The Gay Rights Movement

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6: The Gay Rights Movement

In the history of social reform movements in the United States, some crusades have brought about revolutionary change for a particular group in society, altering the lives of the people in that group as well as changing the views of society overall. The gay rights movement has brought about such a change. Over a period of several decades, members of the gay community have gone from lives cloaked in secrecy to open and proud declarations of their sexual orientation. The gay rights movement has also accomplished significant legal victories, helping to overturn laws that punish a gay lifestyle as well as working to establish legal protections for gay people.

The term "gay" refers specifically to men who are romantically and physically attracted to other men. Often the term is also used to encompass a larger community that includes lesbians, women who are attracted to other women, and bisexuals, people who are attracted to both genders. The term "homosexual" is another way of describing a person attracted to people of the same gender, while the term "heterosexual," or "straight," describes a person attracted to people of the opposite gender. Often linked with the gay community are transgendered individuals, a description that covers a broad range of people who generally express their gender in ways that differ from conventional expectations. A transgendered person, for example, might be a man who has had surgery to become a woman, or it may refer to a woman who cross-dresses as a man.

Unlike other groups in society who have been oppressed because of race or gender, gay men and lesbians can hide their sexual identities, leading outwardly straight lives in which they pretend to be attracted to those of the opposite sex. Keeping a gay identity hidden is often referred to as living "in the closet." The act of revealing to family, friends, and coworkers one's identity as a gay man or lesbian is known as "coming out of the closet," or simply "coming out."

Early attempts to organize

Homosexuality has existed in various forms throughout history. Different societies have displayed varying levels of acceptance. In numerous cultures across many generations, homosexual relationships have been viewed as immoral and illegal, and gay men and lesbians have been prosecuted as criminals. For most of American history, same-sex relationships were not well tolerated. The message sent to gays and lesbians was that their sexual orientation was wrong—a mental illness, a perversion, a sin against nature and God. Many gay men and lesbians believed this message and worked hard to change their attraction to the same gender. Others lived double lives, keeping their homosexuality a secret, unwilling to be prosecuted or harassed simply for being themselves.


Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome; a disease related to a severely compromised immune system, leaving the body unable to defend against infection.
A person who is romantically and physically attracted to both men and women.
civil union:
A legally recognized relationship, usually between two people of the same sex, that offers many of the same legal rights and benefits as marriage.
coming out:
The act of revealing to others one's sexual orientation, which had previously been hidden.
A person who wears clothing typical of the opposite sex; also described as a "transvestite."
A man who is romantically and physically attracted to other men; also sometimes refers to the broader gay community including lesbians and bisexuals.
A person who is romantically and physically attracted to people of the opposite sex.
Human immunodeficiency virus; the virus that causes AIDS.
A person who is romantically and physically attracted to people of the same sex.
A woman who is romantically and physically attracted to other women.
A person who is heterosexual or attracted to members of the opposite sex.
transgendered individuals:
A range of people, including transsexuals and cross-dressers, who express gender in ways that differ from conventional expectations.
A person who has changed his or her biological gender through surgery and/or hormone treatment.

In the United States, tolerance of gay men and lesbians has risen and fallen throughout the twentieth century in keeping with the overall social and political mood of the nation. Midway through the century, the nation was beginning a period of post-World War II (1939–45) prosperity while at the same time experiencing unprecedented vulnerability due to the escalating Cold War (1945–91) with the Soviet Union. (The Cold War was a period of hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which propaganda and threats were used rather than military confrontation.) Capitalizing on this sense of national anxiety, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) rose to fame for his relentless crusade against a supposed Communist conspiracy in the American government and military. McCarthy also targeted homosexuals.

Amid this atmosphere of paranoia and fear, generated in large part by McCarthy but perpetuated by many in the federal government, gay men and lesbians were seen as a threat to national safety and to American culture. Widespread concern about the so-called dangers of homosexuality led to a national "witch-hunt" throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, with police forces and government agencies dedicating tremendous resources to the investigation and arrest of people described as "sexual perverts."

In several large cities, an active gay and lesbian social scene had arisen in spite of the fact that many states had laws preventing the public gathering of and sale of alcohol to homosexuals. Such laws forced many gay bars and nightclubs to go "underground," meaning they operated in secrecy. The police often raided gay bars during the 1950s and 1960s, making numerous arrests. In exchange for an evening of entertainment and socializing, a person arrested during such a raid could pay a high price: being beaten by the police, for example, or being exposed as gay by a newspaper photograph depicting the raid. Exposure for some people meant the loss of a job, friends, even a spouse.

In the wake of this police harassment and government persecution, several gay rights organizations were established during the 1950s. The Mattachine Society, founded in Los Angeles in 1950, was the first such group. The Mattachine Society was formed by a small group of men, including renowned activist Harry Hay (1912–2002). A gay man and a communist, Hay is considered by many to be the father of the modern gay rights movement. The Mattachine Society, named for a secret society of French performers during the Renaissance era, was designed to help defend the rights of homosexuals. The society was also envisioned as an organization for the gay masses that would help create a distinct, alternative culture for gay people.

