Timeline of Important Events in LGBT History
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people have existed throughout history in an under-the-radar closeted sense – and there are also significant historical accounts of lgbtq people dating as far back as ancient cultures across the world.
From Africa to Asia to the Americas and Africa, most cultures accepted some form of homosexuality and even gender role variance as commonplace. In fact, it was such a non-issue that it took a societal shift against it and another toward acceptance to regard such events as remarkable, making it difficult to identify specific people and dates until later.
Scroll through a timeline of some of the most important events throughout the history of the LGBT community. These events were tiny steps and milestones that ultimately shaped the advancement of the LGBT community within broader society.
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This period of time is prior to any ‘movement’ to advance the collective lives of
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer individuals.
1478 – 1458 BCE, Egypt – Hatshepsut is the second confirmed female Pharaoh of Egypt, manipulating gender roles in dress and even art to assert herself as a sort of female king. Often depicted with traditionally male clothing, epithets, titles, and sometimes even in male physical form with a male chest and build, even referring to herself on monuments as essentially “Her Majesty, the King.”
While it is impossible (and some say inappropriate) to apply modern terms such as ‘transgender,’ ‘non-binary,’ or ‘queer’ to historical figures, it is accurate to say that her gender did not conform to that of the majority of society.
615 BCE, Greece – Greek poet Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos. She wrote romantic and erotic poetry about women, and both her name and her birthplace have become synonymous with women who love women.
356 – 323 BCE, Greece – Alexander III of Macedon, commonly referred to as ‘Alexander the Great,’ is known to have had relationships with both men and women. A product of his time and culture, Alexander had wives and male concubines or lovers, which was not uncommon of society at the time.
Ancient Greece had no concept of sexual orientation, gender identity, or marriages of love and equality similar to that of modern society, and sexual partners were seen as more of a matter of taste or mood. It was common for men who were married to women to have sexual relationships with young men as a way to instill and pass down values, or to bond in times of war.
1452 – 1519, Italy – Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest artists and geniuses in history, is widely believed to have been gay. He never married or had children, and yet he raised many young male proteges. He was arrested on charges of sodomy in his early twenties, and even wrote in his notebooks that intercourse with females “disgusted him.” There is strong evidence that the Mona Lisa was an androgynous amalgamation of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Tuscan merchant, and his male apprentice and lover Salai.
Winter 1781, Plymouth MA – Deborah Samson disguises herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. While not explicitly proof of a lesbian or transgender identity, the fact that she avoided presenting a feminine sexuality throughout her childhood prior to assuming a masculine persona lends itself to the probability that her gender or sexual orientation was likely queer in some way.
April 6 1895, England – Playwright Oscar Wilde is convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison in Reading Gaolin. The judge declared the case to be the worst he’d ever seen, and gave him the harshest sentence allowable, which he deemed to be inadequate. After serving his time prison, he lived the last 3 years of his life in exile. He died at only 45 years old.
The “Homophile” Movement
This period of time is marked by the cautious yet bold political strategies of lgbtq people
prior to the activism sparked by the Stonewall riots.
December 10 1924, Chicago IL – Henry Gerber founds the Society for Human Rights- the first and oldest documented gay rights organization in the United States. It released its publication for homosexuals, Friendship and Freedom, although sources disagree about its funding being from a state charter or almost entirely out of Gerber’s pocket. In 1925, police raided Gerber’s home and arrested members of the organization, resulting in Gerber losing his job and his life savings; the Society for Human Rights disbanded soon thereafter.
1945, England – Dr. Lawrence Michael Dillon becomes the first transgender man to medically transition, to use testosterone therapy, and to change his birth certificate from female to male. He enrolled in Trinity college and later became a physician.
When his brother died in 1958, leaving behind an inheritance in his former name Laura Maud, the stigma drove him to India where he eventually became a Buddhist monk.
