Top 10 GLBT News Stories of 99

by Rawley Grau Editor, Press Pass Q

Recently, Press Pass Q: A Newsletter for the Gay & Lesbian Press Professional polled its subscribers as to the most important gay-related news stories of 1999. More than 80 people responded-a group that included publishers, editors, and reporters at gay and lesbian newspapers and magazines from across the country. Here are their top 10 stories:

1. Matthew Shepard's murderers tried and convicted

Nearly eight months after Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, and left on a fence to die outside Laramie, Wyo., Russell Henderson, 22, one of the two accused killers, surprised observers by pleading guilty, before the start of his trial on April 5, to the kidnapping and murder of the 21-year-old gay college student. The trial of Henderson's accomplice, Aaron McKinney, 22, took place in late October, with McKinney's attorneys resorting to a "gay panic" defense: They argued that their client had attacked Shepard in a drug-induced rage after the gay man tried to grope him. The jury rejected this line of reasoning and on November 3 found McKinney guilty on two counts of felony murder, and one count each of second-degree murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. In a plea bargain, McKinney was spared the death penalty, receiving instead a sentence of two consecutive life terms in exchange for agreeing to waive his right to appeal. Shepard's parents had asked the prosecutor not to seek McKinney's execution, calling instead for a time of healing to begin.

2. New Jersey Supreme Court strikes down Boy Scouts policy

On August 4, in a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the Boy Scouts of America had violated the state's civil rights law when it expelled Assistant Scoutmaster James Dale in 1990 because he is gay. This was the first time a state's high court ruled against the Scouts' anti-gay policy. The court said that because the BSA is non-selective in its membership and receives support from state and local governments, it cannot exempt itself from the state's civil rights law governing places of public accommodation and therefore cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Dale, 29, had been involved in Scouting for 12 years before his expulsion, winning over 30 merit badges and rising to the rank of Eagle Scout. The BSA intends to appeal the New Jersey ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court.

3. Canadian Supreme Court strikes down heterosexual definition of "spouse"

On May 20, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in an 8-1 decision that Ontario's Family Law Act infringed on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by restricting its definition of "spouse" to persons who are actually married or "either of a man and woman who are not married to each other and have cohabited... continuously for a period of not less than three years." The case, M v. H, involved a woman, "M," who was seeking spousal support from her former partner, "H," another woman. The Supreme Court gave Ontario six months to remove the heterosexual definition of "spouse" from its laws. On October 27, the Parliament of Ontario revised 67 statutes, thus extending to same-sex couples all the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by common-law heterosexual couples, including obligations involved in a break-up, adoption procedures, and hospital visitation rights.

4. Jim Hormel becomes Ambassador to Luxembourg

On June 4, while Congress was taking its 10-day Memorial Day holiday, President Clinton used his recess appointment privilege to name James Hormel as ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, making him the first openly gay U.S. ambassador. The move came in defiance of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who, despite its approval by the Foreign Relations Committee, had refused to allow the nomination to come to a vote on the Senate floor, where it was expected to win confirmation. Lott and the conservative Republican leadership claimed that Hormel, a businessman and philanthropist, was unsuitable because he appeared in a Gay Pride parade with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay men dressed as nuns. Clinton had first nominated Hormel to the post in 1997.

5. Britain ends ban on gays in the military

The European Court in Strasbourg found on September 27 that the United Kingdom's ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military was in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights. The British government consequently agreed to abide by the ruling and suspended all current investigations of suspected gays and lesbians. The case heard in Strasbourg involved four former members of the Royal Armed Forces who claimed that investigations into their sexuality violated their right to privacy. In November, the British Defense Ministry announced that a new military code of conduct would be drawn up as soon as possible.

6. California passes domestic partnership bill

On October 2, California Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill that established a domestic partnership registry for same-sex couples and unmarried elderly couples, ensured hospital visitation rights for domestic partners, and provided health benefits for the domestic partners of state employees. California is the sixth state in the union to provide such benefits; the others are New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Hawaii, and Oregon.

7. Gay issues prominent in 2000 presidential campaign

As the 2000 presidential campaign got off to an early start in the summer, the major presidential candidates couldn't avoid addressing gay topics. The Democrats, in fact, seemed eager to woo gay voters, with Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley giving consecutive interviews in The Advocate, coming out against California's anti-gay Knight initiative, and speaking in favor of gay rights in the workplace. Bradley went so far as to suggest that "sexual orientation" be added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, provoking criticism from gay leaders who feared such a move would detract from efforts to pass ENDA. In the Republican camp, Texas Gov. George W. Bush made conflicting statements about whether he would have openly gay people in his administration, while Arizona Sen. John McCain met with representatives from the Log Cabin Republicans. Bush said he would not meet with the group.

8. Falwell meets with Mel White and activists, agrees to tone down rhetoric

On October 24, the Rev. Mel White and 200 other gays and lesbians to Lynchburg, Va., met with Jerry Falwell and members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church. Falwell told the gathering that, although he would not change his view that homosexuality is sinful, he would try to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric. No food or lemonade was served at the gathering, as had originally been planned; instead, there were only small bottles of mineral water. Falwell had been reprimanded by some evangelicals for planning to share a meal with "sexually immoral" people.

9. Congress fails to pass hate crimes legislation

On November 17, the Republican congressional leadership killed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999, with the White House making no attempt to save it. The hate crimes legislation had been passed in the Senate in July as part of the Commerce, State, and Justice appropriations bill, but it was not part of the House version of the bill and was omitted in conference in the version that went to President Clinton to sign. The president, however, vetoed the bill. Last-minute efforts to revive the hate crimes law failed as the White House agreed in negotiations with Republican leaders to let the bill die.

10. United Airlines surrenders in dispute over San Francisco domestic partnership ordinance

In early August, United Airlines announced it will offer full domestic-partnership benefits to its gay employees. The announcement came after two years of court battles between the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, and the city of San Francisco, which in 1997 passed a law requiring the companies it does business with- including those that lease its airport-to offer domestic-partnership benefits equivalent to the benefits offered married spouses. In May, a federal judge upheld the city ordinance and ordered the airlines to offer certain benefits. The ATA asked the judge to postpone the effect of that decision pending appeal, but on July 30 the request was denied. Soon after United's announcement that the company would offer partnership benefits beginning in May 2000, two other major airlines, American and U.S. Airways, said they, too, will offer domestic-partnership benefits.

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