Hay promoted the idea of the Mattachine Society as a "homophile" organization, a term that embraced gay men as well as those who supported gay rights. Hay viewed the gay community as a separate cultural identity. Within a few years, the leadership of the Mattachine Society had changed. Hay and other founders were ousted by more conservative members who dismissed the notion of gay culture as distinct from the larger society. The new leaders wanted to blend in with society, and they feared that the communist backgrounds of Hay and other founders would disturb mainstream Americans and harm the gay rights movement.

Although the Mattachine Society was primarily an organization of gay men, the San Francisco-based Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was founded exclusively for lesbians. Established in 1955 by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two prominent lesbian activists and a longtime couple, the Daughters of Bilitis was initially intended as a social club and an outlet of expression for lesbians. The DOB later became more politically active, agitating for civil rights and attempting to educate the larger culture about the lesbian community.

DOB chapters arose in numerous cities throughout the United States. The group's publication, The Ladder, became an influential periodical. The DOB never reached the membership levels of the national men's organizations, but it became the standard imitated by numerous lesbian organizations that followed. Like many gay and lesbian organizations of that era, the name of the group did not convey to the general public that it was a lesbian organization. The name came from a book of lesbian-themed French poetry by Pierre Louyÿs called Songs of Bilitis. Only those involved in the lesbian community would understand the significance of the DOB's name.

The 1960s: The modern gay rights movement begins

On some levels, the 1960s, particularly in the early years of the decade, were characterized by conservative politics and conformist social practices. On other levels, however, a revolution was brewing on several fronts. The civil rights movement had made significant gains and radically altered the lives of African Americans in the South. The women's movement had begun its campaign for liberation and equal rights. The student-led antiwar movement gained steam in the latter part of the decade, staging passionate protests against the Vietnam War (1954–75). The youth movement rejected the values of the older generation and embraced a back-to-basics peace-and-love lifestyle. In the midst of the turmoil of the 1960s, the gay rights movement built an ever-larger following and became an increasingly vocal force for social change.

During the 1950s, several of the early gay rights organizations had modest goals and a conservative approach. Their members wanted to work within the system to gain greater acceptance for gay men and lesbians. They did not wish to attract too much attention or stir up agitation in the larger society. The protests that took place during the 1960s were generally civilized and polite; the protesters were well dressed and even-tempered. During these early years, the gay rights movement was known as the homophile movement, a term emphasizing the emotional aspect of same-sex love rather than the sexual aspect. The homophile movement sought freedom for gay men and lesbians in a manner that would allow them to blend in with society.

By the late 1960s, the movement was evolving and becoming more radical. Many gay rights activists at that time wanted to revolutionize society, expanding the notions of human sexuality to accommodate more than just the traditional man-woman model. Gay liberation was a primary goal of that era: creating a new society that would allow gays and lesbians to freely express and celebrate their love. At the same time, some activists, while still working toward overall liberation, began shifting their focus to obtaining basic civil rights for gays and lesbians.

From the beginning, one of the fundamental goals of American gay rights activists has been to repeal, or overturn, laws in numerous states that make gay sexual activity a crime. In 1961 Illinois became the first state to make such activity legal when taking place between consenting adults. Many gay activists spent many years working one state at a time to overturn all such laws. Their diligence paid off in large measure. By the

Franklin Kameny: Gay Rights Pioneer

Although he may not have achieved the widespread fame of Harry Hay and others, Franklin Kameny (1925–) was one of the leading pioneers of the gay rights movement. Kameny did not set out to become a gay rights activist. His passion from early childhood was astronomy. After earning a master's degree and doctorate from Harvard, he began working as an astronomer for the U.S. Army Map Service. In 1957 he was arrested on a "morals charge," which was code for suspected homosexual behavior. As a result, Kameny was fired from his job. A 1953 executive order prohibited hiring or employing homosexuals in the federal government. Kameny protested his firing and the ban on gays by suing the government, the first openly gay person to do so. He filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 1961, refused to hear his case.

Kameny never again worked as an astronomer, devoting himself instead to gay rights activism. In late 1961 Kameny and a friend founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society. Unlike many other gay leaders during that period, Kameny encouraged confrontation with public figures and such direct action as protest marches and demonstrations. Kameny and the Washington Mattachine Society organized the first gay rights march at the White House in the spring of 1965. He was instrumental in the organization of annual gay rights marches on July 4 in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York between 1965 and 1969. For Kameny and the other marchers, such public declarations of their support for gay rights at a time when most gay men and lesbians remained invisible took tremendous courage.

Kameny met each of many obstacles in his activist career with determination. His dedication paid off in a number of ways. His fight to reverse the ban on homosexuals in the federal government was won in 1975. He helped launch the effort to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, which was achieved in 1973. He helped write legislation that, in 1993, reversed Washington, D.C.'s law that outlawed gay forms of sexual activity. Kameny is credited with coining the 1968 slogan "Gay is good," a phrase inspired by that of the later stages of the African American civil rights movement, "Black is beautiful."