August 1947, Los Angeles CA – A gay woman known as ‘Lisa Ben’ publishes the first lesbian magazine Vice Versa, subtitled “America’s Gayest Magazine.” The name ‘Vice Versa’ is actually commentary on the idea that being gay is a ‘vice,’ asserting that it is in fact the opposite (‘versa’). Due to the risk of authoring homosexual literature at that time, she used the pseudonym ‘Lisa Ben,’ an anagram for ‘lesbian,’ although this name actually appears nowhere on the magazine. Rather, it was used as a sort of stage name for an album released years later as a parody folk singer, creating lesbian-centric songs by changing a few words in popular songs.
Lisa Ben wrote each copy of Vice Versa on carbon paper from her office typewriter, printing only 9 issues with a limited 10 copies each. She edited, typed and hand-distributed the free publications mostly to lesbian establishments where they were passed along. Hundreds got their hands on copies of the magazine before it essentially disappeared the next year.
1948, Bloomington IN – Dr. Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Biologist and sex researcher Kinsey concluded that homosexual (same-sex) sexual behavior is not limited to men who identify themselves as homosexual. He discovered that over a third of the male population, 37% according to his studies, enjoyed same-sex sexual activity at least once in his life.
His scientific findings shook the foundation of 1940s sexual psychology and psychiatry, asserting that same-sex sexual attraction is not a mental illness but rather a common biological occurrence. He invented what is now known as the Kinsey Scale, which rates people’s sexuality on a spectrum between completely heterosexual and completely homosexual. The concept that people can fall between these two identities was unheard of and remains quite controversial still today. Nonetheless, his research shifted the public perception and conversation about sexuality, and the Kinsey Reports are considered to be among the most influential scientific books of the 20th century.
November 11 1950, Los Angeles CA – Harry Hay founds the Mattachine Foundation, later renamed the Mattachine Society, with Frank Kameny in 1961. The group’s mission to “eliminate discrimination, derision, prejudice and bigotry” aimed to change public perceptions of homosexuals.
The organization began as a similar function as Alcoholics Anonymous, during which a discussion group of gay men could share and analyze their life experiences, and grew into a grassroots effort to build gay consciousness. Their goal was to cultivate an inclusive community, deeming it “possible and desirable that a highly ethical homosexual culture emerge, as a consequence of its work.”
December 15 1950, Washington DC – Senate report “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” distributed to congress. The report asserts that since homosexuality is a mental illness, “those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons.” This portrayal of gays and lesbians tainted the American perspective of homosexuality for decades.
April 1952 – The American Psychiatric Association lists homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in its first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Immediately thereafter, medical professionals criticized the categorization for lack of empirical data.
November 1952, New York – Former soldier George Jorgensen shocks the nation when he returned home from Denmark having had gender reassignment surgery, becoming the first transgender celebrity in the US.
With the bold headline “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” The New York Daily News threw her otherwise private story into the national spotlight. Rather than shy away from the attention, she chose to embrace it and use it as visibility. She toured the country via nightclub and lecture circuits, and even had an act featuring the song “I enjoy being a girl.” She was ahead of her time, and her bravery to be out at that time makes her a pioneer for the transgender community.
1953, Bloomington IN – Dr. Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. It is largely a comparison of findings in his 1948 study of male behavior. Dr. Kinsey offered scientific findings based off of about 6,000 detailed histories of white females.
His tactful interview method is credited for the transparency of the interviewees, who were all remarkably forthcoming with such personal information. While he noted the limitation of location and group selection, the study itself was unprecedented and revolutionary with regard to both sexuality as well as gender studies.
April 27 1953 – President Dwight Eisenhower signs Executive Order 10450, banning homosexuals from employment in the federal government or any of its private contractors. While not explicitly naming ‘homosexuals,’ the New York Times referred to ‘perverts’ as a security threat, because their immoral lifestyle would leave them “susceptible to blackmail.” Covert investigations and purges of suspected homosexuals resulted in the discharge of thousands of government employees in what will become famously known as the lavender scare.
