A Brief History of the LGBT Movement in the United States

A Brief History of the LGBT Movement in the United States

In 1965, members of the LGBT community rallied in the American capital and gathered in front of the White House to stage the first LGBT rights demonstration in the United States. The LGBT movement has been at the forefront of intrastate sociopolitical affairs since then. Over the years, the American government and society have become considerably responsive to the needs and concerns of the LGBT community amidst oppositions. However, it is still important to remember that the history of the LGBT movement in the United States has been characterized by an arduous struggle that spanned for decades.

1950s: Emergence of LGBT Organizations and Rights Groups

Before the landmark demonstration in the American capital, there were already several organizations formed to address the concerns of gays and lesbians. The Mattachine Society, for example, was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles and became one of the first organizations to promote the rights of gay men. The Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization formed in San Francisco in 1955.

Both organizations also provided moral support and encouraged gays and lesbians to assimilate as much as possible into the prevailing heterosexual culture. Furthermore, these organizations served as venues for discussions and research, while also becoming instrumental in promoting the need to build and maintain LGBT communities.

ONE Incorporated also had a remarkable impact in the early phases of the LGBT movement. Founded by William Dale Jennings in 1952 and joined with like-minded colleagues Don Slater, Dorr Legg, Tony Reyes, and Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay, this gay rights organization had a fully-functional machinery that included a public office, administrative infrastructure, logistics, a telephone, and the first publication that reached the general public, ONE Magazine.

1960s: Impact of the Stonewall Riots in the U.S. LGBT Movement

But a more visible American LGBT movement emerged as an offshoot of the Stonewall Riots that transpired in New York beginning 28 June 1969. The still-existing Stonewall Inn is a popular tavern and recreational bar in Greenwich Village, New York City that caters to gay men.

However, before the 1969 riots, this bar and other similar establishments were a common target of police riots, often citing liquor violations as a reason. The LGBT community in New York cried foul. Sordid tales of harassment during these raids were common. Furthermore, homosexuality was largely discriminated around this time because of existing sodomy laws that outlawed sexual acts between persons of the same sex.

The specific police raid of Stonewall Inn on 28 June 1969 was different. When police officers barged into the establishment, they were welcomed by a large group of gay men determined to drive them away. The scene drew attention from the neighborhood. Soon, Greenwich Village residents had organized protests and riots that lasted for several nights. They clamored to empower the LGBT community and encourage members to be open about their sexual orientation without fearing government persecution.

Undoubtedly, the Stonewall Riots served as a catalyst for stirring the LGBT movement. But an organized and widespread movement did not emerge immediately from the Stonewall Riots. Still, the sociopolitical climate around that time was largely tolerating and permissive. Several mainstream organizations to include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Sociological Association, the Lutheran Church, and the American Bar Association had voiced out their strong opposition against laws that penalized and discriminated homosexuality.

It is also worth mentioning that the emerging LGBT movement was an offshoot of other sociopolitical movements and ideologies, such as gender equality and feminism, African-American civil rights, and anti-war sentiments. Around this time, however, the concern of the LGBT community largely centered on gay liberation—a concept that was focused less on civil rights and more on personal empowerment.

1970s: Early Accomplishments of the LGBT Movement

The movement accomplished several breakthroughs beginning in 1970. Among these included the declassification of homosexuality as a disease in 1974 by the American Psychiatric Association. The increasing visibility of specific LGBT communities in cities and states promoted gradual acceptance and better social integration. The Gay Liberation Front that emerged after the Stonewall Riots proliferated across colleges and universities in the early 1970s.

Subsequently, the movement shifted from liberation to civil rights. In 1974 for instance, liberal lawmakers had started pushing for amendments in the Civil Rights Act to extend federal government protection against LGBT discrimination. The growing popularity of LGBT demonstrations in San Francisco resulted in the birth of the Rainbow Flag in 1978 that later became the worldwide symbol of the movement and the entire community. Nonetheless, beginning 1970, the social and academic environment created an atmosphere for supporting the emerging LGBT movement.

The LGBT movement eventually evolved to become an established political ideology and social movement centered on the full acceptance of LGBT people in society. Community members and supporters have rallied to oppose discrimination or homophobia, challenge dominant constructs of masculinity and femininity, and promote equal rights.

However, further attempts to advance the LGBT movement and promote LGBT rights at the federal level were somehow unsuccessful due to the emerging opposition. During the latter part of the 1970s, conservative politicians and religious leaders rallied to have numerous LGBT-related legislation repealed and blocked. For years to come, the supporters and opponents of the LGBT movement marked one of the greatest divides in American society.

Another accomplishment of the LGBT movement was the removal of sodomy laws in the U.S. Note that during the 1770s and until 2003, American sodomy laws deemed several sexual acts punishable under the law. Illinois was the first state to abolish its sodomy law in 1961.

Throughout the 20th century, the gradual liberalization of American norms led to the elimination of sodomy laws in most states but the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of several provisions.

2000s: Abolishing Sodomy Laws and Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

However, in 2003, the Supreme Court reversed earlier decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, thus striking down the sodomy law in Texas and by extension, invalidating sodomy laws in 13 other states. Same-sex sexual activity became legal in every U.S. state and territory.

Possibly, one of the most notable accomplishments or key developments in the history of the LGBT movement in the United States was the legalization of same-sex marriage. Assertions to obtain civil marriage rights and benefits for same-sex couples started in the 1970s. However, the clamor became increasingly prominent beginning in 1993 following the Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr v. Lewin that declared the state prohibition against same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The arrival of the 21st century saw growing public support for same-sex marriage. On 17 May 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state and the sixth jurisdiction in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. President Barack Obama also became the first incumbent U.S. to support same-sex marriage during a pronouncement made on 9 May 2012. The states of Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage through popular vote or public referendum.

While several states barred same-sex marriage, the United States Supreme Court made a historic decision on 26 June 2015 via the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case that ultimately allowed same-sex marriage across all 50 states by declaring state prohibition as unconstitutional.