Gay Rights – The History Of A Social Movement In America

Posted on January 8, 2010. Filed under: Resources |

A high level view

Milestones in the Gay Rights Movement in America

Source: Excerpted from The Reader’s Companion to American History.
Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Late in the [19th] century, as large cities allowed for greater anonymity, as wage labor apart from family became common, and as more women were drawn out of the home, evidence of a new pattern of homosexual expression surfaced. . . .

At first, these individuals developed ways of meeting one another and institutions to foster a sense of identity. . . . By 1915, one participant in this new gay world was referring to it as “a community distinctly organized.” For the most part hidden from view because of social hostility, an urban gay subculture had come into existence by the 1920s and 1930s.

1924 – The Society for Human Rights in Chicago becomes the country’s earliest known gay rights organization.
1948 – – Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, revealing to the public that homosexuality is far more widespread than was commonly believed.

This new visibility provoked latent cultural prejudices….Firings from government jobs and purges from the military intensified in the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order in 1953 barring gay men and lesbians from all federal jobs. Many state and local governments and private corporations followed suit. The FBI began a surveillance program against homosexuals.

1951 – The Mattachine Society, the first national gay rights organization, is formed by Harry Hay, considered by many to be the founder of the gay rights movement.

1956 – The Daughters of Bilitis, a pioneering national lesbian organization, is founded.

In the 1960s, influenced by the model of a militant black civil rights movement, the “homophile movement,” as the participants dubbed it, became more visible. Activists, such as Franklin Kameny and Barbara Gittings, picketed government agencies in Washington to protest discriminatory employment policies. In San Francisco, Martin, Lyon, and others targeted police harassment. By 1969, perhaps fifty homophile organizations existed in the United States, with memberships of a few thousand.

1962 – Illinois becomes the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

1969 – The Stonewall riots transform the gay rights movement from one limited to a small number of activists into a widespread protest for equal rights and acceptance. Patrons of a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, fight back during a police raid on June 27, sparking three days of riots.

….[In 1975] the Civil Service Commission eliminated the ban on the employment of homosexuals in most federal jobs. Many of the nation’s religious denominations engaged in spirited debates about the morality of homosexuality, and some, like Unitarianism and Reformed Judaism, opened their doors to gay and lesbian ministers and rabbis. The lesbian and gay world was no longer an underground subculture but, in larger cities especially, a well-organized community, with businesses, political clubs, social service agencies, community centers, and religious congregations bringing people together. In a number of places, openly gay candidates ran for elective office and won.

1973 – The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders.

1977 – Harvey Milk was elected to public office.

1978 – Harvey Milk was assassinated while serving in office.

The onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, although it intensified the antigay rhetoric of the New Right, also stimulated further organizing within the gay community. AIDS made political mobilization a matter of life and death. With a large majority of the cases striking male homosexuals, the gay community in short order created a host of organizations, such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, to provide services and assistance to those infected. Local and national gay civil rights groups also grew in size and number, as the community sought to increase funding for research and education and to win protection against discrimination. A personal and social tragedy of immense proportions, AIDS paradoxically strengthened the political arm of the gay movement.

1982 – Wisconsin becomes the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

1993 – The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is instituted for the U.S. military, permitting gays to serve in the military but banning homosexual activity. President Clinton’s original intention to revoke the prohibition against gays in the military was met with stiff opposition; this compromise, which has led to the discharge of thousands of men and women in the armed forces, was the result.

1996 – In Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court strikes down Colorado’s Amendment 2, which denied gays and lesbians protections against discrimination, calling them “special rights.” According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, “We find nothing special in the protections Amendment 2 withholds. These protections . . . constitute ordinary civil life in a free society.”

2000 – Vermont becomes the first state in the country to legally recognize civil unionsbetween gay or lesbian couples. The law states that these “couples would be entitled to the same benefits, privileges, and responsibilities as spouses.” It stops short of referring to same-sex unions as marriage, which the state defines as heterosexual.