September 21 1955, San Francisco CA – The Daughters of Bilitis becomes the first lesbian rights organizations in the US. The group’s name comes from a poems by Pierre Louys entitled Songs of Bilitis, about a woman who was romantically involved with Sappho. Among its founders were Phyllis Martin and Del Lyon, leaders in the equality movement. DOB was an alternative to lesbian bars, which were frequently raided by police, and subject to public hostility and discrimination. Their meetings began as a small, secret social club influenced in part by The Mattachine Society and evolved to include more political action.
The Daughters of Bilitis created a crucial space for lesbians during a time when such spaces did not exist, and fostered a deeper understanding within and outside of the lesbian community.
August 30 1956, Chicago IL – Evelyn Hooker shares her paper “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual” at the American Psychological Association Convention. Her research found homosexuality to be similar to heterosexuality and concluded that same-sex behavior is a normal deviation of sexual pattern, and therefore not a clinical entity. Her work significantly influenced further clinical perceptions of homosexuality.
1956 – Daughters of Bilitis publish the first issue of The Ladder, edited by Phyllis Lyon, initially under the pseudonym Ann Ferguson. It originally included features such as poetry, personal essays, and scientific research on homosexuality. Often regarded as the first lesbian serial literature, it was only preceded by the short-lived Vice Versa in the 1940s.
As the shift in DOB moved toward women’s liberation and more radical feminist ideology, a rift became apparent. In 1970, editor Barbara Grier and DOB national president Rita LaPorte organized a takeover of the magazine, essentially taking the subscription list. The group disbanded shortly thereafter.
January 13 1958 – The Supreme Court rules in landmark case One, Inc. v. Olesen. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the first amendment rights of the LGBT magazine “One: The Homosexual Magazine” to produce gay literature, which was not pornographic in nature, but rather “from the scientific, historical and critical point of view.” The suit was filed after the US postal service and the FBI labeled the magazine ‘obscene.’ The controversy of One wasn’t its content- its very existence at the time pushed boundaries and its unapologetic defiance in coverage of politics, civil rights, police harassment and philosophical themes.
This is the first ruling by the United States Supreme Court in favor of gay and lesbian rights.
July 28 1961, IL – The state of Illinois repealed sodomy laws. The repeal may have slipped through as part of a larger law reform package, in adopting the recommendations of the Model Penal Code by the American Law Institute.
This decision became effective on January 1, 1962, making Illinois the first state in the nation to decriminalize homosexuality. The effect on the daily lives of gays and lesbians were few, as police raids and harassment were still commonplace for decades.
August 28 1963, Washington DC – Out gay and black activist Bayard Rustin is the chief organizer for the March on Washington, at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite living in a dangerous time to be out as gay, he refused to be closeted, which others in the movement deemed a liability. His relative lack of notoriety is because he was kept out of the public eye for fear of backlash drawing attention to his sexuality rather than the message of racial freedom at hand.
1964, San Francisco CA – The Society for Individual Rights (SIR) is founded. The organization’s goal was the affirmation of gay and lesbian identity, and differed from previous groups in its inclusive and democratic membership.
SIR’s monthly magazine Vector was widely available in New York City, and within a few years the Society for Individual Rights was the largest homophile organization in the country.
1964 – Life Magazine runs a photo essay on “Homosexuality in America.” Though not exactly affirming in its language and portrayal of the gay community, the essay was not entirely condemning of gay people either. During a time when being gay was still considered a mental illness and most lgbt people were still closeted, it opened the closet door to readers and asked them to look at the people inside.
July 4 1965, Philadelphia PA – Picketers stage the first Reminder Day at Independence Hall to call public attention to the LGBT community’s lack of civil rights.
Conceived by Craig Rodwell, the first demonstration was intended to remind the American public that there was a substantial number of American citizens denied the ‘right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The dress code was suits and ties for men and dresses for women, as the intention was to portray a ‘presentable and employable’ homosexual community.
