NEW YORK (AP) — At a birthplace of the gay rights movement, patrons of New York City's Stonewall Inn said they felt like they were living history. In Wyoming, the mother of a man beaten to death because of his sexuality said words couldn't express her gratitude. An 82-year-old photographer who chronicled protests in the 1960s called it "a new dawn."
President Barack Obama's declaration Wednesday that he supports gay marriage may have lacked the urgency of Kennedy's 1963 push for the Civil Rights Act, or the force and finality of the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was still being greeted as a major milestone among people who care about gay rights.
"It signifies a history-changing moment when a president finally says, 'I'm on your side.' It's a critical moment," said Stacy Lentz, a co-owner of the Stonewall, a reincarnated version of the unlicensed gay bar in Manhattan's West Village that was the site of riots following a police raid in 1969.
Just how big of a moment remains to be seen. While public opinion polls show an increasing number of Americans are receptive of gay marriage, and accepting of homosexuality in general, the movement hasn't fared well at the ballot box. On Tuesday, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Still, at mileposts and bastions in the struggle, Obama's words were being welcomed.
Holly Puterbaugh, 65, and her partner, Lois Farnham, were among the three Vermont same-sex couples who sued the state in 1997 after they were denied a marriage license. Their lawsuit led to the 1999 court decision that made Vermont the first state to recognize same-sex civil unions.
Back then, Puterbaugh never would have believed a president would someday back same-sex marriage, she said in a phone interview Thursday.
"We've come a lot further a lot faster than I thought we would," she said. "In '99, civil union was considered the most outrageously liberal thing going. Now it's the conservative fallback.
"That tells me people are looking, they are thinking, they are starting to really examine this as a true issue," she said.
Another couple in that landmark lawsuit, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, had also viewed same-sex marriage as a romantic ideal, and maybe a legal longshot, when they took up the fight. Now, things have changed.
"When we went to the city hall in South Burlington to ask for a marriage license, it was very simply the first step on what we thought would be a very long road, but we had to take the first step," Beck said. "I don't think either of us ever imagined that we necessarily would be, you know, 15 or 16 years later in the position of hearing the president of the United States come out in support of same-sex marriage. But it's an amazing and wondrous thing that, here we are."
To social conservatives and some church leaders, the debate over gay marriage is partly about government intrusion on an institution that, at its core, is based in the deepest religious traditions.
To others, it's about eradicating hate.
In late 1998, Matthew Shepard, a slender, 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed, fatally beaten and tied to a fence by two men he met in a bar in Laramie. The killers, police said, targeted him because he was gay. His death prompted changes. Congress passed hate crimes legislation bearing his name in 2009.
Now, Shepard's mother, Judy, hopes Obama's words might get people thinking again, and not just about marriage.
"To me, that's what this issue is — a matter of civil rights," she said.
"He's following the change of the nation as a whole, I think," Shepard said of Obama. "But to have the actual president say he's in favor of it, when our previous president was so public about being against it, is just so big. I can't even ... there's no words."
The Wyoming Legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 76-14, last year considered but ultimately rejected a proposal that would have barred recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.
State Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, a lesbian, said she believes that feelings about gays and lesbians in the state are different than they were in 1998. Even in a state Legislature that could be defined as very conservative, she said anti-gay measures are seen as inappropriate.
"Times have changed," Connolly said.
In 1969, the New York Daily News trumpeted the dawn of the gay rights movement with this headline: "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad."
In the story that followed, about riots in a gay neighborhood following the police raid at Stonewall Inn, the paper taunted the club's patrons as "little girls" and "ladies-in-waiting." They didn't speak or walk, they "lisped" and "pranced," and were described as being more concerned about their hairdos being disturbed than social justice.
That kind of disparaging language hasn't disappeared from the American dialogue quite yet, and even as Obama's remarks were celebrated, gay and lesbian leaders like Christine Quinn, the speaker of New York's City Council, noted that they came shortly after the hurtful vote in North Carolina.
"It is an upsetting thing, to think about people going into the voting booth and casting a vote that, in essence, is against who I am and against what my family is. That's upsetting," she said. "Whether you're the speaker of the City Council or a 13-year-old girl, that hurts. Who likes to think about people not liking them? ... It's something that eats at you, whether you want to admit it or not."
Quinn said the president's words were an emotional salve after that ballot-box loss — a sentiment that was shared by patrons at the Stonewall, where a sign outside the door Wednesday night said, "Obama supports gay marriage. Let's drink."
"We've never had a president that stood up for us," said patron Nancy Pizarro, as she sat with friends at the bar. "I feel like I'm living history."
New York last year became the largest state to recognize same-sex marriage, with a surprise vote in the legislature, quickly signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
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