In 1971 Kameny became the first openly gay person to run for national office. He sought to be elected as the District of Columbia's nonvoting representative in Congress. He lost the election but continued for many decades to be closely involved in the Washington political scene. He was a co-founder of the National Gay Task Force, which later became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). He also helped establish, in the mid-1970s, the Gay Rights National Lobby, which became the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

In their book Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney quote Kameny's guiding philosophy: "If society and I differ on something, I'm willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right and society is wrong; and society can go its way so long as it does not get in my way. But if it does, there's going to be a fight. And I'm not going to be the one who backs down."

mid-1970s, almost half of the states had decriminalized private sexual activity among gay men and lesbians.

Early on, gay rights activists realized that increasing their political power was essential to their success. During the 1960s several activist groups began trying to attract the notice of politicians and legislators as well as trying to get gay men and lesbians elected to public office. They demanded to be recognized as an oppressed minority that was being unfairly denied civil rights. In 1965 pioneering activist Franklin Kameny (1925–) organized the first gay rights demonstration at the White House. Kameny was also instrumental in the planning of annual marches taking place in such cities as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., between 1965 and 1969.

Key organizations and alliances

As the 1960s progressed and the activist spirit spread throughout the nation, a few key organizations helped gay rights activists form into a fledgling movement. One such group, the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), was founded in 1964 in San Francisco, which was and continues to be the heart of gay rights activism. SIR was intended as a political and social club for gay men and lesbians. SIR sponsored numerous social events, including dances and parties, while also establishing bowling leagues, exercise groups, art classes, and more for gays and lesbians. In 1966 SIR opened a gay community center, the first of its kind. The organization played a crucial role in creating a sense of community and togetherness among the many and varied people it served.

Another important step in the formation of a gay rights movement involved partnerships with religious groups. The general opposition to homosexuality on the part of organized religion offered justification for widespread discrimination and even, some contended, violence toward gay men and lesbians. The establishment in late 1964 of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) resulted from an alliance between several sympathetic Protestant ministers and gay rights groups in San Francisco. The CRH hosted a gay New Year's Eve ball at the end of 1964. It was a daring move during a period when police routinely raided gay bars and nightclubs, arresting same-sex couples for such violations as hugging or hand-holding. On the night of the ball, the police came out in great numbers, harassing the guests. The ministers of CRH charged the police with intimidation and hostility toward the law-abiding citizens attending the ball. Publicity surrounding the incident aroused the anger of many citizens who disapproved of the police actions. With the support of the ministers, the gay and lesbian community earned a newfound respect, and police harassment gradually decreased.

A few years later, the Reverend Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Los Angeles, the first gay church in the nation. Perry had been a Pentecostal preacher who had twice been removed from the ministry because he was gay. At first, he had believed his religion's teachings that homosexuality was a sin. However, Perry eventually came to feel that he and others like him were worthy of God's love. Wanting to share this message with others, Perry began conducting church services in his living room in the autumn of 1968. The MCC soon moved to another building, and then another, eventually buying and remodeling an old building in 1971. Within two years, antigay arsonists burned the church to the ground. But even such violent acts could not slow the growth of the MCC, which soon spread to cities all across the nation.


During the summer of 1969, a pivotal event took place at a gay bar in New York City that many people later defined as the true starting point of the modern gay rights movement. Although the movement had been brewing for many years, it was the incident at the Stonewall Inn that sent a current of outrage and righteousness through the gay community, ushering in a period of intense political and social activism.

As it had been many nights before, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York's Greenwich Village was crowded with gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people. And, as had happened many nights before, the police raided the Stonewall Inn in the early morning hours. Officers ejected customers and arrested the least accepted segment of the gay community: the drag queens, or men dressed as women. But this time, rather than quietly accepting the humiliation and fear of such a raid, the crowd turned angry and rebellious. Punches were thrown, followed by a torrent of stones and bottles, and the spontaneous outbreak of violence turned into a full-fledged riot. Word quickly spread through Greenwich Village, and hundreds of local gays and lesbians showed up to join in the fighting. The police were forced to retreat within the bar, and it took riot-control police several hours to disperse the crowd.

The next night, hundreds of protesters returned to the Stonewall Inn, renewing the riots from the night before. The crowds chanted slogans like "Gay power!" and again threw bottles and stones at the police. The riots continued for several more nights. Many activists came to believe that when the Stonewall riots ended, the movement began. For the people at Stonewall, the feelings of injustice and anger over the police raid were not new. What was new was the sense of strength and power experienced during the riots. Many people realized that the gay community could be a significant force for social change. They felt that the time had come to demand equal treatment and to express gay pride.

Within a few weeks of the Stonewall riots, the changes in the gay community became apparent. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in July of 1969, the first gay rights organization to use the word "gay" in its name. The GLF was soon followed by the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which later became the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. A number of gay newspapers arose in the wake of Stonewall, increasing the sense of community and improving avenues of communication among gays and lesbians. Almost immediately, various gay rights factions began arguing about what Stonewall meant and what should happen next. Conservative gay leaders urged people to refrain from future violence and do nothing more to alienate mainstream society. A growing number of gay men and lesbians, however, rejected this notion, feeling that they had been patient long enough.

The 1970s: Victories and setbacks

The energy generated among gay activists by the Stonewall riots spilled over into the 1970s, a decade of social and political breakthroughs. On June 28, 1970, thousands of people gathered to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Stonewall by marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade in New York. Smaller parades took place at the same time in other cities as well. The last Saturday in June became the date for annual celebrations of gay pride.

