The gay rights movement in the United States has seen huge progress in the last century, and especially the last two decades. Laws prohibiting homosexual activity have been struck down; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals can now serve openly in the military. And same-sex couples can now legally get married and adopt children in all 50 states. But it has been a long and bumpy road for gay rights proponents, who are still advocating for employment, housing and transgender rights.
The Early Gay Rights Movement
In 1924, Henry Gerber, a German immigrant, founded in Chicago the Society for Human Rights, the first documented gay rights organization in the United States. During his U.S. Army service in World War I, Gerber was inspired to create his organization by the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, a “homosexual emancipation” group in Germany.
Gerber’s small group published a few issues of its newsletter “Friendship and Freedom,” the country’s first gay-interest newsletter. Police raids caused the group to disband in 1925—but 90 years later, the U.S. government designated Gerber’s Chicago house a National Historic Landmark.
The Pink Triangle
The gay rights movement stagnated for the next few decades, though LGBT individuals around the world did come into the spotlight a few times.
For example, English poet and author Radclyffe Hall stirred up controversy in 1928 when she published her lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness. And during World War II, the Nazis held homosexual men in concentration camps, branding them with the infamous pink triangle badge, which was also given to sexual predators.
Additionally, in 1948, in his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey proposed that male sexual orientation lies on a continuum between exclusively homosexual to exclusively heterosexual.
The Homophile Years
In 1950, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Foundation, one of the nation’s first gay rights group. The Los Angeles organization coined the term “homophile,” which was considered less clinical and focused on sexual activity than “homosexual.”
Though it started off small, the foundation, which sought to improve the lives of gay men through discussion groups and related activities, expanded after founding member Dale Jennings was arrested in 1952 for solicitation and then later set free due to a deadlocked jury.
At the end of the year, Jennings formed another organization called One, Inc., which welcomed women and published ONE, the country’s first pro-gay magazine. Jennings was ousted from One, Inc. in 1953 in part for being a communist—he and Harry Hay were also kicked out of the Mattachine Foundation for their communism—but the magazine continued.
In 1958, One, Inc. won a lawsuit against the U.S. Post Office, which in 1954 declared the magazine “obscene” and refused to deliver it.
The Mattachine Society
Mattachine Foundation members restructured the organization to form the Mattachine Society, which had local chapters in other parts of the country and in 1955 began publishing the country’s second gay publication, The Mattachine Review. That same year, four lesbian couples in San Francisco founded an organization called the Daughters of Bilitis, which soon began publishing a newsletter called The Ladder, the first lesbian publication of any kind.
These early years of the movement also faced some notable setbacks: the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a form of mental disorder in 1952.
The following year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order that banned gay people—or, more specifically, people guilty of “sexual perversion”—from federal jobs. This ban would remain in effect for some 20 years.
Gay Rights in the 1960s
The gay rights movement saw some early progress In the 1960s. In 1961, Illinois became the first state to do away with its anti-sodomy laws, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality, and a local TV station in California aired the first documentary about homosexuality, called The Rejected.
In 1965, Dr. John Oliven, in his book Sexual Hygiene and Pathology, coined the term “transgender” to describe someone who was born in the body of the incorrect sex.
But more than 10 years earlier, transgender individuals entered the American consciousness when Christine Jorgensen came out as a trans woman, following gender confirmation surgery.
Despite this progress, LGBTQ individuals lived in a kind of urban subculture and were routinely subjected to harassment and persecution, such as in bars and restaurants. In fact, gay men and women in New York City could not be served alcohol in public due to liquor laws that considered the gathering of homosexuals to be “disorderly.”
In fear of being shut down by authorities, bartenders would deny drinks to patrons suspected of being gay or kick them out altogether; others would serve them drinks but force them to sit facing away from other customers to prevent them from socializing.
In 1966, members of the Mattachine Society in New York City staged a “sip-in”—a twist on the “sit-in” protests of the 1960s—in which they visited taverns, declared themselves gay, and waited to be turned away so they could sue. They were denied service at the Greenwich Village tavern Julius, resulting in much publicity and the quick reversal of the anti-gay liquor laws.
The Stonewall Inn
A few years later, in 1969, a now-famous event catalyzed the gay rights movement: The Stonewall Riots.
The clandestine gay club Stonewall Inn was an institution in Greenwich Village because it was large, cheap, allowed dancing and welcomed drag queens and homeless youths.
But in the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn. Fed up with years of police harassment, patrons and neighborhood residents began throwing objects at police as they loaded the arrested into police vans. The scene eventually exploded into a full-blown riot, with subsequent protests that lasted for five more days.
Christopher Street Liberation Day
Shortly after the Stonewall uprising, members of the Mattachine Society split off to form the Gay Liberation Front, a radical group that launched public demonstrations, protests and confrontations with political officials.
Similar groups followed, including the Gay Activists Alliance, Radicalesbians, and Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
In 1970, at the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, New York City community members marched through local streets in commemoration of the event. Named the Christopher Street Liberation Day, the march is now considered the country’s first gay pride parade. Activists also turned the once-disreputable Pink Triangle into a symbol of gay pride.
LGBTQ Political Victories
The increased visibility and activism of LGBTQ individuals in the 1970s helped the movement make progress on multiple fronts. In 1977, for instance, the New York Supreme Court ruled that transgender woman Renée Richards could play at the United States Open tennis tournament as a woman.
Additionally, several openly LGBTQ individuals secured public office positions: Kathy Kozachenko won a seat to the Ann Harbor, Michigan, City Council in 1974, becoming the first out American to be elected to public office.
