The Fight for Civil Rights in the LGBT Community
Laws against homosexuality, which was regarded as a sin and a moral failing, existed in most states throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the late nineteenth century, homosexuality had come to be regarded as a form of mental illness as well as a sin, and gay men were often erroneously believed to be pedophiles.
As a result, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people, collectively known as the LGBT community, had to keep their sexual orientation hidden or “closeted.” Secrecy became even more important in the 1950s, when fear of gay men increased and the federal government believed they could be led into disloyal acts either as a result of their “moral weakness” or through blackmail by Soviet agents. As a result, many men lost or were denied government jobs. Fears of lesbians also increased after World War II as U.S. society stressed conformity to traditional gender roles and the importance of marriage and childrearing.
The very secrecy in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people had to live made it difficult for them to organize to fight for their rights as other, more visible groups had done. Some organizations did exist, however. The Mattachine Society, established in 1950, was one of the first groups to champion the rights of gay men. Its goal was to unite gay men who otherwise lived in secrecy and to fight against abuse. The Mattachine Society often worked with the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian rights organization. Among the early issues targeted by the Mattachine Society was police entrapment of male homosexuals.
In the 1960s, the gay and lesbian rights movements began to grow more radical, in a manner similar to other civil rights movements. In 1962, gay Philadelphians demonstrated in front of Independence Hall. In 1966, transgender prostitutes who were tired of police harassment rioted in San Francisco. In June 1969, gay men, lesbians, and transgender people erupted in violence when New York City police attempted to arrest customers at a gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn. The patrons’ ability to resist arrest and fend off the police inspired many members of New York’s LGBT community, and the riots persisted over several nights. New organizations promoting LGBT rights that emerged after Stonewall were more radical and confrontational than the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had been. These groups, like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front, called not just for equality before the law and protection against abuse but also for “liberation,” Gay Power, and Gay Pride.
Although LGBT people gained their civil rights later than many other groups, changes did occur beginning in the 1970s, remarkably quickly when we consider how long other minority groups had fought for their rights. In 1973, the American Psychological Association ended its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1994, the U.S. military adopted the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This act, Department of Defense Directive 1304.26, officially prohibited discrimination against suspected gays, lesbians, and bisexuals by the U.S. military. It also prohibited superior officers from asking about or investigating the sexual orientation of those below them in rank.
However, those gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who spoke openly about their sexual orientation were still subject to dismissal because it remained illegal for anyone except heterosexuals to serve in the armed forces. The policy ended in 2011, and now gays, lesbians, and bisexuals may serve openly in the military.
In 2006, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional state laws that criminalized sexual intercourse between consenting adults of the same sex.
Beginning in 2000, several states made it possible for same-sex couples to enter into legal relationships known as civil unions or domestic partnerships. These arrangements extended many of the same protections enjoyed by heterosexual married couples to same-sex couples. LGBT activists, however, continued to fight for the right to marry. Same-sex marriages would allow partners to enjoy exactly the same rights as married heterosexual couples and accord their relationships the same dignity and importance. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to grant legal status to same-sex marriage. Other states quickly followed. This development prompted a backlash among many religious conservatives, who considered homosexuality a sin and argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry would lessen the value and sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Many states passed laws banning same-sex marriage, and many gay and lesbian couples challenged these laws, successfully, in the courts. Finally, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court overturned state bans and made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States on June 26, 2015.
Supporters of marriage equality celebrate outside the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, following the announcement of the Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment. (credit: Matt Popovich)
The legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the United States led some people to feel their religious beliefs were under attack, and many religiously conservative business owners have refused to acknowledge LBGT rights or the legitimacy of same-sex marriages. Following swiftly upon the heels of the Obergefell ruling, the Indiana legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Congress had already passed such a law in 1993; it was intended to extend protection to minority religions, such as by allowing rituals of the Native American Church. However, the Supreme Court in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) ruled that the 1993 law applied only to the federal government and not to state governments.
Thus several state legislatures later passed their own Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. These laws state that the government cannot “substantially burden an individual’s exercise of religion” unless it would serve a “compelling governmental interest” to do so. They allow individuals, which also include businesses and other organizations, to discriminate against others, primarily same-sex couples and LGBT people, if the individual’s religious beliefs are opposed to homosexuality.
LGBT Americans still encounter difficulties in other areas as well. Discrimination continues in housing and employment, although federal courts are increasingly treating employment discrimination against transgender people as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has also indicated that refusing to rent or sell homes to transgendered people may be considered sex discrimination.
Violence against members of the LGBT community remains a serious problem; this violence occurs on the streets and in their homes.
The enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, in 2009 made it a federal hate crime to attack someone based on his or her gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability and made it easier for federal, state, and local authorities to investigate hate crimes, but it has not necessarily made the world safer for LGBT Americans.