Founded by Henry Gerber in 1924, the Society for Human Rights was the first recognized gay rights organization in the United States. However, after only a few months, several of the Society’s members were arrested on “obscenity” charges, and the group disbanded.
Founded in 1950, the Mattachine Society was one of the next earliest gay rights organizations in the United States. The Society existed as a single national organization headquartered in Los Angeles and then, beginning around 1956, in other locales across the country. During the 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies were among the leading gay rights groups in the United States. However, beginning in the middle 1960s and, especially following the Stonewall riots of 1969, they began increasingly to be seen as too traditional and lost momentum.
The first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, The Daughters of Bilitis, formed in San Francisco in 1955 as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which were subject to raids and police harassment. As the DOB gained members, their focus shifted to supporting women who were afraid to come out, educating them about their rights and gay history. The group continued for 14 years as an educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers, and mental health professionals.
*Resources: Time, GLBTQ Archive, The Legacy Project: Chicago, and Wikipedia
THE PINK TRIANGLE
Under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, male homosexuality was illegal in Germany, but officials rarely enforced the law until the Nazi Party took power in 1933. At that point, the Nazis persecuted gay men as part of their purported “moral crusade” to racially and culturally “purify” Germany. Gay men, in particular, were subject to harassment, arrest, incarceration, and even castration. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates 100,000 gay men were arrested, and between 5,000 and 15,000 were placed in concentration camps.
Just as Jewish individuals were forced to identify themselves with yellow stars, gay men in concentration camps had to wear a large pink triangle.
An estimated 65 percent of gay men in concentration camps died between 1933 and 1945. Even after World War II, both East and West Germany upheld the country’s anti-gay law, and many gays remained incarcerated until the early 1970s. (Germany did not officially repeal the law until 1994.)
In 1973, post-war Germany’s first gay rights organization, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW), reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of liberation. The triangle was used again in 1987 by the Silence=Death Project to raise AIDS awareness.
THE LAVENDER SCARE
During the 1950s, the U.S. State Department worked to root out government employees they deemed “immoral,” “scandalous,” and “dangerous” — people whose personal lives the U.S. government believed would put the entire nation at risk. While this began as a search for Communists (the Red Scare), LGBT people were soon included. Condemned as “perverts,” an unknown number of LGBT employees, likely in the thousands, were driven out of their government jobs between the 1940s and 1960s. This time has become known as the Lavender Scare. (The term “lavender lads,” was used repeatedly by Senator Everett Dirksen as a synonym for gay males).
Historian David K. Johnson explains that “The official rationale wasn’t that homosexuals were Communists, but that they could be used by Communists [...] A variation on the blackmail rationale…held that Communists promoted “sex perversion” among American youth as a way to weaken the country and clear the path for a Communist takeover.”
The Lavender Scare lasted until the 1960s, when investigations slowed. However, it was only in the 1970s when the ban on gay intelligence community members truly relaxed. It took until 1995 for another executive order, signed by President Bill Clinton, to explicitly state that the government may not discriminate based on sexual orientation when it comes to granting access to classified information.
*Resources: The National Archives and History.com
THE STONEWALL UPRISING
In the 1960s, homosexuality was still illegal in most states. Several laws prohibited same-sex public displays of affection, and a criminal statute in New York forbade people from wearing less than three “gender appropriate” articles of clothing. In addition, officials frequently withheld liquor licenses from gay-friendly bars, making the bars prime targets for repeated police raids. This was true of the Stonewall Inn, a small neighborhood bar in New York's Greenwich Village run by the notorious Genovese mafia family. It was not unusual for mafia members to run gay-friendly bars and clubs; typically, these bars would be tipped off by police about an impending raid so they could hide the liquor and pay off the authorities. However, there was no warning for the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969.
In the early hours of that morning, police raided the Stonewall Inn, arresting 13 people. However, unlike other raids, the crowd fought back against the police. Fed up with the harassment and persecution, patrons and those living in the neighborhood began throwing bottles, rocks, and even loose change at the police. The pushback grew to the point that police barricaded themselves inside the bar until backup could arrive.
There were further riots the following night, with more anger and violence on both sides. Two days later, The Village Voice published two articles about the riots, using homophobic slurs. The articles prompted another uprising outside the paper’s office, down the street from the Stonewall Inn.
