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The Biggest Gay/Lesbian News Stories of 2002

By Rodger Streitmatter
Media Matters

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation in 2002 prohibiting discrimination against the transgendered As a journalism professor and an author who frequently writes about gays in the media, I clip and save lots of news articles about gay and lesbian topics. I keep them mainly because I might want to refer back to them for some future article or book, and I also find it interesting to see exactly how the news media cover events and issues-the tone of an article and the sources who are used.

Now that 2002 has ended, I recently decided to look back through my file and come up with a highly personalized list of the biggest gay/lesbian news stories of the past year.

A few caveats.

First, my list is limited to positive developments that show how society is increasingly recognizing gay people as citizens who are fully entitled to equal rights. So I have opted not to include, for example, the fact that leaders of the Catholic Church are trying to make gay priests the scapegoat for the scandal they are currently facing. I have not included those negative topics because, well, it's my list and I prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

Second, my list is limited to events and issues in the United States. This is because, while I recognize the importance of a city such as Paris having an openly gay mayor and the Israeli parliament having its first openly gay member, I don't feel sufficiently informed to compile a list encompassing the entire globe.

Finally, my list is unabashedly biased toward the media. As someone who has earned his livelihood as a newspaper reporter and who now teaches and writes about communication, I believe that the media represent an enormously powerful force. How the entertainment and news media portray gay people has a huge influence on how society views us and treats us.

These points having been said, here is my list of the 10 most significant events of 2002 vis--vis gay men and lesbians:

1. Rosie O'Donnell comes out of the closet

Even though many of us would have preferred that the talk show host, actress, and comedienne had publicly acknowledged her homosexuality years ago, there's still no question that the revelations about a woman of O'Donnell's stature was a major event. Besides, it ultimately must be an individual's own decision when she or he takes such an important step.

Millions of Americans had come to know and love the affable celebrity-or at least a woman who plays one on TV. And that means that those same millions now have to recognize that they know and love a lesbian. Indeed, O'Donnell is now probably the most famous gay person in the country.

Also laudable is the fact that O'Donnell accompanied her coming out with her support for gay adoptions. The stories about her-including a prime-time interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer and a cover story in People, both in March of 2002-put the issue on the national radar screen as never before.
Rosie's coming out made headlines in 2002

2. MTV and Showtime announce they are developing a gay and lesbian cable channel

This revelation in January of 2002 follows on the heels of gays having an increasing presence, in recent decades, on American television.

Two of the earliest steps came in 1971 when CBS aired an All in the Family segment featuring a gay man-a former pro football player, no less-and in 1977 when ABC introduced an openly gay character, played by Billy Crystal, on its sitcom Soap.

Fast forward to the last five years when ABC showed the very public outing of Ellen DeGeneres on Ellen, followed by NBC pulling in big bucks with the hit Will & Grace and Showtime discovering that Queer as Folk could draw more viewers than any other program on the premium channel's schedule.

And now, an all-gay-all-the-time cable offering in the works-this is something worth celebrating.

3. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear a challenge to the Texas sodomy law

Chief Justice William Rehnquist's court will hear the case that may overturn sodomy laws in the United States OK, OK, so it's a bit surreal to have a biggest-news-story-of-the-year list on which a potential legal decision of such vast consequence is ranked lower than a celebrity coming out and a cable channel being planned, but, well, the decision is still only at the potential stage.

It is highly encouraging that the nine justices decided in December that they will consider laws banning same-sex sexual activity, but at this point the 1986 decision upholding Georgia's sodomy law is still in effect.

The Texas case involves two gay men who were arrested in one of the men's apartment while engaging in private consensual sex.

Anyway, if my list had a separate category specifically for "potential legal decisions," this would certainly be number one.

4. The city of Providence elects a gay mayor

David Cicilline's election in November marks a major event in Gay America's political history.

With that victory, the Rhode Island capital is now the largest city in the country ever to be led by an openly gay person.
Providence Mayor David Cicilline

5. The New York Times begins publishing same-sex union announcements

Yes, we are now back to media-related events.

This new policy, which began in September, was a big one because the Times is widely regarded as the country's newspaper of record.

For an institution of this stature to change its "Weddings" heading to "Weddings/Celebrations" provided another clear indication that the mainstream media-and that means mainstream America-are recognizing us and our rights as never before.

Such a major decision by an industry leader of the Times's stature also most certainly will prompt other publications to adopt the same policy.

6. The National Education Association asks school districts to protect gay students

This action taken last February is significant to the lives of the millions of American young people who face teasing and bullying in their daily lives.

According to one survey released last year, almost 80 percent of gay teens have to endure such harassment.

7. New York City outlaws discrimination against transgendered people Mayor Michael Bloomberg signing this bill in May of 2002 represents a major step forward in an aspect of civil rights protection that, until just a few years ago, had little to cheer about.

That action signals, I believe, a trend that will continue to pick up speed and public attention in coming years.

Bush does the right thing by allowing the partners of public safety officers killed on 9/11 to get death benefits 8. President Bush signs legislation allowing death benefits for public safety officers killed on September 11 to go to beneficiaries other than immediate family members

Though this action last June helps only a small number of same-sex partners and is in the context of a White House that is no champion of gay rights, it reminds people that gay men and lesbians were among those who should be honored for their heroic efforts during one of the most traumatic events in American history.

9. Lockheed Martin Corp. adds sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy and offers health benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees

This new policy enacted last November is important because it is the latest victory in an on-going battle that has been fought in recent decades.

The change is particularly significant because it involved the nation's largest defense contractor, a segment of American commerce that has generally not been viewed as supportive of gay and lesbian rights.

10. The American Academy of Pediatrics officially endorses adoption by gay people

This action, taken in February 2002, adds momentum to a gay and lesbian rights initiative that also received another major boost when Rosie O'Donnell put her considerable weight behind it.
Rodger Streitmatter, Ph.D. is a member of the School of Communication faculty at American University in Washington, D.C. His latest book, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America has recently been published by Columbia University Press. He is also the author of Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay & Lesbian Press in America (Faber & Faber, 1995) and Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History (The University Press of Kentucky, 1994)
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