Sexual Orientation Prejudice

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Sexual Orientation Prejudice

Continuing into the twenty-first century, sexual orientation prejudice was a major social issue. One of the most controversial topics of debate in American politics and culture was the question of marriage between two people of the same sex, commonly referred to as same-sex marriage. Some believed that marriage between homosexuals (persons who participate in sexual intercourse with, or are sexually attracted to, persons of the same gender) is morally wrong and defies longstanding traditions of what constitutes a family within society—namely that marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman for the purposes of stability and raising children.

Others thought that an official acknowledgment of a loving relationship between two adult people—even if they are of the same sex—was a natural human and civil right. They argued that local, state, and federal governments should lawfully recognize the public commitment between all couples, no matter their sexual preference. To do otherwise, it was argued, was a form of homophobia (an irrational prejudice toward homosexuality) and discrimination. The question of gay marriage divided America, and debates over the issue were often intensely heated. The issue was a major factor in the 2004 presidential election, perhaps tipping the vote to Republican George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) as politically and socially conservative groups rallied against the prospect of various states legalizing same-sex marriages at the time.

This chapter explores sexual orientation prejudice by examining not only the contentious debate over same-sex marriage in particular, but the struggle for acceptance and equal protection under the law in general that homosexuals have endured for decades. Discrimination against gays, also referred to as homosexuals, in the workplace, in the law, and in the culture at large has motivated advocacy groups and individuals alike. They took action and attempted to help carve out a place within society for those who feel marginalized and shunned because of their sexuality. The difficult issues facing supporters and opponents of gay rights are examined, as well as the impact the gay rights movement and lifestyle has had on American popular culture.

Beginnings of the fight for gay rights

Throughout history, written law has banned homosexual relationships. Many nations declared sexual intercourse between persons of the same gender illegal and, in many cases, punishable by death. The common term for the act of homosexual intercourse between two males is sodomy, derived from the biblical city of Sodom. According to most interpretations of the Bible, God destroyed Sodom for a multitude of sins, many of which were sexual in nature. Many who object to homosexual activity point to biblical passages and the teachings of many different religions to confirm and support their arguments that homosexuality is a sin against God.


A person who participates in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
A term relating to homosexuals.
hate crimes:
Violent crimes motivated by prejudice and bigotry.
A person who participates in sexual intercourse with, or is sexually attracted to, a person of the opposite gender.
Irrational fear of homosexuality or homosexual individuals.
A person who participates in sexual intercourse with, or is sexually attracted to, an individual of the same gender.
A female homosexual person.
A term to commonly describe homosexual intercourse but also refers to rape of women as well.
A person who appears as a member of the opposite gender.

While British social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is widely credited with writing the first defense of reforming such sodomy laws in Western society, his groundbreaking essay was not published until over a century after his death because publishers felt the public would find it morally offensive. In 1791, France became the first nation to overturn laws prohibiting homosexuality in the wake of the French Revolution (1789–1799), which emphasized individual freedoms including sexual orientation. Yet homosexuality was largely seen as socially unacceptable in Europe and most of the world well into the twentieth century.

German writer and activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895) is generally viewed as the leading pioneer of the gay rights movement. In 1862 Ulrichs publicly declared himself a homosexual and published books about same-sex romantic relationships. His writings inspired social reformers across Europe to follow Ulrichs's example. Author and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was considered perhaps the most influential member of a secret society of homosexuals in Great Britain called The Order of Chaeronea, which campaigned for the legalization of homosexuality.

In 1898, German doctor and scholar Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) formed a group called the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. The organization's purpose was to oppose and protest the German law known as Paragraph 15, which outlawed sexual intercourse between men. In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexology in Berlin, Germany. It conducted research championing sexual reform, education, and women's rights. However, in 1933 Nazi Germans burned his books claiming they were inappropriate for the German society they were seeking to establish.

Gay persecution

Gays and lesbians were a prime target of German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi (National Socialist Germany Workers' Party) regime's goals of purification of the nation's population. The Nazis castrated (removal of testicles to make infertile) hundreds of gay men. Homosexual women were not targeted since they were not considered a threat to reproduce. It is estimated that the Nazis sent between ten and fifteen thousand homosexual men to concentration camps to be tortured and killed. Within the camps themselves, homosexuals were made to wear pink triangles on their clothing. The patches provided Nazi soldiers a target to use in practice firing their guns. Often, homosexuals were beaten by fellow prisoners and forced into hard labor to the point of exhaustion and death.

