- The LGBTQ community has led one of the most successful civil rights movements in US history.
- In the 1960s and ’70s, the gay community discovered its political power, with the passing of anti-discrimination laws and the election of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man sworn into elected office.
- AIDS devastated the community in the 1980s and ’90s, but it galvanised the community into further action.
- After a long struggle, the Supreme Court recognised federal marriage equality in 2015.
- Here is a timeline of LGBT rights in America, from the 1960s to today.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Stonewall riots of 1969 are often heralded as the birth of the modern-day LGBTQ civil rights movement. But important work was being done for the community decades before then.
In 1924, Chicago activist Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights, the first known gay rights group in America. The society was short-lived, according to PBS: Several members were arrested shortly after it incorporated and the group soon disbanded.
But it planted a seed that grew, and LGBTQ people continued the long path to true equality and inclusion. What began as a struggle to exist evolved into the fight to fully participate in public life, to serve one’s country, to marry, and to be free from discrimination in all walks of life. “It takes no compromise to give people their rights,” Harvey Milk said in 1976, “It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.”Below, we’ve assembled a timeline of the LGBT rights movement in the United States, from before Stonewall to today.
In 1965, the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia becomes one of the first organised demonstrations for gay rights in the world.
On July 4, 1965 – four years before Stonewall – Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, and 37 other homosexual activists marched in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as part of the first Annual Reminders.
Participants were given strict dress code – men were to wear jackets and ties and women skirts or dresses – to underscore that they were normal and employable.
The events were held until July 4, 1969, just a few days after Stonewall.
A 1966 “sip in” at a New York City bar overturns state liquor laws banning service to gay customers.
In 1966, Mattachine Society chapter president Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and John Timmons challenged New York state liquor law prohibiting bars from serving gay customers. They walked into Julius’ Bar and announced: “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” The bartender refused and the Mattachine Society challenged the liquor law in court – and won. The mere presence of gay customers could no longer be used as proof an establishment was disorderly.
The Stonewall Uprising in 1969 becomes a watershed moment in LGBT rights.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s West Village. But rather than acquiesce, the patrons resisted, sparking three days of swelling protests and riots. It was the first time the LGBTQ community proved it was a force to be reckoned with. In its wake, local queer activists began to campaign for the right to be open about their sexual orientation without reprisal.
In 1970, the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day march becomes the first Pride march in history.
While Stonewall was a flashpoint for the LGBT community, it was at Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, first held one year later, where the notion of Pride parades was born.
The first Liberation Day rally went up Sixth Avenue from Greenwich Village to Central Park, culminating in a “Gay Be-In.” Some 5,000 participants “transformed American public discussion of homosexuality that day,” according to the New York Public Library, “simply by being themselves.” A sister march was held the same day on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, and subsequent processions have cropped up in cities around the world. In 2019, the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, more than five million people attended New York City Pride.
Through the 1970s, the gay rights movement begins to flex its political muscle.
Emboldened with visibility and growing clout, gay activists began to push for legal protections. In 1974 a measure was introduced in the New York City Council banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The measure was finally adopted in 1986 by a 21-14 vote, over strenuous opposition by New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor.
At the same time, Anita Bryant emerges as a figurehead for the conservative anti-gay movement.
In 1977, singer Anita Bryant led a campaign, called “Save Our Children,” to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida. Bryant was the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, and gay activists and celebrity allies called for a boycott of Florida orange juice. At a press conference in October 1977, Bryant was hit in the face with a banana cream pie by an activist posing as a reporter.
She led numerous successful efforts to repeal gay-rights ordinances in cities across America but failed with the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gay teachers in California public schools.
In 1977, Harvey Milk becomes the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US.
Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Harvey Milk was the first politician sworn into office as an openly gay man. He became a symbol of the gay community’s growing political might.
During his time as a city supervisor, Milk sponsored a bill that successfully barred sexual orientation discrimination in San Francisco.
On November 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White, who had resigned but was desperate to get his job back.
White was sentenced to just seven years in prison, sparking outrage across the city. Thousands protested outside City Hall, throwing rocks and lighting police cars on fire, in what became known as the White Night riots. In 2009, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1980, The Democratic Party is the first major American political party to endorse a gay rights platform.