The protest was organized in only a few months, with the DC and New York chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis and led by such veteran activists as Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin. The collective called themselves the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO). These meetings will continue annually for five years.
February 1966, Kansas City MO – A series of meetings in Kansas City culminated in the formation of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO). The conference met annually throughout the rest of the 1960s, coordinating demonstrations and even bringing suit in discrimination cases.
They sought to dismantle the self-hatred and internalized homophobia widely experienced in the gay and lesbian community, which they believed only furthered their oppression. Openly pushing back against the current medical opinion of the time that being gay was a psychological disorder, Frank Kameny said that the real issues facing the gay and lesbian community were in fact “questions of prejudice and discrimination.”
April 1966, San Francisco CA – The Society for Individual Rights opens the first gay community center in the nation. Recognizing a need for ‘community,’ it was the first time that gay men and lesbians freely congregated, and the idea caught on. Today there are LGBTQ Centers all across the country.
April 21 1966, New York NY – “Sip-in” staged at the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village. The New York Liquor Authority prohibited serving gay clientele, on the basis that they were ‘disorderly.’ In an attempt to raise awareness of this obstruction of civil rights, the Mattachine Society organized a protest similar to the sit-ins that fought against segregation.
They walked into a bar, declared themselves to be gay, and ordered a drink. The bartender put his hand over the glass and announced that he couldn’t serve a homosexual.
The Mattachine Society sued the New York Liquor Authority, and the New York City Commission on Human Rights declares that homosexuals have the right to be served.
August 1966, San Francisco CA – Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. A “turning point for transgender liberation,” the riot that eventually spilled into the streets began with a routine police raid of the ‘street women’ that frequented the 24-hour cafeteria in the tenderloin district.
Cross-dressing was still illegal in the city, and as a police officer attempted to arrest a transgender woman, she threw her coffee in his face, starting what will spark not only the ensuing riot outside, but also sparking the establishment of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, a peer-run support and advocacy organization.
October 6 1968, Los Angeles CA – Troy Perry founds the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Perry was defrocked as a Pentecostal clergyman in the early 1960s for being gay, fell in love with a man, experienced heavy heartache at the relationship’s end, and attempted suicide. The formation of the MCC started out very small, but has grown to be known as the church that is centered around being open and affirming to lgbt people.
June 28 1969, Greenwich Village NY – In the early hours of the morning, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar. These routine raids were rather common and expected. This time was different.
It was not only legal to arrest people for solicitation of gay sex – there was also a statue that allowed officers to arrest anyone wearing fewer than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing. Gay bars offered a sanctuary from this discrimination. The mafia-run bars like the Stonewall usually had a deal with police for an advanced warning of a raid. This time, it came as a surprise. The police were rough, aggressively manhandling over a dozen people as they were arrested, even hitting a lesbian over the head while forcing her into the paddy wagon. She shouted out to the gathering crowd outside the bar for help.
On this particular occasion, however, the clientele (mostly young, gay and transgender people of color) fought back “in a flash of group anger.” The protest sparked nearly a week of riots, protests, and violent clashes with law enforcement. It is widely considered to be the first protest for lgbt equality, and sparked several gay rights organizations, such as the Gay Liberation Front.
Perhaps most notable about the event is that it was not just a gay bar or any other gay social gathering place. It catered to a subset of the gay community who either couldn’t afford or weren’t welcome in other gay establishment: “drags” and “queens,” and underage or homeless gay youth. It was not only their only ‘home,’ but they had nothing to lose, and so they fought for it.
The “Gay Rights” or “Gay Liberation” Movement
This period of time is marked by the cautious yet bold political strategies of lgbtq people
prior to the activism sparked by the Stonewall riots.
June 28 1970, Christopher Street NY – The Christopher Street Liberation Day comes to New York City. Since 1965, the East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO) had been holding marches in Philidelphia. Craig Rodwell was the major force behind moving the march to New York to honor the Stonewall Riots just a year prior.