While the frequency of violence against homosexuals never again reached the proportions of the Nazi concentration camps, violent crimes against gays continued to be a problem into the twenty-first century. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that just over 15 percent of hate crimes committed in the United States were based upon the perceived sexual orientation of victims. Crimes that are deemed inspired by hate often carry additional penalties.

Around the world in the early twenty-first century, many countries still considered homosexuality a crime that was punishable by death. Islamic fundamentalists largely led these countries, which included Iran, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan. The Taliban regime that controlled Afghanistan through the 1990s was notorious for murdering homosexuals until it were overthrown in late 2001 by U.S. forces in the war against world terrorism. The Taliban were accused of harboring terrorist organizations responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Attacks targeting homosexuals

Attacks against homosexuals came against the famous and the unknown. In a 1979 spree allegedly inspired by an anti-gay minister, five teenage boys attacked celebrated playwright Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) in Key West, Florida. He escaped with minor injuries. The torturous murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard (1976–1998) in 1998 rallied thousands in protest against violence targeting homosexuals and sexual orientation prejudice in general.

In 2000, a man named Ronald Gay entered a tavern frequented by homosexuals and began shooting a loaded gun. He killed one man and injured six others. Gay said that he had become agitated over what his surname had come to represent and that he had been told by God to kill gays and lesbians. Gay bars were frequent targets of anti-gay violence.

Some attacks against homosexuals did not come in the form of violence, but through the spoken or written word referred to as hate speech (a verbal or written attack against a person or group because of their sexual orientation intended to cause anger). The use of slurs against gays was a common form of hate speech. On many occasions, spokesmen for religious or political causes explicitly or indirectly placed blame on homosexuals for certain catastrophic events. For instance, Reverend Jerry Falwell (1933–) pointed a finger at homosexuals as well as politically liberal groups who he saw as working to secularize (remove religious symbols from public life) the United States. He charged they were helping create a climate that allowed the terrorist attack against the United States on September 11, 2001, to occur. In this vein, a popular anti-gay sign that often appeared in an attempt to counter gay pride parades and other gatherings read "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Gay rights movement

Many homosexual advocacy groups organized in the Western world after World War II (1939–45), since homosexuals were specifically targeted as victims throughout the war. These groups used the term homophile as opposed to homosexual because it emphasizes love over sex in relationships, and provided a strategy of working for reform within political institutions rather than protesting from the outside. In the United States, a gay rights march was held outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1965. Many historians and observers regard the event as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Use of the term gay to describe homosexuals became common in the 1960s when groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance were formed. Use of the term gay was meant to verbally counter heterosexual norms referred to as straitlaced and the elimination of any labels that discriminated between heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles. From the 1970s onward, gay rights movements began mimicking the language of the American civil rights movement. They portrayed homosexuals as a minority group in search of equal rights and equal protection in the law, employment, and society in general.

The Lavender Menace

Groups that wish to create social change often resort to grassroots efforts (locally organized groups) and protest marches or rallies to get their point across. Within the gay community, one of the most effective means of change came about during the 1970s because of a group calling themselves the Lavender Menace.

In 1970, a loosely organized group of lesbians in the New York City area were extremely frustrated with the leadership of the women's rights movement. The president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), Betty Friedan (1921–2006), publicly declared that the movement would be hampered if organizations like NOW were seen as allied with lesbians. Friedan and others worried that such an association would make it easier for opponents to dismiss their efforts. In 1969, Friedan likened the threat she believed lesbians posed as a "lavender menace." Rita Mae Brown (1944–), a lesbian writer who worked for NOW, angrily resigned her position after Friedan's remarks and suggested action.

When Brown and her colleagues noted that the opening session of the Second Congress to Unite Women, scheduled for May 1, 1970, did not include any openly gay lesbians on the program, they decided to insert themselves into the proceedings. A member of the Lavender Menace switched out the lights in the auditorium and cut the sound off of the microphone on the main stage. When the lights came back on, it was discovered that members of Lavender Menace had filled the aisles. The members distributed copies of the Menace manifesto, titled "The Woman-Identified Woman." Members of the group spoke about lesbian issues and were invited to conduct workshops during the next day's activities of the Second Congress.

The group's manifesto attempted to answer the question "What is a lesbian?" The paper explained that a male-dominated culture had succeeded in dividing heterosexuals and homosexuals and that lesbians sought to unite women in a common cause that was not based on how men defined them.

Following the stunt and resulting participation in the Second Congress, lesbians began to enjoy more influence within the women's rights movement. Those involved in Lavender Menace decided to form a more formal organization and named it "Radicalesbians." At its 1971 national conference of NOW, the group that a year earlier had attempted to keep lesbians away from the women's movement, adopted a resolution recognizing lesbianism and the importance of lesbians within the feminist movement. There is little doubt that such a resolution would not have been considered were it not for Lavender Menace.