In 1980, the Democratic National Convention officially put opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation in its national platform, a first for major US political party.
Gay Vote 1980, a nationwide coalition of grassroots political groups, went about “changing ‘gay’ from an issue to a political constituency,” Ginny Apuzzo, the co-author of the gay rights plank, said. That year, there were 71 openly gay delegates at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.
In 1979, the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights brings an estimated 200,000 people to the nation’s capital.
On October 14, 1979, between 75,000 and 100,000 people participated in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. It was the largest gathering of the LGBT community at the time, and it shifted the fight for equality from the local to the national level.After the march, hundreds of participants met with dozens of senators and representatives to express their support for gay rights legislation.
The event galvanised attendees and showed the country how large the LGBTQ community was.
In the 1980s, ACT UP galvanizes the gay community against both HIV and bigotry.
In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay male community and sparked homophobia and AIDSphobia across America. But it also fuelled a new chapter in gay rights, with groups like ACT UP taking to the streets and holding politicians and pharmaceutical companies to the fire. ACT UP led numerous direct actions in the 80s, including “die-ins” on Wall Street, at FDA headquarters, and inside New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Because of ACT UP, life-saving medications were fast-tracked and medical researchers began to change how they conducted clinical trials with terminal patients.
The second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 addresses the AIDS crisis, discrimination, and the rights of same-sex couples.
The second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place on October 11, 1987.
Organisers called for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the repeal of sodomy laws nationwide, and both Congressional legislation and an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Attendees included Whoopi Goldberg, Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, and future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
AIDS was a major topic at the march, with speakers decrying the Reagan administration’s refusal to address the epidemic. Organisers demanded increases in spending on AIDS research, prevention, and care, and an end to discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS.
The National AIDS Memorial Quilt was first unveiled on the National Mall during the march. It is the largest community arts project in the world, with more than 44,000 panels honouring those who died from HIV/AIDS.
The 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation draws between 800,000 and one million participants.
When President Bill Clinton introduced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993, it barred homosexuals from serving openly in the military but prohibited military officials from launching investigations without due cause.
Anger over DADT fuelled the third and largest March on Washington on April 25, 1993, when an estimated 800,000 to one million descended on the nation’s capital.
Other prominent issues included hate crimes, the ongoing AIDS epidemic, and Colorado’s Amendment 2, which prevented any jurisdiction in the state from recognising sexual orientation as a protected class. Notable speakers and performers included Madonna, RuPaul, Nancy Pelosi, Martina Navratilova, Ian McKellen, Jesse Jackson, and Melissa Etheridge, who had come out as a lesbian that year.
In 2000, Vermont becomes the first state to recognise civil unions between same-sex partners.
While gay couples had been fighting for legal recognition of their relationships for decades, it was Vermont’s passage of the country’s first civil-unions law in 2000 that started the long path to federal marriage equality.
In 1997, three gay couples sued the state after being denied marriage licenses. They lost, but on appeal, the Vermont State Supreme Court ruled that same-sex partners were entitled to the same benefits and protections as married heterosexual couples.
“I believe this bill enriches all of us as we look with new eyes at a group of people who have been outcasts for many, many generations,” Dean said at a press conference, according to the Barre Montpelier Times Argus.
Hawaii and California had previously given same-sex couples some legal recognition, but Vermont was now the first state to grant them the same rights and responsibilities as marriage.
Following the law’s passage, several other states introduced civil-union bills. But even more passed measures defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The question would ultimately go before the Supreme Court.
In 2003, the US Supreme Court rules that sodomy laws are unconstitutional.
In 1998, police in Harris County, Texas, barged into John Geddes Lawrence’s apartment and found him having sex with Tyron Garner. The men were charged under the state’s sodomy law. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down the Texas law in a 6-3 decision that overturned Bowers v. Hardwick and legalised same-sex sexual activity in all 50 states.
“The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. “The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”
In November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules that preventing gays and lesbians from marrying violates the state constitution.
