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Homosexual people – those who prefer emotional and sexual intimacy with members of their own gender – have had a difficult time throughout American history. The English colonies that would eventually become the United States, mirroring harsh laws on the books in their motherland, regarded homosexual conduct as a capital offense. This severe treatment was mitigated following the Revolution, when states generally trended toward milder punishments and proportionate justice in general – though for nearly 50 years following its inception, the state of Connecticut retained laws prescribing the death penalty for gay sex. Even when homosexuals were no longer executed, however, their sexual activities remained criminal, and those who practiced it could expect to be stripped of their lands and other belongings, and even subjected to periods of indentured servitude. If it's been any easier for the transgendered – people who personally identify as the gender opposed to that with which they were born – it's only because their gender identity issues have traditionally gone unrecognized. Those claiming to “actually” be of a particular gender while forced to live in a body biologically classifiable as another have been met with amused derision and accusations of simple insanity more often than with criminal charges. Of course, a person in a male body (for example) claiming to be a heterosexual woman and engaging in sexual congress with a man has historically risked running afoul of prohibitions on homosexuality. They could not take refuge in the defense that they were “really” a woman – because legally, they weren't.

The roots of American wariness toward homosexuality lie in religion. In the Holy Bible, the Book of Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22, reads: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.” The passage goes on to specifically require the death penalty for any men found to have committed this act. This biblical prohibition is at the heart of most Western laws against homosexuality – indeed, some of them have quoted it verbatim. Its precise language, seeming to explicitly call out the behavior of men, follows a style found elsewhere in the Bible and other ancient literature of assuming a male audience; this literary technique may be responsible for the comparatively gentle treatment received by lesbianism, or female-female homosexuality. While gay women have by no means found acceptance in most of American history, their sexual orientation has been generally better-tolerated than that of their male counterparts, and in some cases, laws criminalizing male homosexuality have specifically excluded the female version from prosecution.

In many states, anti-gay legislation never really went away – it simply ceased to be enforced as cultural values changed. Even as most Americans generally persisted in their disapproval of homosexuality, the notion of formally punishing any adult sexual activity by force of law became distasteful. Nevertheless, the laws often remained, and as recently as 2003, a prohibition on sodomy was still on the books in Texas. The US Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional that year, by extension invalidating similar laws in 13 other states.

American views on homosexuality and transgender issues have steadily liberalized since the Sexual Revolution, so that such phenomena are fast becoming morally accepted rather than merely legally tolerated. Nevertheless, the matter remains a point of heated political controversy, with social conservatives generally supporting traditional values on sexuality and gender identity, and those on the left tending to champion LGBT – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender – rights.

Central Issues

Gay Marriage
In 2015, the Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated, landmark ruling in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, in which official and equal recognition of same-sex marriage was in question. The court ruled 5-4 that under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution, all states in the union must permit gay marriage, and issue marriage licenses to anyone who wanted them without regard to their gender or that of their intended spouse. The decision settled years of legislative controversy as homosexuals and their supporters clamored for the right to marry, with initiatives for and against appearing on state ballots across the country, the results of which would then sometimes be subsequently overturned by the judiciaries of those states.

But the political controversy remained, with polls showing the nation almost evenly split between those favoring tolerance of homosexual marriage and those opposing it – despite rapid gains in support since the 1990's. Interesting as well is the fact that the Obergefell ruling seemed to have hurt backing for gay marriage, as polls conducted shortly after the decision showed modest declines in the number of people who supported allowing homosexuals to wed.

Opponents of gay marriage almost always appeal to traditional values. They say that the traditional nuclear, heterosexual family is best for the raising of children, either crediting it as more natural or calling the inherent parenting skills of homosexuals into question. Christians are also likely to argue that obedience to God is incompatible with permitting homosexuals to wed. Some people holding these opinions have been extremely vocal and activist following the Supreme Court's decision, such as county clerks (responsible for issuing marriage licenses) and local judges (who must conduct legal weddings) declining to participate in any way in marrying two people of the same gender. In at least one case, a county clerk was jailed for refusing on religious grounds to comply with a court order requiring her to issue licenses.

Those who support gay marriage argue that not allowing same-sex couples to wed amounts to discrimination against gays and lesbians. They claim that homosexuals are at least as competent as parents as heterosexuals, in response to their opponents' child safety concerns. Typically, they either dismiss religious objections as personal and not valid in legislative decisions, or (especially in the case of homosexuals who are Christian themselves) interpret the Bible in a non-traditional way that is more tolerant of their lifestyle. They can be as passionate in their beliefs as those who oppose them, such as same-sex couples who have demanded to be served in the offices of county clerks refusing to issue gay marriage licenses, rather than seeking out other nearby clerks willing to obey the Supreme Court's ruling.

LGBT-Based Discrimination
Homosexual and transgender people often complain of encountering workplace discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity issues. The legal status of such discrimination, if practiced, is questionable and ultimately subjective. There is no federal law specifically protecting LGBT employees. Some states and local jurisdictions have passed legislation forbidding such discrimination, but homosexuality is more likely to be covered by these laws than gender identity. And although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally intended to protect African-Americans and women from employment discrimination, does apply to LGBT individuals as well (discrimination against gay and transgender people, the ruling states, necessarily constituting sex discrimination), courts are not required to heed this finding.

Some business owners feel that their rights have come under fire by anti-discrimination requirements. In 2012, Colorado cake designer Jack Phillips was approached by two men wishing to hire him to produce a cake for their wedding. Phillips refused, saying that his Christian religious beliefs did not allow him to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but that he would be happy to provide them with other baked goods. As Colorado had instituted anti-discrimination protections for homosexuals, the men filed a complaint against Phillips, who was ruled against twice – first by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and later by an appellate court judge when he appealed. He was ordered to provide his services to the gay couple, on the reasoning that his refusal constituted an unacceptable discrimination. This case set off a firestorm of controversy in the United States, between social conservatives calling for private business owners to receive religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, and social liberals arguing that discrimination should never be tolerated.

LGBT Poverty
Contrary to popular belief, poverty is a serious problem among LGBT people. While LGBT gender statistics show only slight differences from the national average – approximately 51% of Americans are women, compared with slightly less than half in the LGBT community – 24% of LGBT women are poor, in contrast with a 19% average. Curiously, LGBT men show poverty rates comparable to average; however, significantly higher proportions of African-American and young and old LGBT people are poor. Overall, members of the LGBT community face a danger of living in poverty four times greater than the average American.

Political leftists regard these statistics as a social outrage, and cite them as clear evidence that LGBT people are saddled with harassment, employment and education discrimination, and even violence far in excess of that faced by most people. Conservatives say that these people have the same access to jobs and schools as everyone else, and consequently, the same opportunity to succeed or fail.

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