The gay rights movement in the 1970s devoted itself primarily to gaining political power and civil rights. During those years a number of states repealed laws that criminalized gay sexual activity, and many communities enacted antidiscrimination laws to protect gay rights in areas such as employment and housing. Efforts to achieve recognition for gays and lesbians within the Democratic Party met with gradual success. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, five of the delegates were openly gay. That number jumped to seventy-seven by 1980, and in 1984 gay civil rights became an official item on the party's agenda.

Activists also worked tirelessly to get gay and lesbian candidates elected, convinced that having the gay community represented in political bodies would be an effective means to change. In 1974 an openly gay candidate named Kathy Kozachenko was elected to the Ann Arbor, Michigan, city council. That same year Elaine Noble, a lesbian from Massachusetts, was elected to her state legislature. Other openly gay politicians followed. Although their numbers did not reflect the proportion of gay men and lesbians in society, they had made an important beginning.

One of the most significant victories for the gay rights movement involved a concession from the nation's mental health professionals. After a lengthy battle on the part of Franklin Kameny and other gay activists, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders in 1973. Gay activists had focused a great deal of energy on changing the official views of the nation's psychiatrists and psychologists because they felt that a medical diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness provided the basis for society's persecution of gays.

Some therapists had subjected a number of gay men and lesbians to extreme methods to persuade them to abandon homosexuality. Patients were forced to undergo treatment methods like receiving electric shocks while reading about gay behavior or being given nausea-causing drugs while viewing erotic images of people of the same sex. Gay activists viewed such treatment as torture and made it their mission to transform psychiatry's basic views on homosexuality. The APA was later joined in this decision by other medical organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.

Although the 1970s marked a period of abundant victories for gay rights, the period was also distinguished by significant turbulence within the movement. Tensions between gay men and lesbians mounted, with many lesbians feeling that gay men were even less sympathetic to their cause than straight men. Conflicts developed between gay rights groups that were more moderate and those that were radical. Problems also arose between lesbian feminists and straight feminists. Some members of the women's movement, including noted leader Betty Friedan (1921–2006), felt that it was a mistake to allow lesbians to have a role in the women's movement, fearing their presence would alienate too many people and weaken their progress. Lesbian feminists argued that their role was essential. In 1971 the National Organization for Women (NOW), a major force in the women's movement, formally acknowledged that the feminist agenda should address civil rights for lesbians.

Steadfast—and violent—opposition

In addition to tensions within and among gay organizations, the movement also experienced setbacks from outside forces during the 1970s. In 1977, in response to a gay rights ordinance banning discrimination that passed in Florida's Dade County, entertainer and political conservative Anita Bryant (1940–) led a campaign to overturn it. She was joined by many religious conservatives, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell (1933–), an evangelical preacher and right-wing political activist. Bryant, with her Save Our Children campaign, spread the notion that gay men and lesbians recruited young people to convert them to homosexuality. According to Bob Moser in "Holy War," published on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Web site: "'Homosexuals cannot reproduce,' Bryant often said, 'so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks they must recruit the youth of America.'" Her campaign was successful, and a referendum in Dade County overturned the gay civil rights ordinance.

Bryant's success led to similar victories in other communities, including St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. In addition, California state senator John Briggs proposed a referendum that would ban gay men and lesbians from teaching in public schools and would prohibit teachers from making any positive comments regarding homosexuality. Briggs's proposal was defeated, but he did garner significant support. Bryant's antigay crusade had some positive impact on the gay rights movement, re-energizing activists. That summer, 75,000 people showed up for the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in New York, and 300,000 attended the annual gay pride parade in San Francisco.

San Francisco, a haven for gay men and lesbians and a center of gay rights activity, was the scene of one of the movement's most infamous and shocking incidents. Harvey Milk (1930–1978), the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, was voted onto San Francisco's board of supervisors, akin to a city council, in 1977. After moving to San Francisco in 1972, Milk had established himself as a talented and dedicated community leader. He helped the heavily gay Castro neighborhood organize economically and politically, and he established relationships between the gay community and organized labor. Just eleven months after assuming his position as a city supervisor, Milk was assassinated. After the passage of a gay rights ordinance that had been introduced by Milk, fellow city supervisor and political conservative Dan White resigned in protest. On November 27, 1978, White snuck into the city hall and made his way to the mayor's office. He fatally shot Mayor George Moscone, seen as a friend of the gay rights movement, and then walked down the hall and killed Milk.

At White's trial, his lawyer argued that White had been suffering from a type of temporary insanity the day of the crimes. In what came to be known as the "Twinkie defense," the lawyer claimed that White was severely depressed and that his condition had been aggravated because he had consumed an excess of junk food. Instead of receiving a conviction for premeditated murder, White was handed a guilty verdict for the lesser crime of manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Gay activists in San Francisco reacted with outrage to White's light sentence, pouring into the streets to express their frustration. The resulting "White Night" riots led to approximately one million dollars in damage to city property. San Francisco police struck back by raiding the Castro neighborhood, damaging gay businesses and assaulting people on the street. As for White, he was released on parole after about five years in jail. He committed suicide in 1985.