In 2001, seven same-sex couples sued the Massachusetts Department of Health for refusing to grant them marriage licenses. The courts initially ruled against the plaintiffs, arguing “procreation is marriage’s central purpose.” But the couples appealed and, on November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that barring same-sex couples from marrying violated the state constitution.
Republican Governor Mitt Romney promised to seek emergency legislation forestalling the ruling, but the legislature took no action either way. Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on May 17, 2004.
In 2008, California voters pass Proposition 8, a public referendum ending same-sex marriage in the state.
On May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage was a fundamental right guaranteed to same-sex couples. Almost immediately opponents gathered signatures for a ballot referendum that would limit marriage to one man and one woman. They received support from Republicans, the Mormon Church, and conservative groups both inside and outside the state. Proposition 8 passed on November 4, 2008, ending marriage equality in the state after just five months. In that time, an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples were wed in California.
In 2009, Congress passes the Matthew Shepard Act, expanding hate crime laws to include acts motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was brutally murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
Shepard’s death brought anti-LGBT hate crimes to nationwide attention and led to President Obama signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on October 28, 2009.
The law gave the Department of Justice the authority to pursue hate crimes that local authorities choose not to and required the FBI to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity. “You understood that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits,” Obama said. “Not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear.”
The legislation was endorsed by more than 300 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organisations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National District Attorneys Association, Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Church, National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Young Women’s Christian Association and National Disability Rights Network.
Between 2009 and 2011, Vermont, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, the District of Columbia, and New York legalise same-sex marriage.
On March 23, 2009, the Vermont Legislature passed a same-sex marriage law, marking the first time marriage equality has come to a state through a legislative rather than judicial route. That year the freedom to marry came to Washington, D.C., Maine, and New Hampshire. Voters in Maine, however, overturned the law in a ballot referendum, and the state banned marriage equality until another referendum in 2012. On June 24, 2011, the New York Legislature passed marriage equality 33-29 vote, the largest state to do so at the time.
In 2010, President Obama officially repeals “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gays, bisexuals, and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama advocated a full repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the policy barring gay and lesbian service members in the US military. On March 3, 2010, the Senate voted 65 to 31 to repeal DADT, including eight Republicans. President Obama officially repealed the policy on December 18, 2010, allowing gay, bisexual, and lesbian service members in the Armed Forces.
In May 2012, President Barack Obama endorses same-sex marriage.
In February 2011, President Obama stated his administration will no longer defend the Defence of Marriage Act, which bans the recognition of same-sex marriage.
In a May 2012 interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, Obama became the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality.
“I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue,” he said. “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that … it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court strikes down California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defence of Marriage Act.
On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
That meant same-sex couples who were legally married in their own states could file federal taxes jointly and receive Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and health insurance, according to GLAAD.
Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the case, was forced to pay over $US363,000 in estate taxes after the death of her wife, Thea Gill. Had Thea been a man, she wouldn’t have had to pay anything.
On the same day, the Court also issued a separate 5-4 decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, that overruled California’s Prop 8 and allowed same-sex marriages to resume in the state.
The nationwide debate on marriage equality eventually went before the Supreme Court in Obergefell v Hodges, which included plaintiffs from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On June 26, 2015, the high court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In a 5-4 ruling, the court required all states, territories, and the District of Columbia, to recognise the marriages of same-sex couples as equal to those of opposite-sex couples.
In 2018, the Supreme Court rules that a Colorado bakery can refuse to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple.
In 2012, Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, refused to sell a wedding cake to gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig. Mullins and Craig filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which determined that Phillips had violated state anti-discrimination statutes. Phillips appealed, insisting his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion were violated.
The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, which, on June 4, 2018, ruled in Phillips’ favour on the narrow grounds that it did exhibit religious neutrality.
In 2017, President Trump bans transgender service members from the US military.
In 2016, the ban on transgender personnel in the Armed Forces was lifted.
But in a series of early morning tweets on July 26, 2017, President Trump announced the government “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military.”
According to current DoD policy, service members who transitioned prior to April 2019 can continue to serve but troops who come out as transgender now are barred from transitioning and individuals who have undergone gender transition are banned from enlisting or enrolling in military academies.
Several lawsuits challenging the ban are working their way through the courts.
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