The march was renamed Christopher Street Liberation Day March, shifting attention away from the Mafia-controlled Stonewall Inn to the grassroots activism for gays and lesbians that was taking place in the streets.
December 15 1973 – The American Psychiatric Association (APA) board removes homosexuality from list of mental illnesses. Homosexuality was officially listed as a sociopathic personality disorder. Based on the results of Evelyn Hooker’s 1957 study, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” The APA agreed that there was no difference between gay and straight participants, and even stood by their decision publicly in 1975.
June 7 1977, Dade County FL – A gay rights ordinance was repealed in large part due to the successful “Save Our Children” crusade by singer and conservative Southern Baptist Anita Bryant. She later came to make a name for herself by aggressively fighting gay rights.
November 8 1977, San Francisco CA – Openly gay candidate Harvey Milk wins a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was unapologetic and confident in his sexual orientation as well as his competency for the job. His personality and success gave gays and lesbians a surge of optimism, while fanning the flames of hate for those who stood in opposition to a gay man being elected to public office.
November 27 1978, San Francisco CA – former city supervisor Dan White assassinates Harvey Milk and Moscone. During an otherwise unfriendly time for gays and lesbians in society, Mayor George Moscone was an early supporter of pro-gay legislation.
Vietnam veteran and former police officer and firefighter Dan White saw liberal men like Milk and Moscone as the problem. After he resigned over money, he later regretted his decision and asked Moscone to reappoint him, but was refused. He walked into San Francisco city hall, gunned down Moscone and Milk, and turned himself into the police station where he used to work.
May 21 1979, San Francisco CA – Dan White is convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 7 years in prison. Thousands of protesters take to the streets and a riot ensues, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Dan White’s trial used what is now known as the ‘twinkie defense.’ The defense counsel claimed that his recent diet shift to sugary foods like coke, donuts and twinkies, leading to him to lose mental stability. Shockingly, the jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder, and he was only sentenced to six years in prison. Only a year after his release, he committed suicide.
October 14 1979, Washington DC – National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Some 250,000 supporters attended the first organized march and rally in Washington DC for gay rights was inspired in part by the assassination of Harvey Milk. The press reported drastically different attendance estimates, from 75,000 to 125,000, leaving gay and lesbian attendees wondering if they were at the same event. Activists gathered in February of 1979 in Philadelphia, then in regional meetings across the country, gathering grassroots interest and an intentional diversity of opinions.
They identified five specific demands: (1) to pass a comprehensive gay rights bill in congress; (2) issue a presidential executive order banning discrimination in the federal government, military, and federally-contracted private employment; (3) repeal all anti-gay laws; (4) end discrimination against gays and lesbians in custody cases; and (5) protect gay youth from discriminatory and oppressive laws related to school, home, and employment. It was the first of such gatherings nationalize the gay and lesbian community, rather than focusing on individual and community interests.
July 8 1980, – Democratic National Convention endorses gay rights platform. In the late 70s, it started to become clear that the gay and lesbian voting bloc would be a powerful one, and the Democratic party too notice. In 1972, openly lesbian and gay speakers Madeline Davis and Jim Foster addressed the DNC. Unfortunately, a hostile speech from Kathy Wilch resulted in the absence of the issue for the party that year.
However, Davis and Foster’s speeches were enough to galvanize gay and lesbian community politically, and Presidential candidate George McGovern distanced himself from Wilch. 1976 Presidential Candidate Jimmy Carter courted the gay vote, despite failing to deliver on any promises. In 1980, the official Democratic platform was the first in American history to include a plank to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. Republican Ronald Reagan openly disapproved of homosexuals, issuing public statements on the issue.
July 3 1981, New York NY – The New York Times prints the first story of a rare pneumonia and skin cancer found in 41 gay men in California and New York. the Center for Disease Control initially refers to the condition as Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disorder (GRID). It was explained as a disease that rapidly affected the immune system, which was prevalent among homosexual men, which led to names like “gay cancer.”