The 1980s: The AIDS decade

The 1980s brought a new and unexpected enemy, a plague that dramatically altered the gay rights movement and the nation as a whole. A mysterious disease, displayed in some patients as a rare type of cancer called Kaposi's Sarcoma and in others as a deadly pneumonia, emerged in the early 1980s. Doctors and scientists quickly realized that the disease seemed most often to afflict gay men. Initially called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), the disorder was later renamed acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

By 1982 doctors did not know exactly how AIDS was transmitted, but they noticed that it also afflicted intravenous drug users and people who frequently received blood transfusions. Scientists later learned that a virus, labeled the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, causes the body's immune defenses to weaken until the body can no longer fight off infections. The final stage of HIV is AIDS. HIV is transmitted primarily through unprotected sex with an infected person, but it can also be acquired through tainted blood transfusions and the sharing of contaminated needles. Scientists also learned that an infected pregnant woman can pass HIV on to her baby.

Despite the fact that anyone can get AIDS, the disease quickly became associated with the gay community. Many people, fearful of this new epidemic, lashed out against gays and lesbians. Discrimination against those afflicted with AIDS, based largely on ignorance of how the disease was spread, led many homosexuals to lose their jobs, their housing, and sometimes their friends.

The politically conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) was extremely slow to react to the AIDS crisis. Reagan did not publicly address the crisis until 1987. By that time, more than 20,000 Americans had died of the disease. The government initially allocated very little money for AIDS research and social services. In the absence of governmental assistance, gay activist groups mobilized quickly, turning their attention from gay civil rights to protecting the community from a deadly assault. The AIDS crisis was so severe during the 1980s that the gay rights movement in large measure became the AIDS activist movement.

Gay Activists March on Washington

Following the example of the African American civil rights movement, the gay rights movement held massive marches on the nation's capital. They wanted to show the government the size and strength of their movement. Several gay activists began discussing the idea for a march on Washington during the late 1970s, but support for the idea was not widespread. Some community leaders felt it would be unwise to pour time and money into a march when they had so many pressing concerns. Across the United States, gay activists were waging battles to pass gay rights ordinances or to keep existing laws from being repealed. A national march was not high on their priority list. Also, some leaders worried that it would be disastrous for the movement if they staged the march and few showed up.

San Francisco city supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk supported the idea of a march. When Milk was assassinated in 1978 by a conservative former city supervisor, the gay community was stunned. Soon after Milk's death, the idea of a march on Washington was revived, with many people viewing it as Milk's legacy. The March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was scheduled for October 14, 1979. Turnout exceeded expectations. Coming from all over the United States and several other countries, some 100,000 demonstrators arrived in Washington, D.C. Just ten years after the Stonewall riots, the gay rights movement had developed into a major social and political force.

In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court outraged the gay community. In the case Bowers v. Hardwick, the court ruled that states had the right to enact laws prohibiting gay sexual activity. The verdict indicated that gays and lesbians were not entitled to privacy and that it was acceptable to apply a different legal standard to homosexuals. Shocked by the ruling and frustrated by the government's slow response to the AIDS crisis, many gay leaders began discussing a second national march.

The second march on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights occurred on October 11, 1987 with more than 500,000 participants. The march coincided with the first public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a project consisting of thousands of cloth panels, each one crafted in memory of someone who died of AIDS. The vast size of the quilt showed the far-reaching impact and human toll of the disease.

The next march on Washington was held on April 25, 1993. The March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation occurred soon after President Bill Clinton took office. Clinton was viewed as being far more sympathetic to gay issues than Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had been. Even the name of the march, which for the first time included the presence of bisexuals, reflected the movement's advances. An estimated one million people participated, setting a record as the largest demonstration at that time in U.S. history. Major news media featured the event in front-page articles; Newsweek magazine devoted its cover story to the march. Events were planned to coincide with the march, including workshops, conferences, and efforts to lobby Congress.

A fourth march on Washington (2000) occurred amid objections from many gay rights leaders. Although previous marches were planned by a broad coalition of gay rights activists and organizations, the 2000 Millennium March on Washington for Equality was organized by two large mainstream gay rights groups: Human Rights Campaign and Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. Many gay rights leaders complained that the group of organizers did not reflect the diversity of the gay rights movement, stating that the event relied too heavily on corporate sponsorship. Some objected to the emphasis on entertainment over political action. Some gay rights groups refused to participate, so attendance was much lower than the previous march. About 200,000 people participated. A financial scandal that emerged later further cemented the view of the Millennium March as ill-conceived and poorly planned.

The Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), founded by author and activist Larry Kramer (1935–) in 1982 in New York, was the first organization created to deal with AIDS. That same year, an organization known as the Kaposi's Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation formed in San Francisco. Two years later, the group renamed itself as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. These and other AIDS-related organizations provided medical and emotional support for those afflicted with AIDS. In addition, they educated people about the transmission of the disease and the best ways to minimize the risk of contracting it. The GMHC and others also attempted to have a political impact, protecting AIDS victims from discrimination.


