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20.1F: The Movement for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights

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    Learning Objectives

    • Analyze the efforts of the LGBT rights movement to achieve equal rights and opportunities for homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered individuals

    The LGBT Rights Movement refers to the attempts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocates to improve the legal and social status of LGBT people. Historically, LGBT people have faced prejudice and discrimination. Since the mid-1900s, individuals and organizations have worked to overcome prejudice against LGBT people.

    The first organizations in the U.S. that worked to improve the standing of LGBT people were known as homophile organizations. Homophile organizations were clubs of gay men and lesbian women who sought equality for gays and lesbians. These clubs served as social spaces in which gay men and lesbian women could meet other homosexuals with whom they could form romantic and sexual relationships. Moreover, they were early sites of political action on behalf of gays and lesbians. Homophile organizations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis lobbied politicians and business owners to create gay friendly establishments. The efforts of these types of clubs led to a growth in the number of gay-friendly bars and social clubs, making it easier for homosexual individuals to find other homosexuals to associate with. Homophile organizations, however, did not lead to any large-scale demonstrations or protests, and did not result in widespread legal or social changes for LGBT people.

    Prior to the 1970s, most states in the United States had laws against sodomy, generally defined as any sexual contact other than heterosexual intercourse. Thus, homosexuality was essentially illegal. The surge in the number of gay-friendly bars in the 1950s led to police crackdowns against establishments that were frequented by gays and lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s. One such crackdown was the raid on the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village, New York City that was frequented by gay men, drag queens, and male transvestites. When police raided the bar in June 1969, the customers resisted arrest. Neighborhood residents joined in the resistance, resulting in several nights of rioting. The Stonewall Riots are often cited as the first major protest by LGBT people against the criminalization of homosexuality. The riots gained much media attention and served as visible evidence that there was a large population of homosexual people that could be organized into a politically active group.

    After Stonewall, large organizations of LGBT advocates arose to challenge discrimination against LGBT people. For example, leaders organized the first Gay Pride march to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and to loudly declare their desire for equality. First and foremost on the gay rights platform was the need to overturn laws that made homosexuality illegal. Throughout the 1970s, activists in many states succeeded in having state legislatures overturn laws banning homosexuality. This coincided with a period in which sexual mores were generally liberalized in the U.S. Nonetheless, by the mid-1980s many states still outlawed homosexuality. It was not until 2003 that the Supreme Court decided that states could not criminalize homosexuality.

    Anti-sodomy laws in the United States: This map depicts when anti-sodomy laws that criminalized non-heterosexual sex were overturned by state in the United States.

    An issue that has been central to the LGBT rights movement since the late 1980s is same-sex marriage. At the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, recognition of lesbian and gay relationships was a primary demand made by demonstrators. Indeed, many protestors participated in a mass wedding in front of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to highlight the ways in which U.S. tax code benefits married heterosexual couples. Because they were denied the right to marry, gay and lesbian couples could not file taxes jointly, often could not share custody of children, and lacked hospital visitation rights and rights of inheritance, among other benefits of marriage.

    In response to same sex couples’ attempts to gain state marriage licenses, the U.S. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. DOMA defined marriage as between one man and one woman in federal law, meaning that the federal government would not confer benefits to same-sex couples granted marriage licenses by states. It additionally stated that states did not need to recognize same-sex marriages granted by other states. Nonetheless, by the early 2000s, many states began to consider legalizing same-sex marriage. The first to do so was Massachusetts in 2004. Since then, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont have followed suit. Other states have passed laws allowing for same-sex civil unions. Civil unions provide the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, but not the title of marriage. At present, thirty-one states have passed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, defining marriage within their state as between a man and a woman. Court cases challenging the legality of these bans are currently underway, as are legal challenges to the constitutionality of DOMA. Challenges to bans on same-sex marriage contend that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are discriminatory.

    Key Points

    • Though some states have equal rights laws, many gay and lesbian couples are still denied the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples and cannot file joint taxes, cannot share custody of children, cannot have hospital visitation rights, and inheritance.
    • The first organizations in the U.S. that worked to improve LGBT issues were known as homophile organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
    • Sodomy laws are laws against any sexual contact other than heterosexual intercourse.
    • The Stonewall Riots were riots in New York City in 1969 that is frequently thought of as the start of the movement by LGBT people to decriminalize homosexuality.
    • In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court found that states could criminalize homosexuality in Bowers v. Hardwick.
    • In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that anti-sodomy laws violated an individual’s right to privacy. Currently, many LGBT organizations are working to achieve the right for same- sex couples to marry.
    • In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that anti-sodomy laws violated an individual’s right to privacy. Currently, many LGBT organizations are working to achieve the right of same-sex couples to marry.

    Key Terms

    • same-sex civil unions: also referred to as a civil partnership; a legally recognized form of partnership similar to marriage. Beginning with Denmark in 1989, civil unions under one name or another have been established by law in several, mostly developed, countries in order to provide same-sex couples rights, benefits, and responsibilities similar (in some countries, identical) to opposite-sex civil marriage.
    • Defense of Marriage Act: (DOMA); a United States federal law that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman.

    20.1F: The Movement for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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