Despite their discrete omission from school curriculums, queer people have existed in every decade you have ever covered in a history class. They have been the artists, politicians, scientists, authors, and more. In fact, many household idols – Leonardo DaVinci, Walt Whitman, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few – have been highly suspected by historians and scholars to have been members of the LGBTQ community. So why is it most likely difficult for you to recall even one queer figure presented to you in school who lived before the 20th century? A combination of homophobic beliefs and negative stigmas have erased queer individuals for thousands of years, causing us to have never heard about them or to be left unsure of their sexualities. Most LGBTQ people stayed in the closet since homosexuality was generally viewed in most societies as abnormal and dangerous, leaving us with few figures to learn about and an incomplete understanding of history.
With this context, it is difficult to start discussing the Queer Rights Movement in America before the turn of the 20th century. Henry Gerber, a German immigrant who moved to Chicago in 1913, became a trailblazer for the movement. In 1924, Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights, an organization that aimed to protect queer rights and produced several issues of Friendship and Freedom, the nation’s first gay-interest newsletter. Unfortunately, the organization was shut down by the police in under a year after a social worker discovered its intent. Gerber lost his entire life savings, was fired from his job, and went on to enlist in the Army during WW2 to continue his fight against oppression as demonstrated by Nazi Germany..
With the Roaring 20s and the Harlem Renaissance came an era of cultural explosion that introduced revolutionarily progressive lifestyles. African American writers, artists, and musicians moved from southern states to northern cities and flourished artistically. As a part of this cultural renaissance, many people began to understand the value of sexuality as a part of an individual’s creative process. Queer figures such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke began to openly incorporate their sexualities into their work, and queer nightlife flourished as well. Undercover “gay bars” became prominent as queer social spaces, especially in large northern cities, and there was new freedom of expression in movies and media. However, in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code introduced the Hayes Code, a list of film guidelines that prohibited numerous “obscenities”, including homosexuality under “sex perversion.” The Code wasn’t abolished until 1968 after facing widespread backlash.
Overall, the first half of the 1900s saw minimal advances in to Queer Rights Movement. In 1948, Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a book which claimed that around 10% of adult males and 5% of adult females were exclusively homosexual. His studies were used to create the Kinsey Scale, a 0-6 range for measuring the spectrum of sexual orientation.
Sodomy Laws were also quite prevalent during this time. Originally adopted from colonial legislation writted in the 1600s that criminalized rape and pedophilia, these laws evolved to target homosexuals during the 1900s. Supreme Court rulings used Sodomy Laws to deny child custody, deny employment, and refuse protection of LGBTQ people from hate crimes. Throughout the centuries of American history, punishment for sodomy ranged from the death penalty to life imprisonment to 14 years of solitary labor. With Illinois as the first state to abolish these laws in 1962 and other states following behind, the 2003 Supreme Court Ruling in Lawrence v. Texas finally invalidated Sodomy Laws at the federal level.
The 1960s finally saw the start of a queer revolution. With other social movements such as Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements in full swing, the 60s were a decade of change. A new generation of queer individuals recognized their fight in the midst of a broader movement to dismantle racism and sexism. A major turning point occurred at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. Gay bar raids by police officers were common at the time, often coupled with beating or murdering queer people. Stonewall was a gay bar in Greenwich Village, NYC that was owned by the mafia and popular amongst the most marginalized in the community such as drag queens and homeless youth. During this specific raid, the frustrations of hundreds of years of oppression reached a peak as members of the community fought back. Many of the details of that night are unclear, but transgender women of color led the protest as some of the first to throw various objects at the police officers. Although Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are often accredited as the leaders, Johnson clarified in a 1987 interview that she was not present at the start of the riots and Rivera has also stated that she was not the first to resist. Instead, a large crowd of queer people and drag queens became increasingly angry and proceeded to chant, throwing beer cans, stones, and bricks at the officers. 13 people were arrested that night and the inn was seriously damaged. The uprising continued over the next several nights with more and more protestors joining until the final episode on the morning of July 3. One participant recalls, “the amazing part of Stonewall is how many people started coming down there as word spread. People came from every borough, people who never came to the Village were there. And if you were there, you were part of it.” The significance of this week of Stonewall Riots is recognized internationally as the beginning of queer liberation in America. By the end of July, two new organizations, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance had formed to fight for gay rights. By the following June, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee had sponsored the first gay pride parade in NYC, called the “Christopher Street Liberation March”, which was held on June 28, 1970, marching from Sheridon Square to Central Park. The same weekend, similar marches were held in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
With the Gay Rights Movement now sweeping the nation, the 1970s saw the rise of new LGBTQ activist groups such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Association. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association officially removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. This same year, on June 24, 1973, a gay bar in New Orleans called the UpStairs Lounge was attacked and set on fire, killing 32 people. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, this was the deadliest attack on the queer community in American history.
