Gay Rights Movement: Background
The gay rights movement is a social effort to bolster the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered couples. The groups that comprise the gay rights movement share the uniform goals of social acceptance regarding marriage rights for gender and sexual minorities. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people—as well as their support groups—possess a long and storied history of protesting and campaigning for what is known as LGBT rights.
There is no solitary organization representing LGBT people and their interests; however, two organizations have significantly strengthened the gay rights movement: InterPride (coordinates and networks gay rights movement events throughout the world) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (responsible for addressing human rights violations against LGBT people and works in conjunction with the United Nations to promote LGBT interests and communities).
The universal goal of the gay rights movement is to be granted social equality for all LGBT people. Ancillary goals of the gay rights movement include promoting and building LGBT communities and working towards liberating the broader society from sexual oppression.
Currently, the gay rights movement is comprised of a wide range of cultural activity and political activism, such as parades, street marches and lobbying, as well as the forming of social groups, community events and support groups. Moreover, the gay rights movement circulates films, documentaries, magazines, literature, writings, academic research and other publications to promote the cause.
Cultural goals of the gay rights movement include: challenge the traditional or dominant constructions of femininity and masculinity, homophobia and the predominance of the heterosexual nuclear family. Political goals of the gay rights movement include: altering policies and laws to gain new rights, protections from harm and benefits. The gay rights movement and the activists that comprise the movement seek to achieve both these types of goals in both the political and civil atmosphere.
As is common with other social movements, a conflict exists between and within the gay rights movement, particularly regarding the strategies for change and debates over who represents the movement. Moreover, a rift has been present throughout the history of the gay rights movement concerning the portrayal of the movement.
The gay rights movement adopted a certain philosophy that sees homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people as a fixed class or minority group. As a result, the gay rights movement utilized an approach that centered around liberal political goals of equal opportunity and freedom and aimed to join the mainstream on the same level as other classes in society. That being said, other supporters of the gay rights movement have sharply criticized identity politics as flawed and limiting. Those against this ideology, state that categorizing efforts are restrictive and further separate the gay rights movement from the mainstream.
The History of the Gay Rights Movement:
Prior to 1850: In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that would enforce brutal penalties (including castration and mutilation of the face) for homosexual men and women. During this time, the most common penalty for open homosexuality was death.
In the 18th and 19th century in Europe, homosexual behavior was considered to be socially unacceptable–penalty for these “crimes” including sodomy and death.
From the beginning of the 1870s, social reformers and the first activists attached to the gay rights movement began to defend homosexuality. The earliest attempts at promoting and bolstering gay rights; however, were performed in a clandestine manner—the identities of those who defended homosexuality during this were kept secret. Secret societies in England campaigned for the legislation of gay rights and counted famous playwrights, including Oscar Wilde, as its prominent members. During the 1890s, many leaders, including poet Edward Carpenter and anarchist John Henry Mackay produced letters defended same-sex relationships.
In America and Europe, a broader movement of “free love” emerged during the 1860s; this group, comprised of libertarians and first-wave feminists, critiqued Victorian sexual morality and the traditional view of marriage and the nuclear family.
In the United States, during the 1950s, the first national gay rights organization was founded. During this era, it was illegal to register any organization or institution that openly supported same-sex marriage or gay rights. As a result of this social belief, the founders of the first gay rights group was forced to protect themselves by holding secret using meetings and communicating through codes.
The first gay organization in the United States, known as the Mattachine Society was comprised of gay men who supported the gay rights movement by mocking societal norms through the Italian tradition of street comedy. The Mattachine Society gave way to the Daughters of Bilitis—a small group of lesbian couples who promoted gay rights through the promulgation of “free love.” These groups effectively served a social function; the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis didn’t partake in much activism, but did open the eyes regarding the absurdity of stringently upholding societal norms.
Anti-Gay Laws Repealed:
In 1961, a number of anti-gay laws–and the brutal punishments attached to them–were repealed. Founded in 1923, the American law Instituted was historically one of the most influential legal organizations in the United States. In the early 1960s, the organization issued an opinion that stated that all victimless crime laws—including those that banned intercourse between consenting adults—should be abolished. The state of Illinois adopted this opinion in 1961 and formally repealed their sodomy law—a law that brutally punished all forms of homosexuality. Connecticut followed suit 8 years later and removed all laws prohibiting homosexual acts from the books. Although the repeal of these laws marked a momentous run in the gay rights movement, the majority of states ignored the American Law Institute’s recommendation and continued to classily homosexual activities as felonies or sex crimes.