The uprisings galvanized members of the LGBTQ community to come together and work toward progress. One year later, on June 28th, 1970, thousands of people marched in the streets from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park, marking America’s first gay pride parade. In 2016, President Barack Obama named the Stonewall Inn a National Historic Landmark under the care of the National Park Service.
THE HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC
In mid-1981, reports of a new cancer that appeared to be rapidly killing gay men were published by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and in the New York Times. In 1982, the CDC identified the illness as “AIDS” (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) for the first time, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis was founded in NYC, providing information and counseling hotlines. However, it would take The New York Times almost two years before giving AIDS front-page space on May 25, 1983. By 1984, more than 3,500 people had died from AIDS-related complications.
The U.S. government did not publicly acknowledge AIDS until 1985 - four years after the crisis began - when President Ronald Reagan finally announced that it was a “top priority.”
Between 1983 and 1986, scientists had isolated and identified HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) as the initial infection which could lead to the devastating effects of AIDS. By 1987, AZT (azidothymidine) was FDA-approved (after a controversially rushed trial) as a treatment for HIV. However, the drug was prohibitively expensive, limiting who could access it. Additionally, as the virus mutated, the drug’s effectiveness began to diminish. Other therapies have been developed and have successfully curbed the virus from becoming the death sentence it originally was; however, there is currently no cure.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people in the U.S. and an estimated 36.3 million globally have died from HIV-related illnesses since the beginning of the epidemic. And despite the advances in medicine, an additional average of 700,000 people worldwide continue to die from HIV-related illnesses each year.
In 1953, the Mattachine Society released ONE: The Homosexual Magazine, America’s first widely distributed magazine for gay readers, which included articles, editorials, and short stories. Not long after publication began, postal authorities seized the magazines, arguing that they violated obscenity laws. In its decision, the Supreme Court established that material aimed at a gay audience was not inherently obscene. The decision validated that people had the right to publish LGBTQ media.
The Supreme Court considered the issue of marriage equality for the first time in 1972. A young Minneapolis couple, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell, sparked the case when they wanted to get married. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the case “for want of a substantial federal question.” Ultimately, the couple got married anyway by obtaining a marriage license in a different Minnesota county in 1971. Baker changed his name to Pat Lyn McConnell to obtain the certificate. In 2018, a Minnesota judge ruled that the couple’s marriage was valid.
In this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that laws couldn’t single out LGBTQ people to take away their rights. The case revolved around an amendment to a Colorado law, which banned cities from passing anti-discrimination laws that would protect gay and bisexual people. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the law didn’t adhere to the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause because it singled out and discriminated against a specific group.
The Court ultimately eliminated remaining sodomy laws (which made same-sex relations illegal) in 2003, overruling Bowers v. Hardwick with a vote of 6-3. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion, saying that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment gave the petitioners “the full right to engage in private conduct without government intervention…”. Karen Loewy, senior counsel Lambda Legal, which fights for LGBTQ legal rights, notes that her organization helped to popularize the idea that “public ideas about morality cannot justify infringing people’s constitutional rights.”
This case was a major precursor to marriage equality. The Court decided to eliminate the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 that defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” The case considered the situation of Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were married in Canada before moving to New York, a state that recognized their marriage. After Spyer passed away, Windsor’s attempted to claim a tax exemption for surviving spouses — only to be blocked by DOMA. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that DOMA violated due process and equal protection principles and ordered the United States to refund Windsor’s taxes.
A group of 14 same-sex couples and two men whose partners were deceased joined together and won one of the LGBTQ rights movement’s most significant victories: marriage. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court found for the petitioners, who argued that state officials violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause by prohibiting them from marrying or not recognizing marriages performed in other states. The Court also extended the benefits guaranteed to opposite-sex married couples.
Although by 2018, LGBTQ individuals could marry, the Supreme Court found that a baker was not required to make wedding cakes for same-sex marriages. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court found in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who had refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing religious grounds. Phillips argued that baking cakes requires his “artistic skills,” and his being forced to bake the cake would have infringed upon his freedom of speech and his rights to practice his religion. The Court’s argument for finding in favor of Phillips was contingent upon the state’s “impermissible hostility toward [Phillips’] sincere religious beliefs.” According to the American Bar Association, “The Court’s decision is narrow and leaves unresolved the key question of whether forcing businesses to provide services for gays and lesbians, or others, violates free exercise of religion or free speech rights of owners who wish to refuse to provide such services.”