Harvey Milk, who campaigned on a pro-gay rights platform, became the San Francisco city supervisor in 1978, becoming the first openly gay man elected to a political office in California.
Milk asked Gilbert Baker, an artist and gay rights activist, to create an emblem that represents the movement and would be seen as a symbol of pride. Baker designed and stitched together the first rainbow flag, which he unveiled at a pride parade in 1978.
The following year, in 1979, more than 100,000 people took part in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
Outbreak of AIDS
The outbreak of AIDS in the United States dominated the struggle for gay rights in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report about five previously healthy homosexual men becoming infected with a rare type of pneumonia.
By 1984, researchers had identified the cause of AIDS—the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV—and the Food and Drug Administration licensed the first commercial blood test for HIV in 1985. Two years later, the first antiretroviral medication for HIV, azidothymidine (AZT), became available.
Gay rights proponents held the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987. The occasion marked the first national coverage of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), an advocacy group seeking to improve the lives of AIDS victims.
The World Health Organization in 1988 declared December 1 to be World AIDS Day. By the end of the decade, there were at least 100,000 reported cases of AIDS in the United States.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
In 1992, Bill Clinton, during his campaign to become president, promised he would lift the ban against gays in the military. But after failing to garner enough support for such an open policy, President Clinton in 1993 passed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, which allowed gay men and women to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexuality a secret.
Gay rights advocates decried the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, as it did little to stop people from being discharged on the grounds of their sexuality.
In 2011, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise to repeal DADT; by that time, more than 12,000 officers had been discharged from the military under DADT for refusing to hide their sexuality. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was officially repealed on September 20, 2011.
Gay Marriage and Beyond
In 1992, the District of Columbia passed a law that allowed gay and lesbian couples to register as domestic partners, granting them some of the rights of marriage (the city of San Francisco passed a similar ordinance three years prior and California would later extend those rights to the entire state in 1999).
In 1993, the highest court in Hawaii ruled that a ban on gay marriage may go against the state’s constitution. State voters disagreed, however, and in 1998 passed a law banning same-sex marriage.
Federal lawmakers also disagreed, and Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which Clinton signed into law in 1996. The law prevented the government from granting federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage certificates from other states.
Though marriage rights backtracked, gay rights advocates scored other victories. In 1994, a new anti-hate-crime law allowed judges to impose harsher sentences if a crime was motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation.
The Matthew Shepard Act
In 2003, gay rights proponents had another bit of happy news: the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, struck down the state’s anti-sodomy law. The landmark ruling effectively decriminalized homosexual relations nationwide.
The act was a response to the 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was pistol-whipped, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. The murder was thought to be driven by Shepard’s perceived homosexuality.
In 2011, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise to repeal DADT; by that time, more than 12,000 officers had been discharged from the military under DADT for refusing to hide their sexuality.
A couple of years later, the Supreme Court ruled against Section 3 of DOMA, which allowed the government to deny federal benefits to married same-sex couples. DOMA soon become powerless, when in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, making gay marriage legal throughout the country.
One day after that landmark 2015 ruling, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban against openly gay leaders and employees. And in 2017, it reversed a century-old ban against transgender boys, finally catching up with the Girl Scouts of the USA, which had long been inclusive of LGBTQ leaders and children (the organization had accepted its first transgender Girl Scout in 2011).
In 2016, the U.S. military lifted its ban on transgender people serving openly, a month after Eric Fanning became secretary of the Army and the first openly gay secretary of a U.S. military branch. In March 2018, President Donald Trump announced a new transgender policy for the military that again banned most transgender people from military service. On January 25, 2021—his sixth day in office—President Biden signed an executive order overturning this ban.
Though LGBTQ Americans now have same-sex marriage rights and numerous other rights that seemed farfetched 100 years ago, the work of advocates is far from over.
Universal workplace anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ Americans is still lacking. Gay rights proponents must also content with an increasing number of “religious liberty” state laws, which allow business to deny service to LGBTQ individuals due to religious beliefs, as well as “bathroom laws” that prevent transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that don’t correspond to their sex at birth. Additionally, several states have passed legislation targeting transgender youth (and, in Texas, their parents), preventing them from competing in school-sponsored athletics that correspond with their gender identity and accessing gender-affirming medical care.
Gay Marriage Legalized
Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage, and the first legal same-sex marriage was performed on May 17, 2004—a day when seventy-seven other couples across the state also tied the knot.
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer wed in Ontario, Canada in 2007. The State of New York recognized the residents’ marriage, but the federal government did not. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her estate to Windsor; since the couple’s marriage was not federally recognized, Windsor didn’t quality for tax exemption as a surviving spouse. Windsor sued the government in late 2010 in United States v. Windsor. Months later, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Barack Obama administration would no longer defend DOMA.
In 2012, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DOMA violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments for the case. The court ruled in favor of Windsor.
Gay marriage was finally ruled legal by the Supreme Court in June 2015. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the plaintiffs—led by Jim Obergefell, who sued because he was unable to put his name on his late husband’s death certificate—argued that the laws violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in favor of same-sex marriage rights, ultimately making gay marriage legal across the nation on June 2015. The ruling read, in part:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
On December 13, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law. The law requires that individual states recognize same-sex and interracial marriages that were lawfully performed in other states.
How WWI Sparked the Gay Rights Movement: Smithsonian.
First gay rights group in the US (1924): Chicago Tribune.
Chicago’s Henry Gerber House Designated a National Historic Landmark: U.S. Department of the Interior.
Harry Hay, Early Proponent of Gay Rights, Dies at 90: The New York Times.
Transgender: Transgender Studies Quarterly.
LGBT Rights Milestones Fast Facts: CNN.