Bruce Voeller, biologist and founder of the National Gay Task Force, successfully lobbied for the name change to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) when symptoms were found outside of the gay community.
March 2 1982, WI – Wisconsin becomes the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. To put in relative context, 35 years later (as of 2017), there are still 32 states which lack such non-discrimination protections. Needless to say, this was a gigantic step forward, let alone considering the political climate for “gay liberation.”
March 10 1987, New York NY – ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) forms in response to the devastation of the AIDS crisis and its lack of awareness in the United States. It took a radical stance on activism, favoring shock value and blunt messaging to generate urgency.
The group states upfront that they are united in their anger, and rightfully so. With the death rate increasing and still no word from President Reagan on the matter, not only was there no end in sight – there was continued, relentless sickness and death going unaddressed, ravaging the gay community. Their catchphrase “Silence = Death” was also their messaging tactic. Their original mission was to advocate for the release of experimental AIDS medication – because anything was better than nothing.
While the organization had splintered by the early 90s, they had already achieved many of the goals that they had set from the start: they lowered the cost of drugs, decreased the stigma, educated the public, and included AIDS patients in new trials.
October 11 1987, Washington DC – Hundreds of thousands attend the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay rights. A significant focus of the event was to convince President Ronald Reagan to address the AIDS epidemic and to allocate funds for research to find a cure. Despite terrifying rates of infection and death, its association with homosexuality was enough to politicize the health matter and generate a sense of fear of gay men rather than a fear of the disease itself.
In the 6 or 7 years since its discovery, AIDS had already affected some 40,000 people in the US alone, 23,000 of whom had already died from the disease. When President Reagan did finally address the epidemic in April, famously calling it “Public Enemy #1,” he also made some moral judgments. According to the New York times, he said, “After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”
June 15 1988 – The CDC mails a brochure called Understanding AIDS to every household in America (approximately 126 million). This historic public health measure was unprecedented with regard to educating the public.
Unlike most bulk mail, nearly 60% of Americans received the mailer, and of them, about 80% read most or all of the material. It sparked conversations, and an overwhelming majority of people approved of the brochure and were glad to receive it.
While it did advocate for abstinence, it otherwise urged the use of condoms. The brochure drew both praise and criticism for its straight-forward and non-judgmental explanations of transmission and suggestions for prevention. Regardless of the politics, it is generally acknowledged as a successful public health education campaign.
December 1 1988 – The World Health Organization holds the first World AIDS day to build awareness. The event had a basic mission to increase tolerance, education, and support of people with HIV/ AIDS. It is held annually to increase visibility and awareness, show support for people living with it, and commemorate those who have died.
August 18 1990, Washington DC – President George Bush signs the Ryan White Care Act. Ryan Wayne White was a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana who was a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a contaminated blood treatment. HIV and AIDS were previously only associated with the gay male population, but as people like Ryan White, Magic Johnson became known to be HIV positive, the stigma began to erode and visibility turned into action.
The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act (CARE) is the largest federal program for people living with HIV and AIDS who are uninsured or under-insured. It has been revised and reauthorized three times to reflect changing needs, and reaches some 52% of affected Americans.
1991 – The Red Ribbon is adopted as a symbol of support and awareness for HIV and AIDS. A group of a dozen artists gathered to create a symbol for Visual Aids – an organization based in New York to raise awareness for HIV/ AIDS. After a short brainstorm, they came up with the simple red ribbon, which would be worn to signify support and awareness. It is one of the most recognizable symbols of the 1990s, inspiring other ribbons for visibility and support, such as pink for breast cancer.
December 21 1993, Washington DC – Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is issued. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation, which directed that the military personnel “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, and don’t harass” current or potential service members regarding their sexual orientation.
In theory, the policy theoretically ‘lifted the ban’ against lgbt armed forces that was put in place during the WWII era, but in effect it just drove them into secrecy.
