminars, understanding the nomenclature of the LGBT community will be quite helpful. Keep in mind that using the right terminology helps make the speeches of students who plan to lobby on these issues stronger and more credible. For example, a common mistake is a student saying "transgenderED." To protect yourself and your students from ever having an experience like poor Senator Graham, I present (with thanks to GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a list of terms commonly used in this memo and in the LGBT advocacy world:

Sexual Orientation: An individual’s physical or emotional attraction to the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual orientations. One’s sexual orientation therefore may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual. Avoid the offensive term "sexual preference," which suggests that being gay or lesbian is a choice and changeable. 

Gender Identity: One’s personal sense of being male or female. For transgender people, their apparent sex or their birth-assigned sex does not match their own internal sense of gender identity.

Gay: Describing people who are attracted to people of the same sex – ie, gay men and lesbians.

Gay Man: A man whose primary attraction is to other men.

Lesbian: A woman whose primary attraction is to other women. 

Heterosexual Man/Woman: A person whose primary attraction is to people of the opposite gender. 

Bisexual: An individual who is romantically and physically attracted to both men and women. 

Gender Expression: External representation of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through "masculine" or "feminine" behavior, clothing, haircut, voice or body characteristics. Typically, transgender people seek to make their gender expression match their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex.

Gender Non-Conforming: Describing individuals who regularly transgress conventional gender norms, although they may not be attempting to present themselves as a different gender.

Transgender:An umbrella adjective for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, intersex people, cross-dressers, and other gender-variant people. Transgender people can be female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the transgender person. Transgender people may or may not choose to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically. 

Transsexual:A person whose innate sense of gender conflicts with their anatomical sex. Some, but not all, transsexual people undergo medical treatments, such as hormone therapy or surgeries, to change their physical sex so that it is in harmony with their gender identity.

Intersex:Describing a person whose sex is ambiguous, often due to genetic, hormonal or anatomical variations. Parents and medical professionals usually assign intersex infants a sex and perform surgery to conform the infant’s body to that assignment, but the assignment will not necessarily correspond to the child’s own gender identity. Hermaphrodite, now a politically incorrect term, implies that an individual has both male and female organs.

Cross Dressing:Occasionally wearing clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex. Cross- dressers are usually comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it. ("Cross-dresser" should NOT be used to describe someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex, or who intends to do so in the future.) While cross-dressing is a form of gender expression, it is not necessarily tied to gender identity, sexual orientation or erotic activity.

Homophobia:Fear or hatred of lesbians and gay men.

Equal Rights:Full enjoyment of the protections and liberties guaranteed to every American. It is important to use the term "equal rights," not just "rights," because opponents of LGBT equal rights often deceptively try to portray these rights as "special rights" that would privilege the LGBT community over other Americans.

Domestic Partnership: A contract recognizing a partnership or a relationship between two people which sometimes confers limited benefits to them. Such a partnership can be formed by lesbians or gay men, by unmarried heterosexual partners, or by others making a home together. 

Civil Union: Formal recognition of committed lesbian and gay relationships by a state government. Civil unions confer upon same-sex couples the same rights available to married couples under the state’s law in such areas as state taxes, medical decisions and estate planning. Civil unions currently exist in Vermont, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Only civil marriage, however, not civil unions, can address federal-level discrimination.

Civil Marriage: Distinct from religious marriage or any wedding ceremony, this term refers to the legal status granted to couples who obtain a government-issued marriage license. This status entitles the couple to more than 1,000 responsibilities and protections afforded under federal law on the basis of marital status.