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The American Gay Rights Movement

A Short History

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In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that would mandate castration for gay men and mutilation of nose cartilage for gay women. But that's not the scary part. Here's the scary part: Jefferson was considered a liberal. At the time, the most common penalty on the books was death.

224 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court finally put an end to laws criminalizing same-sex intercourse in Lawrence v. Texas. Lawmakers at both the state and federal level continue to target lesbians and gay men with draconian legislation and hateful rhetoric. The gay rights movement is still working to change this.

1951: First National Gay Rights Organization is Founded

Engraving of Sappho (1883)
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
During the 1950s, it would have been dangerous and illegal to register any kind of pro-gay organization. The founders of the first major gay rights groups had to protect themselves by using code.

The small group of gay men who created the Mattachine Society in 1951 drew on the Italian tradition of street comedy in which the jester-truthteller characters, the mattacini, revealed the flaws of pompous characters representing societal norms.

And the small group of lesbian couples who created the Daughters of Bilitis found their inspiration in an obscure 1874 poem, "The Song of Bilitis," which invented the character of Bilitis as a companion for Sappho.

Both groups essentially served a social function; they didn't, and couldn't, do much activism.

1961: Illinois Sodomy Law is Repealed

Sketch - Burning of Two Men for Sodomy (1482)
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Founded in 1923, the American Law Institute has long been one of the most influential legal organizations in the country. In the late 1950s, it issued an opinion that stunned many: That victimless crime laws, such as laws banning sexual intercourse between consenting adults, should be abolished. Illinois agreed in 1961. Connecticut followed suit in 1969. But most states ignored the recommendation, and continued to classify consensual gay sex as a felony on par with sexual assault--sometimes with prison sentences of up to 20 years.

1969: The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Inn
Photo: © 2007 Michael Nyika. Licensed under Creative Commons.
1969 is often regarded as the year that the gay rights movement took off, and for good reason. Before 1969, there was a real disconnect between political progress, which was most often made by straight allies, and lesbian and gay organizing, which was most often swept under the rug.

When the NYPD raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village and started arresting employees and drag performers, they got more than they bargained for--a crowd of some 2,000 lesbian, gay, and transgender supporters of the bar took on the police, forcing them into the club. Three days of riots ensued.

A year later, LGBT activists in several major cities, including New York, held a parade to commemorate the revolt. Pride parades have been held in June ever since.

1973: American Psychiatric Association Defends Homosexuality

DSM Page
Photo: © 2005 Stephen Cummings. Licensed under Creative Commons.
The early days of psychiatry were both blessed and haunted by the legacy of Sigmund Freud, who created the field as we know it today but sometimes had an unhealthy obsession with normalcy. One of the pathologies Freud identified was that of the "invert"--one who is sexually attracted to members of his or her own gender. For most of the twentieth century, the tradition of psychiatry more or less followed suit.

But in 1973, members of the American Psychiatric Association began to realize that homophobia was the real social problem. They announced that they would be removing homosexuality from the next printing of the DSM-II, and spoke out in favor of antidiscrimination laws that would protect lesbian and gay Americans.

1980: Democratic National Convention Supports Gay Rights

Jimmy Carter Delivers Speech
Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.
During the 1970s, four issues galvanized the Religious Right: Abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and pornography. Or if you want to look at it another way, one issue galvanized the Religious Right: Sex.

Leaders of the Religious Right were squarely behind Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Democratic leaders had everything to gain and little to lose by supporting gay rights, so they inserted a new plank in the party platform: "All groups must be protected from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, language, age, sex or sexual orientation." Three years later, Gary Hart became the first major-party presidential candidate to address an LGBT organization. Other candidates of both parties have followed suit.

1984: City of Berkeley Adopts First Same-Sex Domestic Partnerships Ordinance

Berkeley Square
Photo: © 2006 Allan Ferguson. Licensed under Creative Commons.
A key component of equal rights is the recognition of households and relationships. This lack of recognition tends to affect same-sex couples most during the times in their lives when they already face the greatest levels of stress--in times of illness, where hospital visitation is often denied, and in times of bereavement, where inheritance between partners is often unrecognized.