May 20 1996, Colorado – The ruling of the case Romer v. Evans becomes a landmark case and a victory for lgbt rights. Colorado’s Amendment 2 effectively sought to exclude gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from state-level discrimination policy. The referendum was challenged and went to the Supreme Court. SCOTUS ruled 6 to 3 that it was unconstitutional to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that it was in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
Justice Kennedy handed down the decision, pointing out that laws of this nature are born out of animosity toward the persons affected (in this case, sexual minorities), and quoted first Justice Harlan in that the court “neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
September 21 1996, Washington DC – President Bill Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. DOMA established that marriage in the United States was restricted to one man and one woman, allowing states to refuse to accept same sex marriages or recognize those issued from other states. It was passed through congress with veto-proof majorities.
The effect of this law was far-reaching for lgbtq Americans, denying some 1,038 rights and responsibilities awarded automatically to legally married couples, such as social security, federal taxes, retirement benefits, green card acceptance, family medical leave.
October 7 1998, Laramie, WY – Matthew Shepard is beaten to death because he is gay. Matt was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming at a bar one evening when he was abducted, brutally attacked, tied to a fence post, and left for dead. He was found by a bicyclist 18 hours later, who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. He died just a few days later in the hospital in Fort Collins, CO.
The evidence that the motivation for this attack was his sexual orientation is undeniable, making it an infamous anti-gay hate crime and causing a nationwide conversation about homophobia. His story was turned into a play named The Laramie Project, and then a film adaptation by the same name. It also eventually promoted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act to protect lgbt citizens against hate crimes.
April 26 2000, VT – Civil Unions become legal in Vermont, making it the first state in the United States to register same-sex partnerships between same-sex partners. The Vermont House of Representatives voted 79 to 68 in favor of the bill, picking up 3 more votes than expected.
The bill offered several important state-level protections for gay and lesbian Vermonters, but fell short of affording them equal marriage rights.
June 26 2003 – The Supreme Court strikes down federal sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas in a vote of 6-3. Houston police entered the home of John Lawrence due to a reported weapons disturbance, finding him engaged in a private, consensual sexual act with a man. Because of a Texas statute against sodomy, they were arrested and convicted of “deviant sexual intercourse.” This ruling was upheld by state court of appeals.
In another landmark SCOTUS ruling, Justice Kennedy handed down the opinion that the statute violated the due process clause of the 14th amendment.
May 19 2004, MA – Marriage Equality comes to Massachusetts, making it the first state to legalize marriage between same-sex partners. Stating the Massachusetts ban on creation of second-class citizens, the state Supreme Court found that it could not discriminate against gays and lesbians who wish to obtain a marriage license.
This decision, and the state’s smooth implementation of marriage to same-sex couples, would be cited in future arguments for other state-level and federal marriage cases.
November 4 2008, Sacramento CA – California’s Proposition 8 passes, making same-sex marriage in California illegal.
Prop 8 inspires protests and grassroots activism, such as the NOH8 Campaign – a photography project using celebrity endorsements to promote marriage equality.
October 28 2009, Washington DC – The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act is passed by congress and signed by President Obama. This legislation expanded the 1969 Federal Hate Crimes Law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. It was named after two men who were brutally and senselessly murdered for their race and sexual orientation in 1988 – Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old man from Laramie, Wyoming, and James Byrd, a 49 year old black man from Jasper, Texas. It gives the Justice Department the ability to investigate, prosecute, and track crimes motivated by bias.
Previously, crimes perpetrated against lgbtq people because of their membership in the lgbtq community were simply considered violent crimes, which are heinous acts committed against an individual, to be sure. Hate crimes, however, are acts of violence toward an individual because of their actual or perceived membership in a particular group, causing additional psychological harm such as post-traumatic stress, safety concerns, depression, and anxiety to victims as well as their counterparts, effectively victimizing the entire community.
More than an improvement for tracking and prosecuting such crimes, this act humanized the tragedy of violence motivated by hate, put faces, names, and stories to hate crimes. It continues to be enormously successful in accurately labeling such crimes.
