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History of the Gay Rights Movement in the US

This material courtesy of Jeannine Pitas

One of the biggest social movements currently taking place in the United States right now is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement. After years of discrimination and marginalization from mainstream society, queer people (gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and other sexual minorities) are fighting discrimination and in some cases seeking marriage rights. The global gay rights movement, which began in Europe over one hundred years ago with the goals of changing the dominant cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity, has had varying degrees of success in different countries. On the whole, the United States has been more receptive to this movement than many other countries, but discrimination and homophobia—the fear of gay people—still dominate many people’s thinking.

The American gay rights movement dates back to 1924, when the Society for Human Rights in Chicago became the country’s first gay organization. However, it was not until the 1960s that the movement began to make any real progress. In 1962 Illinois became the first US state to decriminalize private homosexual acts between consenting adults, and the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests of the ‘60s left many gay activists with the desire to create an organized movement. In 1969 the Stonewall Riots—a three-day protest that took place when gay, lesbian and transgendered patrons resisted a police raid on a New York bar—transformed the movement from the struggle of a few isolated activists to a collective, wide-scale effort. Immediately after Stonewall, a few radical groups were formed. These began fighting against the American Psychiatric Society’s classification of gay as a disease, and in 1973 the Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. At this time many LGBT’s decided to “come out” – to speak openly and proudly about their sexual orientation and make no attempt to conceal it- thus rejecting the old idea of homosexuality as a source of shame.

The 1980’s saw a difficult moment for the emergence of AIDS, a deadly disease which at first seemed concentrated in the gay male population. This new obstacle changed the focus of the movement for many leaders in the movement and also lead to radicalization. At this time many activists began to see the word “gay and lesbian” as too restrictive and began to use the word “queer” to describe all sexual minorities.

The 1990’s saw more victories for the LGBT movement. In 1993 the US military instituted the “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” allowing gay people to serve in the military but prohibiting homosexual activity. In 2000 the state of Vermont became the first to permit ¨civil unions¨ between gay and lesbian couples, granting them the same civil rights and benefits as married people yet refusing to call these unions by the name of marriage, which the state has defined as a union between a man and a woman. Since then, such civil unions have become legal in Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Jersey, while actual same-sex marriage has been legalized in Massachusetts and most recently California. Currently the movement has also made gains in securing legislation against workplace discrimination, as has been done in a bill approved by the House of Representatives in 2007.

However, while the American LGBT movement has made great progress in meeting its goals of assuring equal civil rights for gay people and deconstructing the common cultural concept of queer people as deviant or abnormal, much opposition remains. Many political and cultural conservatives believe that, by trying to challenge and redefine age-old concepts of marriage and family, the movement is a threat to the very foundations of American society. Some Christian groups, referring to biblical passages that condemn homosexuality, view it as a moral wrong. Thus, opposition to the LGBT movement continues in many parts of mainstream society, particularly in the states where gay marriage and civil unions are banned. Thus, while in the more liberal sectors of American society, the movement has made great gains and is widely accepted, among conservatives it remains controversial.

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