Here’s a quick look back at some of the most significant moments in our country’s long and turbulent history with gay rights:
With the 2016 presidential race starting to gear up, many candidates are strongly voicing their support of LGBT rights, and it’s about time. These past few years have been full of milestones on the path to equality. As of this June, gay marriage was recognized in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. This was an important, and long-awaited, step in achieving a basic human right for same-sex couples.
However, recent progress makes now the perfect opportunity to take a look back at the history and chronology of LGBT rights in America. We’re fortunate to be living in a time of positive change and spreading equality. But maintaining historical perspective is crucial, in my opinion, if we’re to go about changes the proper way and hope for more progress down the line!
So here’s a quick look back at some of the most significant moments in our country’s long and turbulent history with these issues:
Illinois Reverses Sodomy Laws (1961)
The 1960s are best known as a time of free love. But at the beginning of the decade, it was against the law for gay men to have sex in any U.S. state. According to a guide on LGBT issues at Adam and Eve, Illinois was the first state to change that, reversing its ordinances against sodomy on the grounds that the state could not govern private morality.
The reversal was an important step on the road to civil liberties for the LGBT community. Although the only homosexual acts that were legalized were those that were “confidential,” other states began to follow Illinois’ lead, doing away with their anti-sodomy laws as well.
The Stonewall Riots (1969)
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided a popular LGBT bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village. Very few establishments welcomed openly gay people in the ’50s and ’60s, and many of the ones that did were subject to frequent raids by police. Though the bar was unlicensed and other gay clubs in the surrounding area had been recently shut down, Stonewall employees were not tipped off about the impending raid as they had been previously.
After a scuffle broke out between a woman and a police officer as she was being arrested—during which the woman was hit on the head by the police officer with a baton—the patrons of the Stonewall and others who had crowded around the bar became livid, and a riot ensued. More protests and demonstrations sparked by the incident erupted over the next six days, leading to the organization of several gay activist and rights groups within the following months.
The Stonewall Riots are often cited as the start of the gay rights movement in the United States – the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. The LGBT community had been subject to harassment for decades, and the inhumane treatment by the NYPD that June night served as the catalyst for a fight for equality that is still going on today.
First Gay Pride Parades (1970)
The first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots also marked another first in the LGBT community. The first annual gay pride parades were held in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to not only commemorate the riots, but to show support, resolution, and, well, pride. The number of participants walking in the parade was so great that the New York Times reported that the marchers took up the entire street for 15 city blocks.
The parade was a success, receiving no resistance from onlookers despite fears that the marchers’ signs and banners would spark negative attention. Gay pride events are now held worldwide each year.
Harvey Milk (1977)
Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to office in a major U.S. city. In 1978, Milk won a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, a position he served until his assassination later that year. Milk was a strong advocate for gay rights, urging others in the LGBT community to be outspoken and fight for their rights. During his life and his time in a public government position, Milk made a huge impact on the gay rights movement and on how those who identified as LGBT were seen. Harvey Milk was regarded as a visionary by many, and his efforts have not been forgotten, despite his untimely death.
National Coming Out Day is Founded (1988)
National Coming Out Day was launched on Oct. 11, 1988 as a way to remember and celebrate the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which half a million people participated in over 25 years ago. On this day, LGBT people are encouraged to make their voices heard, to come out knowing that they will be accepted by the LGBT community and its allies. This message of strength that National Coming Out Day embodies hopefully replaces the fear and anxiety many experience at the prospect of coming out with feelings of hope, encouragement, and unwavering support.
Ellen DeGeneres Comes Out on National Television (1997)
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres was the star of Ellen, a sitcom in its fourth successful season on which she played the lead character. DeGeneres’ character came out as a lesbian during a now-famous episode titled “The Puppy Episode,” making television history with one of the first gay lead characters and igniting such controversy that ABC placed a parental advisory at the beginning of each episode.
Just a few days before the episode aired, Ellen DeGeneres herself came out, announcing she was gay in not one, but two very public ways: on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in Time magazine. Ellen said she decided to come out for the teenagers who contemplate suicide when they realize they’re gay, and for the young, confused girl she once was, according to ABC News.
DeGeneres’ double coming out—once as her character on Ellen and again as herself—paved the way for others (both celebrities and television show characters) to do the same, making homosexuality more acceptable in the mainstream.
Massachusetts Legalizes Gay Marriage (2004)
On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts set the standard that many other states (eventually) followed by legalizing same-sex marriage. After the Supreme Court ruled the ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, the then-governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney (yes, the same Mitt Romney who opposed same-sex marriage in his 2008 Presidential campaign) ordered that marriage licenses be issued to gay couples. In the years following the ruling, a handful of other states recognized same-sex marriage as well, until the more recent rulings prompted even greater strides in marriage equality.
The Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (2007)
President Bill Clinton enacted the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policy in 1994, prohibiting military personnel from harassing closeted LGBT service members but also barring those who were openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from serving in the military. For 17 years, the law was upheld, encouraging discrimination in the armed forces and preventing LGBT Americans from fighting for their country.
In 2011, President Barack Obama repealed DADT, fulfilling a campaign promise he had made in 2008. At the signing of the bill, Obama said he believed it was not only the right thing to do for the US military, but the right thing to do, period, as CNN reported. Obama also became the first sitting president to voice support of gay marriage in an interview on “Good Morning America” in 2012.
It Gets Better Project (2010)
An internet-based project founded in 2010 by Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, It Gets Better was established in response to the alarming number of suicides in LGBT youths who were being bullied by their peers. The Human Rights Campaign reported that LGBT youth are twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved at school. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Many celebrities and LGBT adults took part in the It Gets Better campaign, uploading videos to the internet conveying messages of hope, inspiration, strength, and encouragement. Since its inception, the It Gets Better project has received more than 50,000 entries worldwide, which have been viewed more than 50 million times. Since then, over three-quarters (77 percent) of LGBT youth say they know things will get better.
Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA and Proposition 8 (2013)
In 1996, a Gallup poll showed that the public approval rating for gay marriage was just 27 percent. It was in that same year that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Now, in a recent Gallup poll, the public approval rating of same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high at 55 percent.
On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled DOMA as unconstitutional, striking it down in a five-to-four vote. The decision gave legally married same-sex couples the same rights as all other married couples and opened the door for further advances in same-sex marriage and overall equality.
Just days after the DOMA decision was handed down, California’s Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriages illegal in that state, was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, effective immediately. The two lead plaintiffs in the case that arose from Prop 8, Kris Perry and her partner Sandy Stier, married just hours after the ban was lifted, making them the first same-sex couple to marry in the state of California in four and a half years.
Facebook Adds New Gender Options (2014)
In February 2014, leading social media giant Facebook added new gender options for its users to choose from. Before the change, gender choices were limited to the traditional ones, but now the site offers customizable options as well as 50 different terms people can use to identify their gender. According to the Huffington Post, the shift aims to give users more choices in how they describe themselves, such as androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid or neutral, or transsexual.
Several months after expanding the gender options, Facebook added the ability to designate family members using a greater array of terms as well, such as those that are gender neutral and non-binary.
Presbyterian Church Allows Pastors to Officiate Same-Sex Marriage (2014)
The Presbyterian Church (USA), which boasts 1.76 million members, voted in June 2014 to allow its pastors to officiate same-sex marriages within the church. The denomination’s Book of Order was consequently changed to describe marriage as being between “two people” in addition to the between “a man and woman” traditional wording.
Prior to the Presbyterian Church’s decision, a number of other religious institutions had recognized same-sex marriage, starting with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 1996, the United Church of Christ (UCC) in 2005, and both Reform and Conservative Jewish denominations.
Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance and Subpoenaed Sermons (2014)
In May 2014, the first openly gay mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, made headlines when she championed and then enacted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). The ordinance prevents discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations according to sexual orientation, gender, race, gender identity, and several other categories, as reported by LGBTQ Nation. HERO was, and remains to be, the target of much criticism and controversy, sparking false news stories and rumors to circulate about the consequences of the ordinance. Despite the negative attention, HERO still stands.
Gay Marriage Recognized in 33 States (2014)
As of October 2014, 33 states within the U.S. recognize same-sex marriage, an unprecedented amount. As a result, same-sex spouses became eligible for federal benefits, including Social Security and veterans’ benefits. The announcement followed news that the Supreme Court would not hear appeals from five states attempting to keep their marriage bans in place as it is, firmly, unconstitutional.
Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Marriage Nationwide (2015)
And finally, just this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court made the landmark ruling so many have been waiting for, declaring gay marriage legal in every state across the nation. The ruling was announced on June 26 and despite being passed by only a narrow 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court, it now stands as arguably the most significant legal achievement in gay rights in U.S. history. The Supreme Court justices cited the 14th Amendment as the prevailing Constitutional element necessitating the legalization of same-sex unions, and in doing so effectively reversed rulings in the 13 states that still independently refused these rights to gay couples. The decision spawned an outbreak of celebration and positive reaction across the country and though many dissenters still exist, the overwhelming response was positive—demonstrating just how far our nation has progressed.
Indeed, the attitude toward and treatment of LGBT people has come a long way since the start of the modern gay rights movement in the United States. But this great progress does not mean that the battle for equality is over. Civil liberties for the LGBT community should be pursued, supported, and encouraged until they are achieved, not just in part, but completely; and they should be sought until those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender are given the rights—the human rights—they, like all people, deserve.
Patti Conner is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington and typically covers career, business and finance topics for various publications. When she isn’t writing or doing research, she can be found kayaking or hiking and photographing the natural aesthetic of the Pacific Northwest.