December 22 2010, Washington DC – President Obama signs the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act. One of Obama’s campaign promises, after 17 years of implementation, it was a long-awaited victory for the lgbt community. Service members were notified and given specific training regarding the policy change, clarifying to all military personnel that any harassment would not be tolerated.
The result was almost shocking in its mildness. Studies show that not only did it not negatively impact military readiness or unit cohesion – it was actually beneficial. It removed barriers to leadership and bonding, and built trust and authenticity. Even for lesbian and gay service members, the biggest change was the ability to be social and talk about their family and be truthful. Upon signing the Act into law, President Obama said, “For we are not a nation that says, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one.”
June 24 2011, Albany NY – New York State legalizes Same-Sex Marriage. After a series of losses in other states, Assembly Bill A8354, also known as the Marriage Equality Act, passes in a 33-29 state congressional vote and is signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo late Friday night. The legislation was sponsored by Daniel O’Donnell from Manhattan, the first openly gay Assemblyman in New York State. Republican senator James Alesi, who voted against the measure years earlier, was the first to break with his party and vote in favor. Senator Mark J. Grisanti made his mark on this vote, as a republican who opposed marriage equality through his election and changed his mind upon voting. Only one lawmaker spoke against the bill: vocal opponent Senator Ruben Diaz, the only ‘no’ vote from the Democrats. This legislation makes New York the largest state at the time to grant marriage equality, giving significant momentum to the movement.
July 23 2012, La Jolla CA – Famous astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space, comes out as a lesbian posthumously in her own obituary. In naming her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride shocked fans and even friends with the secret she had kept for decades. Her decision to wait to come out publicly drew homophobic responses as well as scrutiny by a minority in the lgbt community who lamented her lost opportunity to stand for their rights. Her close family and friends had already known about and supported the couple.
June 26 2013 – The US Supreme Court rules in favor of Marriage Equality in United States v. Windsor. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) found Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, ruling in favor of marriage equality in the landmark case United States v Windsor. The court found that restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples, and treating equal marriages differently under the law, violates the due process clause of the fifth amendment and depriving same-sex couples of “equal liberty.” Justice Kennedy wrote in his ruling that DOMA effectively served only to “disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
The case came from a suit filed by Edith ‘Edie’ Windsor, whose wife Thea Spayer passed away in 2009, leaving their estate to Edie. Despite the state of New York recognizing their 2007 marriage in Toronto, and Spayer leaving the estate to Windsor in her will, the IRS still taxed her $363,053. If the couple’s marriage was recognized by federal law, as any opposite-sex couple’s marriage was, the estate would have qualified for the ‘marital exemption,’ and she would have been taxed nothing.
The case did not require states to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples, but rather allowed for federal recognition of same-sex marriages legally recognized at the state level. This would spur the beginning of a windfall of judicial rulings in 27 states across the country in the following year.
June 26 2015 – The US Supreme Court rules in favor of Marriage Equality in Obergefell v. Hodges. Same-sex couples from several states brought suit against state agencies challenging the constitutionality of the bans preventing their legal marriage to be recognized by federal law. After a fiery and contentious nationwide debate about same-sex marriage, Justice Kennedy handed down the 5-4 decision in favor of marriage equality, citing the due process clause of the 14th amendment.
In possibly the single most sweeping victory for the lgbtq community, this decision not only granted federal marriage rights to same-sex couples – it set a legal precedent that the love between lgbtq people is no different than that between any other couple. Kennedy remarked, “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.”
Post-Marriage Equality Queer-Inclusive Movement
This period of time is marked by the Marriage Equality victory, and the reorganization of the
lgbtq movement to include and advocate for previously marginalized members.
Right Now! – We are currently experience history in the making! Since marriage equality has been granted in the United States, there has been constant conversations, momentum, and progress for the lgbtq community. There has also been significant push back. Those who fought to secure marriage equality predicted these sentiments, and continue to fight against discrimination and march on for equality with regard to employment, housing, and public accommodations.
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