In recognition of this, The Village Voice became the first business to offer domestic partnership benefits in 1982. In 1984, the City of Berkeley became the first U.S. government body to do so--offering lesbian and gay city and school district employees the same partnership benefits that heterosexual couples take for granted.

1993: Hawaii Supreme Court Issues Ruling in Support of Same-Sex Marriage

Hawaii Gay Pride Parade
Photo: © 2005 D'Arcy Norman. Licensed under Creative Commons.
In Baehr v. Lewin (1993), three same-sex couples challenged the State of Hawaii's heterosexual-only marriage code...and won. The Hawaii Supreme Court declared that, barring a "compelling state interest," the State of Hawaii could not bar same-sex couples from marrying without violating its own equal protection statutes. The Hawaii state legislature soon amended the constitution to overrule the Court.

So began the national debate over same-sex marriage--and the pandering efforts of many state legislatures to ban it. Even President Clinton got in on the act, signing the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to prevent any future hypothetical same-sex married couples from receiving federal benefits.

1998: President Bill Clinton Signs Executive Order 13087

Bill Clinton Speaks
Photo: Larry W. Smith / Getty Images.
Although President Clinton is often best remembered in the LGBT activism community for his support of a ban on lesbians and gay men in the military and his decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act, he also had a positive contribution to offer. In May 1998, while he was in the midst of the sex scandal that would consume his presidency, Clinton authored Executive Order 13087--banning the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation in employment. The policy has remained in effect under the Bush administration.

1999: California Adopts a Statewide Domestic Partnerships Ordinance

Couple with Pro-Marriage Posters
Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images.
In 1999, America's largest state established a statewide domestic partnerships registry available to same-sex couples. The original policy granted hospital visitation rights and nothing else, but over time a number of benefits--added incrementally from 2001 to 2007--have strengthened the policy to the point where it offers most of the same state benefits available to married couples.

2000: Vermont Adopts Nation's First Civil Unions Policy

Governor Howard Dean
Photo: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images.
California's case of a voluntary domestic partnerships policy is rare. Most states granting rights to same-sex couples have done so because the state judiciary has found--correctly--that blocking marriage rights to couples based solely on the partners' gender violates constitutional equal protection guarantees.

In 1999, three same-sex couples sued the State of Vermont for denying them the right to marry--and, in a mirror of the 1993 Hawaii decision, the state's highest court agreed. Rather than amending the constitution, the State of Vermont established civil unions--a separate but equal alternative to marriage that would grant same-sex couples the same rights available to married couples.

2003: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down All Remaining Sodomy Laws

Chicago Gay Pride Celebrates Lawrence v. Texas
Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images.
Despite the considerable progress that had been made on gay rights issues by 2003, gay sex was still illegal in 14 states. Such laws, though seldom enforced, served what George W. Bush called a "symbolic" function--a reminder that the government does not approve of sex between two members of the same gender.

In Texas, officers responding to a nosy neighbor's complaint interrupted two men having sex in their own apartment and promptly arrested them for sodomy. The Lawrence v. Texas case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down Texas' sodomy law. For the first time in U.S. history, celibacy was no longer the implicit legal standard for lesbians and gay men--and homosexuality itself ceased to be an indictable offense.

2004: Massachusetts Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

Pro-Marriage Rally
Photo: Darren McCollester / Getty Images.
Several states had established that same-sex couples could achieve some basic partnership rights through the separate-but-equal standards of domestic partnership and civil unions, but until 2004 the prospect of any state actually honoring the concept of marriage equality with respect to same-sex couples seemed remote and unrealistic.

All of this changed when seven same-sex couples challenged Massachusetts' heterosexual-only marriage laws in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health--and won unconditionally. The 4-3 decision mandated that marriage itself must be made available to same-sex couples. Civil unions would not be enough this time.

No other states have followed Massachusetts' lead--but if history is any indication, this will change.
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