By the mid-1980s, some gay activists felt that the existing AIDS organizations had lost some of the activist spirit and were not doing enough to effect change. In 1987 Kramer, having been forced out of the GMHC and wishing to inject the AIDS movement with more radicalism, formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. The group addressed issues such as education and AIDS prevention, but its primary mission was to protest the actions of the government, doctors, and drug companies, pressuring these groups to make treatments more accessible to AIDS patients. Although no cure for AIDS had emerged, drug companies had begun to develop effective medicines to treat the disease, prolonging life for those infected. But these medicines were extremely expensive, and the process for developing new medicines was lengthy and complicated.

ACT UP staged flashy, disruptive demonstrations on Wall Street and other seats of American power in an attempt to focus attention on the AIDS crisis and improve AIDS patients' chances of survival. ACT UP, with chapters throughout the United States and in other countries as well, proved to be an effective means to social change. ACT UP raised awareness about the disease among ordinary citizens and forced the powerful drug companies and government agencies to confront the crisis. The problem of accessibility to AIDS drugs was not solved in the 1980s and in fact continued into the twenty-first century.

In the United States, the development of a new treatment in the mid-1990s, called protease inhibitors, gave HIV/AIDS victims a far better chance of prolonging their lives. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): "Protease inhibitors block the protease enzyme that HIV needs in order to make new viruses. When protease is blocked, HIV makes copies of itself that cannot infect new cells." After protease inhibitors were introduced, the death rate from AIDS fell by nearly 50 percent. But in poor countries, particularly many African nations, the epidemic swelled to disastrous proportions with most victims unable to afford the necessary treatment. AIDS activists continue to appeal to drug companies and international governments to make inexpensive medicines available to all.

Community awareness projects

A key goal of AIDS activists was to raise awareness of the disease as a crisis affecting everyone, not a disease limited to the gay community. In the early 1990s, a group of artists in New York City created a simple symbol that anyone could display to show support for HIV/AIDS victims: a red ribbon. The ribbon project quickly became a massive phenomenon and an extremely effective way for ordinary citizens to make an activist expression. At high-profile awards shows, the red ribbon adorned the tuxedo lapels and high-fashion gowns of nearly every celebrity. Political candidates showed support for the AIDS movement by pinning on a red ribbon. Millions of people sported red ribbon pins, T-shirts, and caps. The red ribbon became such a powerful symbol that other causes adopted the idea: pink ribbons showed support for breast cancer research and treatment, for example, while yellow ribbons showed support of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.

AIDS activists also sought to put a human face on AIDS, enabling people to go beyond the statistics heard in news reports and realize the impact of the loss of so many people to the disease. The gay community in particular has been devastated by AIDS. A vast number of gay men and lesbians who were adults during the 1970s and 1980s either dealt with infection personally or lost friends or loved ones to AIDS. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, begun in San Francisco in 1987 and maintained by the NAMES Project, serves as a memorial for individual victims of AIDS as well as a visual demonstration of the vast number of people killed by the disease. As of the summer of 2005, the quilt consisted of nearly six thousand squares, sewn together into 12-foot-square blocks, with each square created by friends or family members in memory of someone who died of AIDS. Portions of the quilt are continually on display in numerous locations, and even a small fraction of the entire project takes up a tremendous amount of space. The size of the quilt, as well as the moving messages of love and sadness on each square, give viewers an idea of the human cost of the disease.

Beyond AIDS: The 1990s and the twenty-first century

Although AIDS activism continued to be a significant aspect of the gay rights movement into the 1990s, the advances being made in treatment of the disease lessened the sense of urgency and made room for a host of new battles and initiatives.

Gays in the military

The presidential candidacy of Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) offered new hope to gay activists. A supporter in some respects of gay rights, Clinton promised to end the ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military if he were elected. Once Clinton was in office, however, he backed down in the face of deep opposition by military leaders and political advisers. Many of Clinton's opponents argued that allowing gay men and lesbians into the military would undermine the values of the armed forces and weaken the bonds of combat units. It was suggested that heterosexual soldiers would be so uncomfortable fighting and working alongside gay soldiers that the effectiveness of the unit would be severely compromised. Clinton proposed a watered-down version of his original plan, a policy that came to be known as "don't ask, don't tell."

Under this new law, recruiters and commanding officers were forbidden from asking new recruits and soldiers if they were gay, and the soldiers did not have to reveal their sexual orientation. However, the law allows commanders to launch an investigation into any service member suspected of homosexual behavior and to discharge those who are found to engage in such behavior. Several thousand service members were discharged under this law in its first decade. The "don't ask, don't tell" policy did nothing to improve the status of gays in the military. Only deeply closeted gay men and lesbians could hope for a military career, and harassment and discrimination of suspected homosexuals continued to be a problem.

In some cases, harassment led to violence. In 1999 Private First Class Barry Winchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat while lying in his bed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. For months Winchell had been the victim of harassment and gay-bashing by fellow soldiers who suspected he was gay. But if Winchell filed any complaints, he could have faced an investigation into his sexual orientation and a possible discharge from the military.

