The Decade When the Fight for LGBTQ Rights Went Mainstream

As support for gay marriage solidified, new rifts within queer communities opened up.

Pete Buttigieg smiles while holding a microphone with Chasten smiling beside him.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the end of the decade.

In 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, and the presidency, without supporting gay marriage. In 2019, gay-married presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is leading the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he’s a strong contender elsewhere. The past decade has seen American public opinion move further on gay marriage than almost any other issue, with support climbing 19 points between 2010 and 2019. One year into the decade, for the first time, more people approved of equal marriage than opposed it. Public opinion had flipped for good.

Rising support for equal marriage was just the beginning. This was the decade when outright homophobia became an increasingly untenable political position, when Democrats went from hedging their support for gay rights to scrambling to demonstrate their literacy on trans issues, when even many Republicans had to find ways to ground their anti-gay policies in concepts other than morality. In state and federal policy, in national political discourse and public opinion, LGBTQ people became truly visible, not just as a small minority whose sex lives inflame the culture wars, but as diverse subjects whose humanity should not be circumscribed by discrimination under the law. With some basic rights secured and mounting pressure on corporations and politicians to prove their pro-gay bona fides, LGBTQ people found themselves able to demand more from their allies—and to have deep, critical discussions about where and how the community should apply its growing political power.

A timeline of "The Decade When the Fight for LGBTQ Rights Went Mainstream" with entries about "don't ask, don't tell" and the Democratic Party endorsing the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Graphic by Slate. Photos by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

The aughts had seen some notable wins for gay rights: States began performing same-sex civil unions and marriages for the first time, and the Supreme Court struck down laws that criminalized gay sex. But the victories were piecemeal, and the bruising battle over Prop 8, the 2008 voter referendum that reversed California’s legalization of gay marriage, made every court ruling and blip in public opinion feel tenuous. Many, if not most, elected Democrats weren’t even willing to say that gay people deserved full rights and protections. At a presidential candidate forum on LGBTQ issues in 2007, the only two candidates who said they supported equal marriage were the long shots, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. The others, including then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, spent the evening explaining to the gay moderators why civil unions were good enough.

What changed in the 2010s, and why did things change so fast? Long-running coming-out campaigns from advocacy groups, smart activist messaging, liberalizing faith communities, and friendly pop culture representations from a heavily queer entertainment industry helped the American public see that gay people were all around us, and most of them weren’t so scary. With both carrots and sticks, LGBTQ advocates began to convince Democratic political leadership to follow public opinion on gay rights issues. In 2011, Obama repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that was already unpopular when Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993. A year later, Obama publicly backed marriage equality, and the Democratic Party put it in its national platform for the first time, four years after a majority of Democrat-identified Americans said they favored it.

A timeline of "The Decade When the Fight for LGBTQ Rights Went Mainstream" with entries about Obergefell v. Hodges and "bathroom bills."
Graphic by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Belated as these actions might have been, they helped create a sense of momentum and the appearance of an inevitable march toward progress, leading many more straight Americans to change their minds on policies like gay marriage, lest they be on the wrong side of an issue that already seemed decided. Public opinion and political action each pushed the other forward, creating a pro-gay feedback loop that eventually reached the Supreme Court: In 2013, United States v. Windsor struck down a pivotal section of the Defense of Marriage Act; two years later, Obergefell v. Hodges allowed gays across the country to access the institution of marriage.

Radical queer activists had long pushed gay rights organizations to deprioritize marriage rights in favor of issues that more directly affect trans people and low-income queers, such as access to employment, housing, and health care. All this has been slower to come. (Edith Windsor’s case concerned marital estate tax exemptions, further ingraining the sense among some activists that marriage protections primarily benefit the rich.) The Obama administration implemented LGBTQ nondiscrimination rules in schools and public housing, only to have them reversed by President Donald Trump. And while Americans have generally settled on the notion that gay people can do what they want on their own beds and altars, “love is love” and “live and let live” have been a lot easier to sell than laws that extend gay rights from the confines of coupledom to the workplace and public accommodations. Even as a majority of Americans say the country needs more LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws, the U.S. remains a ragtag patchwork of protections—and over the past five years, public support for allowing businesses to refuse to serve LGBTQ people for “religious reasons” has nearly doubled.

A timeline of "The Decade When the Fight for LGBTQ Rights Went Mainstream" with entries about Donald Trump banning transgender individuals from the military and Pete Buttigieg running for president.
Graphic by Slate. Photos by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images and Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

In this political landscape, it became clear that Republicans were making trans people the new primary target of their antipathy. Obergefell was followed by a flurry of “bathroom bills” in state legislatures that aimed to prohibit trans people from using public restrooms that matched their lived genders. LGBTQ activists refocused around trans rights and protections, putting to rest fears that the achievement of equal marriage would dull enthusiasm for subsequent fights. In previous decades, trans people had often been sold short by, and sometimes flat-out excluded, from LGBTQ advocacy efforts. Many still shudder at the memory of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights lobbying group, backing a trans-exclusionary version of a 2007 employment nondiscrimination bill, saying it had the best chance of passing the House. Trans activists remember it as a galvanizing moment for the movement: the first real battle for trans rights at a national level. Since then, there has been little disagreement in mainstream LGBTQ movements about the necessity of trans inclusion in public policy.

Still, the rise of the state-sanctioned queer nuclear family in the 2010s has magnified other rifts in LGBTQ communities: divisions of race, class, and gender; friction between assimilationist and radical visions of queer politics; and conflicts that surface when perpetrators of violence and bigotry start bearing the rainbow flag. Pride celebrations became a popular venue for dissent this decade, with activists protesting the depoliticization of the proceedings and the inclusion in local parades of defense contractors, police departments, and banks that profit from immigrant detention centers. Now that LGBTQ people are no longer begging for scraps from the only party that will have them, it can be harder to see the entire acronym as representative of a unified set of interests. For some, the more rights and protections we get, the less we have in common.

No single political figure has simultaneously embodied and inflamed these tensions more than Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, a white, gay, married veteran who came out midway through the decade, frames his sexuality in the terminology of Christianity, and has a seeming blind spot on issues of race. Buttigieg’s corporate-tinged pragmatism has resurrected the disagreements over respectability politics that have animated clashes within LGBTQ communities for generations. The video of protesters at a CNN LGBTQ presidential town hall demanding Buttigieg address violence against black trans women seemed to some like an apt symbol of the uneven distribution of political gains this past decade. The fact that he and Anderson Cooper engaged the protesters and spoke to their concerns speaks volumes about how the power within the LGBTQ community is shifting, and how radicalism will continue to insert itself into venues of respectability.

The Buttigieg candidacy has provided both the 2010s’ most on-the-nose symbol of gay political progress and a valuable opportunity for LGBTQ self-reflection: about what perspectives we seek when we advocate for gay representation in politics, about the benefits white gay men still reap from their race and gender, and about what it means that the first viable major party gay presidential candidate is running against several people who are just as eloquent and progressive on LGBTQ issues as he is. The decade that first produced a gay presidential candidacy is also the first decade to see a Democratic primary in which LGBTQ rights aren’t raised as a point of controversy. It feels like a privilege to have the opportunity to disagree.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the end of the decade.