2003 – The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws in the U.S. are unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”

2003 – In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that barring gays and lesbians from marrying violates the state constitution. The Massachusetts Chief Justice concluded that to “deny the protections, benefits, and obligations conferred by civil marriage” to gay couples was unconstitutional because it denied “the dignity and equality of all individuals” and made them “second-class citizens.” Strong opposition followed the ruling.

2004 – On May 17, same-sex marriages become legal in Massachusetts.

2005 – Civil unions become legal in Connecticut in Oct. 2005.

2006 – Civil unions become legal in New Jersey in December.

2007 – In November, the House of Representatives approves a bill ensuring equal rights in the workplace for gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals.

2008 – In February, a New York State appeals court unanimously votes that valid same-sex marriages performed in other states must be recognized by employers in New York, granting same-sex couples the same rights as other couples.

2008 – In February, the state of Oregon passes a law that allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners allowing them some spousal rights of married couples.

2008 – On May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. By November 3rd, more than 18,000 same-sex couples have married. On November 4th, California voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage called Proposition 8. The attorney general of California, Jerry Brown, asked the state’s Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of Proposition 8. The ban throws into question the validity of the more than 18,000 marriages already performed, but Attorney General Brown reiterated in a news release that he believed the same-sex marriages performed in CA before November 4th should remain valid.

2008 – On October 10, 2008 the Supreme Court of Connecticut rules that same-sex couples have the right to marry. This makes Connecticut the second state, after Massachusetts, to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples. The court rules that the state cannot deny gay and lesbian couples the freedom to marry under Connecticut’s constitution, and that the state’s civil union law does not provide same-sex couples with the same rights as heterosexual couples.

2008 – November 4, 2008, voters in California, Arizona, and Florida approved the passage of measures that ban same-sex marriage. Arkansas passed a measure intended to bar gay men and lesbians from adopting children.

2008 – On November 12, 2008 same-sex marriages begin to be officially performed in Connecticut.

2009 – On June 3, New Hampshire governor John Lynch signs legislation allowing same-sex marriage

2009 – On June 17, President Obama signs a referendum allowing the same-sex partners of federal employees to receive benefits

A few additional facts:


LGBT Americans wield more than $700 billion in buying power and

are more likely than straight folks to spend money with companies that support

them (makes sense, no?).  But combing through a company’s discrimination

policy is no one’s idea of a fun pre-shopping activity.  Enter: the Human Rights

Campaign (HRC).

  The HRC keeps tabs on how well corporate America treats its LGBT employees, consumers, and investors.  This week it synthesized data on 590 companies into an easy-to-use Buying for Equality guide, scoring companies on a scale of 0 to 100 and awarding them a rating of green (shop away!), yellow, or red.  The scores are based on such criteria as whether the company provides domestic-partner benefits, bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or identification, hosts diversity training, and supports LGBT causes.  And the HRC

is rolling out an iPhone app early next month, so shoppers can decide whether to swing into Gap (100) or Anne Klein (45) while on the go.

  Most of the HRC’s scores are heartening and pretty unsurprising: 100’s all around for Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Nike.  But it’s the stinkers in the list that caught my eye: Cracker Barrel scored the worst of the bunch, with a paltry 15 (hashbrown casserole be damned, that number’s low enough to knock them off my next road-trip itinerary).  Wal-Mart and Radioshack both scored a 40, John Deere earned a 33, and Office Depot and Humana came in at 45.

  Of course, a low score doesn’t mean that a company is actively hostile to its

LGBT workforce, whether that means only promoting straight people or encouraging homophobic remarks around the watercooler.  But it does reflect a certain passivity or apathy to equality.  When I spoke with Corliss Fong, VP of diversity strategies at Macy’s, about her company’s recent decision to officially ban discrimination against transgendered employees, she asked, “If this is what we, as a company, are already doing in practice, what argument is there to not put it in writing?” That proactive mentality earned the retailer a Perfect 100–which may snag them more shoppers this holiday season.

Copyright 2009

Mansueto Ventures LLC.  All rights reserved.  Fast Company, 7 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007-2195


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3 Responses to “Gay Rights – The History Of A Social Movement In America”


Great info! I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Thank you for the kind words and please do cotinue to read…

Have a wonderful weekend.

Great info! I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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