Hate crimes

Hate crimes, illegal acts motivated primarily by hatred of a particular group of society, have always been a problem for the gay community. Initially hate crime legislation created a special category of crimes committed against a person or property because of that person's race, religion, or national origin. During the 1980s, gay rights activists began campaigning to have hate crime laws apply to sexual orientation and gender identity as well. Such campaigns were met with resistance by many people who were reluctant to create any special legal categories that supported the rights of gays and lesbians.

A number of high-profile instances of gay hate crimes in the 1990s persuaded many people that it was necessary to include sexual orientation in hate crime laws. Among these crimes was the murder of Brandon Teena (1972–1993), a biological female who had been passing as a boy since her/his teenage years. When Teena's true identity was discovered in a small Nebraska town in 1993, two young men raped and later murdered the person they had assumed was a man. Teena's story was recounted in a 1997 documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, and a 1999 feature film, Boys Don't Cry.

Another murder that made national headlines occurred in 1998. Gay college student Matthew Shepard (1976–1998) was beaten to death by two young men in Laramie, Wyoming. The two men pretended to be gay to draw Shepard out of a bar one night. They drove him to a field across town, beat him with the butt of a pistol, and tied him to a fence, leaving him for dead. Shepard was not discovered until the next day, and he died in the hospital a few days later. Shepard's story inspired the play and the film The Laramie Project.

The trials of the men who killed Shepard received major media attention. Many gay and lesbian activists as well as antigay groups flocked to the town and held demonstrations. Members of a highly conservative church traveled to Wyoming, where they protested by holding signs saying that God hated gays and that Shepard was in hell. Gays and friends of Shepard countered the conservative protests by dressing as angels. Wearing bed sheets, they spread their angel wings to try to block the anti-Shepard demonstrators. Ultimately, the two men who murdered Shepard were sent to prison.

The publicity surrounding such violent attacks on gays encouraged various lawmakers to consider adding sexual orientation to hate crime legislation. More than half of American states include sexual orientation in their hate crime legislation. A few states also specify that offenses against transgendered individuals qualify as hate crimes. A federal hate crime law, passed in 1994, mandates an additional penalty for those convicted of hate crimes, but sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in this law. Supporters of hate crime legislation suggest that a more extreme punishment is warranted for hate crimes because they send a message of intimidation and violent threat that goes beyond the individual victim and into his/her community as well.

Gay marriage

One of the most controversial and important battles fought by gay activists in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century was the quest for legal, same-sex marriage. For many years, gays and lesbians have fought for same-sex marriage to be permitted. The desire for legalized marriage stems in part from a couple's wish to be recognized by society as a legitimate, committed partnership in much the same way that heterosexual married couples are. Legalized marriage also has several practical and legal benefits. If a person becomes very ill, it is far easier for a legally recognized spouse to care for that person and to make decisions about health care than it would be for an unmarried partner. In addition, the law gives many tax benefits to married couples that unmarried couples do not receive. Companies that provide health insurance to their employees often offer coverage for spouses, but many do not extend coverage to unmarried partners.

In matters involving child custody, gay couples are at a distinct disadvantage. If a married woman gives birth to a child, her husband is automatically granted the rights of a parent even if he is not the biological father. When a lesbian in a committed relationship gives birth, her partner has no parental rights and often cannot obtain these rights through adoption or other legal arrangement. Gay couples face many obstacles to adopting children under any circumstances, and legalized same-sex marriage would remove many such barriers.

During the 1990s, small steps were taken in the direction of legalized same-sex unions, though these minor victories often have been weakened or reversed by later initiatives. In the early twenty-first century, same-sex marriage remains extremely controversial and is strongly opposed by significant segments of society, particularly conservative religious groups. In 1993 and 1996 Hawaiian courts ruled that denying same-sex citizens the right to marry violated the state's equal rights provisions. Before these rulings could be applied, however, the state legislature proposed an amendment to Hawaii's constitution to prevent gay marriage, and voters overwhelmingly approved it. Legislators additionally wrote a law specifying that marriage was an act taking place between a man and a woman. A similar series of events took place in Alaska during the late 1990s.

One of the biggest victories in the battle for legalized same-sex marriage took place in Vermont. In 1999 Vermont stopped short of allowing gay couples to receive a marriage license, but it did institute the notion of a civil union between same-sex couples. A civil union granted gay couples the same rights in Vermont as married heterosexual couples, including child custody, worker compensation, and family leave. In addition, ending a civil union requires the same legal process as the dissolution of a marriage.

A few years later, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went one step further, declaring that same-sex marriage was legal in that state. The state legislature immediately began trying to draft an amendment banning gay marriage, but in the meantime, the court ruling stood. Beginning on May 17, 2004, same-sex couples could obtain marriage licenses, participate in a marriage ceremony, and enjoy all the rights of being a legally married pair. The law only applied to Massachusetts citizens, however. The Republican governor, Mitt Romney, pointed to a 1913 law that prevented out-of-state couples from being married in Massachusetts. Although many couples happily took advantage of the new ruling, gay activists feared the right to marry would be short-lived, overturned by a constitutional amendment as soon as voters had the opportunity to vote on the issue.

