The nation's top law enforcement officer orders that same-sex couples be treated just like any other married couple in every program the Justice Department oversees. An All-American football player announces he is gay, setting the stage for him to become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL. This is how sweeping social change happens, when some judges and lawmakers are out of step with most Americans — milestone by milestone, step by step until gay people are fully accepted into daily life and have full equality under the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court — in clearing the way last June for gay marriages to resume in California — failed to establish a constitutionally protected right for all gay Americans to marry, not just those in the 17 states that recognize same-sex marriages. But in a second case last summer, the high court wiped out a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that had barred gay couples from receiving federal benefits available to other married couples.
As a consequence of that ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed Monday that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights in a wide range of venues, including bankruptcies, prison visits and courtroom testimony. These changes in federal programs will apply in the states where gay marriage is not legal.
This will make a difference in the daily lives of thousands of couples.
Yet in terms of cultural impact, University of Missouri lineman Michael Sam's disclosure on Sunday may be more significant. While a few other professional athletes have come out, they did so after they retired or at the end of their careers. Sam is taking the courageous step of doing so at the cusp of his career, before he is even drafted. Officially, the NFL welcomed him with open arms. It remains to be seen, of course, whether it hurts his draft position and how well he is accepted in the hypermacho culture of NFL locker rooms.
Younger Americans are more tolerant than their elders, but there is growing acceptance of homosexuality in the general public. The arc of history is bending person by person, leading to the day when sexual orientation is only one characteristic, and not the most important or even the most noticed.
As Sam said, "I'm a college graduate, I'm African-American, and I'm gay."
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