Laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination also have been enacted, but largely at the local level; by 1999 only 11 states had such laws. Opposition to such laws, particularly from conservative religious groups, has often been strong, and opponents of gay-rights measures have frequently gained their repeal. In 1992, Colorado became the first state to nullify existing civil-rights protection for homosexuals by amending its constitution; the provision was stuck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996. By means of a statewide public referendum in 1998, Maine became the first state to repeal its gay-rights statute.
In 1993 the Defense Dept., at President Clinton's order, changed the ban on homosexuals in the military to a ban on homosexual activity. The much discussed policy, known as "don't ask, don't tell," was presented as a way to allow gays in the military to serve without fear of discharge or other penalty as long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation. By the end of the 1990s, however, it appeared to have done little to change the precarious status of gay soldiers. Most other NATO nations permit openly homosexual men and women to serve in their armed forces. Beginning in 1995, homosexuals were no longer automatically denied U.S. government security clearances.
Spousal benefits, such as health insurance and pension plans for long-term domestic partners, and the legal recognition of same-sex couples ("gay marriages") also became important gay-rights issues in the 1990s. A number of American corporations now offer same-sex partners of employees medical benefits comparable to those offered to employees' spouses; about one fifth of all workers are employed by these businesses. However, beginning in the mid-1990s, many states began explicitly banning same-sex marriages; more than four fifths of the states now do so. The Vermont supreme court declared in 1999 that the state must grant homosexual couples the same rights and protections that married heterosexuals have, and in 2000 the state legislature backed "civil unions" for same-sex couples that offer many benefits similar to those of heterosexual marriage. Legislation permitting gay marriage was passed in Vermont in 2009. Massachusetts' highest court ruled in 2003 that homosexual couples have the constitutional right to marry, and the state began issuing licenses for same-sex marriages in May, 2004. At the same time, however, in 11 states voters approved (Nov., 2004) state constitutional amendments restricting marriage to a man and a woman and in some cases also banning same-sex civil unions; more than half the states now have such amendments. After New Jersey's supreme court ruled in 2006 that the state must extend equal rights to same-sex couples, the state enacted civil-union legislation. The supreme courts in California and Connecticut overturned those states' bans on same-sex marriage in 2008, as did the court in Iowa in 2009, but voters in California subsequently passed a constitutional amendment banning it. In Maine and New Hampshire same-sex marriage was legalized in 2009. A few other states recognize same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships, which offer fewer rights than civil unions.
At the national level the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) restricts the federal definition of marriage to heterosexual couples, but some conservatives, including President George W. Bush, have called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, some religions and churches have been struggling with the issues of gay marriage and of the ordination of gay clergy. Worldwide, laws relating to homosexuality vary widely; some nations (Canada; many European nations; South Africa, New Zealand, Ecuador, and Uruguay) offer some form of official recognition to homosexual couples. Many non-Western countries consider consensual homosexual acts crimes (in some Islamic nations, capital crimes).
See also homosexuality.
See D. Clendinen and A. Nagourney, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (1999).