The Stonewall Riots:
The late 1960s (and more specifically 1969) is regarded as the period that the gay rights movement in the United States reached its tipping point. Before this era, there was a palpable disconnect between political progress and tangible results—the fight for gay rights was often ignored by political leaders who were afraid of losing votes.
The Stonewall Riots are one of the more recognizable moments in the gay rights movement. In 1969, the New York Police Department raided a gay bar in Greenwhich Village, arresting drag performers, patrons and employees. Following the raid, a crowd of roughly 2,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender supporters of the establishment bombarded the police. The crowd’s demands were simple: do not use authority to unjustly arrest citizens who wish to celebrate their sexuality in a lawful manner. The stronghold sparked three days of riots. A year after the Stonewall riots broke-out, gay activists, throughout the United States, held a parade to commemorate the resistance.
The Democratic Party Supports Gay Rights:
During the 70’s, four primary issues galvanized the conservative party: birth control, abortion, pornography and homosexuality. Prominent members of the right supported Ronald Regan and other leaders during the 1980 election. To oppose this conservative viewpoint, Democratic leaders supported the gay rights movement by stating: “All citizens of the United States are protected from discriminatory actions based on their national origin, color, religion, language, age, sex and sexual orientation. The Democratic party viewed the gay rights movement not only as a political tool but as an important constitutional right—the founding fathers explicitly stated that all men are created equal.
The Adoption of the First Domestic Partnership Ordinance:
When the gay rights movement gained momentum regarding the ability to openly express love for a same sex partner, the LGBT community aimed at reworking the institution of marriage to include civil unions, domestic partnerships or ambitiously same-sex marriages.
A primary component of the gay rights movement was the recognition of relationships and LGBT households. In response to their efforts, the city of Berkeley, California became the first to offer the LGBT community with the same partnership benefits awarded to heterosexual couples. Note: these same-sex domestic partnership privileges were only available to lesbian and gay school district and city employees.
Huge Changes Sparked by the Hawaii Supreme Court:
In Baehr v. Lewin, three homosexual couples challenged Hawaii’s heterosexual-only marriage law, claiming that the legislation was unconstitutional. The couples won; the state Supreme Court ruled that barring a “compelling state interest” the state could not prohibit same sex couples from marrying without infringing on its own equal protection statutes. The state legislature quickly amended the constitution to overrule the Court. This case sparked the national debate regarding same sex marriages and the vehement efforts of those state legislatures who attempted to ban it.
In 1999, California established a statewide domestic partnership registry for same sex couples. The policy in its original form only offered hospital visitation rights to same sex couples; however, over time a number of benefits—including all state benefits that are commonly awarded to married couples—were added to the ordinance.
Following California’s adoption of the state-wide domestic partnership policy, the state of Vermont created a civil union—a separate but equal alternative to marriage that grants homosexual couples the universal rights that awarded to married couples. California’s efforts in offering voluntary domestic partnerships gave way to a seismic sociological shift regarding gay rights—the majority of states during this time granted rights to homosexual couples because their respective state court systems found that block marriage rights to same-sex couples based solely on the individual’s sexual orientations violated the constitution’s equal protection clause.
Despite the considerable progress, homosexual intercourse was still illegal in 14 states in the U.S. These laws, though rarely enforced, were a symbolic function—a reminder that the federal government does not approve of homosexual activities.
In Texas, police responding to a neighbor’s complaint, interrupted two men participating in homosexual sex in their own apartment. The gay couple was arrested on site for sodomy. The couple took their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the men by striking down the state’s sodomy law.
Following the abolishment of all sodomy laws, several states established that homosexual couples could achieve basic partnership rights through a separate-but-equal standard of civil unions and domestic partnerships. This thought; however, was met with little action, as the states did not honor the concept of marriage equality with respect to homosexual couples until 2004.
In Goodridge v. the Department of Public Health seven gay couples challenged Massachusetts’ heterosexual-only marriage laws. The 4-3 decision in favor of Goodridge mandated that marriage, as an institution in end of itself, must be offered to same-sex couples.