Several other states have addressed the gay marriage issue, with mixed results. Some states have instituted domestic partnership laws, which give some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples. Well over half of the American states, however, have passed "defense of marriage" acts, which explicitly state that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. These laws also forbid the recognition of a same-sex marriage or civil union that took place in another state. Such laws were similar to federal legislation passed in 1996, signed by President Clinton, denying federal rights to same-sex couples regardless of the legal status of their union in their home state. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) marked the first time the U.S. government had defined marriage, a task formerly left up to each state.

Legal protections: A constant battle

Throughout the history of the movement, gay rights activists have had little success obtaining federal civil rights protections. But activists have achieved substantial gains in obtaining such protections at the state and local level. Over the years, many cities and states have passed ordinances and statutes protecting the civil rights of the gay community. These ordinances offer protection from discrimination in such areas as housing, employment, credit, education, and public accommodations, like restaurants, hotels, and public transportation. In other words, a gay person cannot be fired, denied housing or credit, or evicted from a hotel because he or she is gay. Such laws give gay men and lesbians legal backing if they are discriminated against, and they also indicate a general acceptance of the gay community.

In a number of communities, anti-discrimination laws are extremely controversial. Opponents, primarily political and religious conservatives, feel that such an ordinance sends a message of approval of the gay and lesbian lifestyle. In many cases, the passage of anti-discrimination laws is soon followed by a voter referendum (when an issue is put on the ballot to be decided by registered voters) that overturns the ordinance. Some cities' anti-discrimination ordinances are rendered powerless when a statewide referendum bars "special" rights for the gay community. Although the existing anti-discrimination laws have improved the lives of millions of gay men and lesbians, the ever-changing political climate offers no guarantees that such protections will last.

One of the most fundamental legal rights the gay community has sought is the legalization of gay sexual activity in every state. About half of the states had overturned laws banning such activity by the mid-1970s, but others held firm to the notion that, even between consenting adults, gay sex was immoral and should be illegal. Periodically, a case would come before the U.S. Supreme Court that held the potential to make all such antigay laws in the United States unconstitutional. Time and again, the rulings upheld the state's rights to make these decisions. In 2003, however, with the case Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to make private sexual activity between two adults illegal when the people are of the same sex, and legal when the people are of the opposite sex.

The Lawrence decision was a significant victory. Even in states with laws that made gay sexual activity a crime, few people had been prosecuted for violating these laws in recent years. But the declaration that such laws were unconstitutional signaled an unprecedented acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles. Furthermore, the fact that the court ruled it was unfair to penalize gay couples for certain activity but not straight couples seemed to open the door for future rulings promoting gay civil rights.

One community among many

One of the most significant changes at the end of the twentieth century was a dramatic increase in the visibility of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals in American culture. Despite continued discrimination and harassment, the gay community, due to its major role in politics and American culture, transformed the perception of gay men and women from a group on the margins of society to that of a community integrated with society as a whole.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in major movies and television series became increasingly common throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. A growing number of singers and musicians, particularly women, proclaimed their homosexuality and found that their careers were unaffected when they "came out." Novels published by gay and lesbian authors, many specifically addressing gay subjects, appeared on best-seller lists. In the early twenty-first century, several cable TV shows depicted gays and lesbians not as minor characters but as the central players. Cable networks devoted entirely to gay and lesbian programming arose in the early 2000s.

Increasing numbers of openly gay politicians have been elected to political office. Longtime U.S. Representative Barney Frank came out in 1987 and was re-elected numerous times after that. In some communities, gay high schools and gay youth centers have been established. Although many mainstream religions continue to oppose the gay lifestyle, others have made significant accommodations, embracing gay men and lesbians as part of the religious community and, in some cases, as part of the religious leadership.

Just a few decades ago, many gay people were forced to live invisible lives. Their homosexuality was despised, feared, and judged immoral by many, and they were confined to the fringes of society. By the start of the twenty-first century, the situation had altered dramatically. During the presidential campaign of 1992, Bill Clinton courted the gay community, acknowledging their significance to society and actively seeking their vote. No presidential candidate had done that before. Although many believe that Clinton's record on gay issues fell short of his promises, his embrace of the community showed the growing strength of the national awareness for gay concerns. As quoted in Out for Good, Clinton spoke to a large crowd of gay men and lesbians during the campaign, expressing his appreciation for their contributions: "We cannot afford to waste the capacity, the contributions, the heart, the soul, and the mind of the gay and lesbian Americans." Clinton went on to proclaim, "What I came here today to tell you in simple terms is, I have a vision [for America], and you're part of it."

For More Information


Clendinen, Dudley, and Adam Nagourney. Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

D'Emilio, John. Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kranz, Rachel, and Tim Cusick. Gay Rights. New York: Facts on File, 2000.

Marcus, Eric. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Roleff, Tamara L., ed. Gay Rights. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1997.


The AIDS Memorial Quilt. (accessed on May 28, 2006).

"CDER Report to the Nation: 2003." Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, U.S. Food and Drug Administration:–1.HTM (accessed on May 28, 2006).

glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. (accessed on May 28, 2006).

"History of the GLBT Movement in San Francisco." Shaping San Francisco. (accessed on May 28, 2006).

Moser, Bob. "Holy War" (Spring 2005). Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report. (accessed on May 28, 2006).

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