Many queer people began moving to San Francisco during the 70s, and in 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as California’s first openly gay elected official. Milk served for under a year before he was assassinated by a former Supervisor. In 1978, San Francisco-based artist Gilbert Baker created the iconic rainbow pride flag, explaining “I thought a gay nation should have a flag too, to proclaim its own idea of power.” The flag became a symbol for the LGBTQ community to replace the previously-used pink triangle which had first been used to identify homosexuals in Nazi Germany. Instead, the flag is positive and celebratory and is now internationally recognized.
During the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic swept the nation. HIV/AIDS was especially common among gay men and rapidly spread across the nation, killing thousands. The correlation between the disease and the primarily gay population that contracted it caused many people to cite homosexuality as its cause, causing a rise in homophobia. In 1988, the World Health Organization named December 1st as World AIDS Day.
The 90s were a bleak decade for gay rights. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) into law which legally barred LGBTQ citizens from military service. It was based on the principle that homosexuals in the military would “create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” DADT was in effect until it was repealed by President Obama in 2011. Also in 1993, President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which prohibited the federal government from creating restrictions on how one can practice their religion. As a result, the RFRA made it legal to use religious values as the basis of denying queer people housing, jobs, or medical services. Lastly, in 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law after it was passed by Congress. This act refused to recognize same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, reenforcing the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
Progress came with the turn of the century. DOMA created a lot of backlash amongst activist groups nationwide who began to fight for marriage equality. In 1998, Equality Through Marriage was founded, later renamed Marriage Equality New York (MENY). In 1999, MENY created a public education workshop to educate the public on the importance of marriage equality. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex couples, and other states followed soon behind. By 2015, 35 states had legalized same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges overturned the remaining 15 and confirmed marriage equality as the law of the land on June 26, 2015.
There was also larger concern for mental health issues during the 2000s due to high rates of LGBTQ suicides, leading to the founding of organizations such as the Trevor Project and the It Gets Better Project. In 2016, the deadliest mass shooting in American history at the time occurred at the Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar in Orlando Florida. 49 people were killed and over 50 were injured during the bar’s popular Latin Night.
In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban to go into effect, barring transgender individuals from serving. This law discriminates against over 9,000 transgender people who had been serving. Also in 2019, the Equality Act was passed in the House. This Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to explicitly add sexual orientation and gender identity to race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion as the list of federal protections for things such as employment, housing, and public services. The Act has faced opposition in a Republican-controlled Senate and is not likely to pass. Activist groups see a strong need for the Act, as nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ Americans report having experienced discrimination in their personal lives.
Now we come to 2020, 50 years after the first pride parade was held. Significant advances have been made, but the fight is far from over. Conversion therapy–the practice aimed at psychologically converting a queer person to heterosexuality–is still legal in 30 states. Sometimes called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay therapy,” the process can include the use of drugs, torture, and electric shock, and has been denounced by all of the nation’s medical and mental health associations as unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous. It is based on the false notion that homosexuality is a mental illness and is incredibly harmful, often provoking guilt, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. The LGBTQ panic defense is also currently legal, which uses an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a legitimate rationale for violence or murder against them. It has been banned in ten states over the past six years but still has not been challenged federally.
Last week, on June 15, the Supreme Court ruled that queer people are guaranteed employment protections at the nation level and can no longer be fired for their identity. The ruling came as a relief to millions across the nation, but also faced backlash from many religious organizations who see the decision as an attack on their First Amendment rights. Franklin Graham, leader of an influential evangelical relief group, explains “I don’t think gay people should be discriminated against, but at the same time, Christians shouldn’t be discriminated against either. We should have the freedom to exercise our faith and belief and be able to share what we believe.” Nonetheless, the ruling is now the law of the land and accomplished a small portion of what the Equality Act aims to include.
The fight is not over. 42% of LGBT youth say the community that they live in is not supportive of LGBTQ people. 92% of queer youth have heard negative messages about the community, and 68% hear these negative messages from elected leaders. 40% of homeless youth are queer, and 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide. A 2018 report found that only .1% of elected officials are openly LGBTQ compared to 4.5% of adults nationwide. There is a lack of representation in every aspect of life and negative messages being spread every day. Just because we have Pride does not mean equality has prevailed.
Molly May is a rising high school senior from Long Island, New York. Over the past year, Molly has discovered a passion for politics through the process of the upcoming presidential election. She has found inspiration through social activism and women’s rights to pursue political science in college. She hopes that she can combine this with her love of writing in order to educate others and share her interests. In her free time, Molly enjoys spending time with friends and family, dancing, exploring New York City, and trying to make the world a better place.