Despite its rapid achievement, the group was short-lived. The Radicalesbians began to disdain participation by anyone who was not a lesbian, including heterosexual women who were sympathetic to their cause. Many influential members dropped off the membership rolls, and Radicalesbians disbanded in late 1971. However, the influence that Lavender Menace had on the feminist movement as a whole remains a watershed moment for lesbian activism.

As AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome; a condition of immune deficiency associated with infection of the immune system cells) became more prevalent in the 1980s, the gay rights movement shifted its focus to unite all variants of homosexuality. Many groups that in the past would have described themselves as gay rights advocates began using words such as lesbian (a female homosexual), bisexual (a person who participates in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships), and transgender (a person who appears as a member of the gender opposite from what he or she is biologically) in their descriptions. Gay rights groups became well organized. Some groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign, operated in Washington, D.C. They effectively made their voices heard in the halls of Congress. Many advocacy groups sponsored large gay pride parades and rallies throughout the United States and around the world. At these events, the symbol for gay pride, an upside-down triangle featuring the colors of the rainbow, was prominently displayed, as were rainbow flags. The colors of the rainbow represented the diversity of the gay community. These groups also worked within the legal world to secure equal rights and protection for homosexuals.

The legal fight against sexual orientation discrimination

Various rulings issued by the U.S. Supreme Court since the 1950s affected homosexual citizens and the gay rights movement. In 1956, the Court ruled that homosexual publications were not, as a rule, obscene, and were protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Yet four years later, the Court ruled that legislation barring homosexual immigrants was constitutional. Congress later repealed the law in 1990 due to its difficulty in enforcement and continued questionable legality. In 1976, the Court upheld a Virginia state law outlawing sodomy (a term to describe homosexual intercourse). These sex laws proved to be nearly impossible to uphold or enforce unless they were violated in public places.

Court rulings on sexual orientation discrimination issues continued into the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. In 1983 the Court refused to hear the appeal of a court decision in which an Oklahoma appeals court ruled unconstitutional a state law giving public school boards authority to dismiss homosexual teachers. The Court's action in essence upheld the Oklahoma court's ruling. Later the Court ruled that sexual harassment laws applied to harassment of same-sex couples. In 2001, the Court stated that the Boy Scouts of America are not required to follow state anti-discrimination laws regarding sexual orientation. They were free to exclude gays from membership.

The right to a homosexual lifestyle

The cases before the Supreme Court that gathered the most publicity and legal attention, however, centered around the issue of privacy. Many questioned whether the U.S. Constitution protected the right of individuals to engage in homosexual activity.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the case Bowers v. Hardwick. A police officer in Georgia entered the residence of Michael Hardwick to serve a court summons and found Hardwick engaged in sexual activity with another man. The officer had been allowed to enter the apartment by a guest of Hardwick's and noticed the sexual activity through a partially opened door. The police arrested Hardwick for violating the state of Georgia's sodomy laws; however, charges were never pressed against Hardwick. Nonetheless, Hardwick sued the state's attorney general over the arrest. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court stated in a five to four ruling that the Constitution did not protect homosexual activity. Individual states were free to pass laws forbidding such activity. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (1907–1995) wrote in a concurring opinion that to hold that the Constitution protected homosexual activity was to ignore centuries of moral teachings.

Opponents of sodomy laws and those who saw private activity by homosexuals as falling under the due process clause (legal protections through established formal procedures) of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution adamantly objected to the ruling. Associate Justice Harry Blackmun (1908–1999) criticized the majority opinion of the Court for focusing only on the issue of homosexual activity and not considering the right to privacy by itself. Blackmun wrote in his dissenting opinion that sexual intimacy was central to human relationships, family life, community welfare, development of human personality, and to the human experience in general.

The Lawrence decision

The legal standards changed when the sodomy laws that were upheld by the Court in Bowers were later struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1998. Five years later the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all remaining state sodomy laws as they applied to homosexual activity in the case of Lawrence v. Texas. It was yet to be determined if remaining state laws banning heterosexual sodomy would also be affected by the Lawrence decision.

In Lawrence, the Court voted six to three to rule unconstitutional a Texas state law criminalizing homosexual sodomy. The decision overturned the Bowers ruling. Consensual (both persons involved giving approval) sexual contact and activity was now a part of the liberty protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In writing the majority opinion in Lawrence, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy (1936–) stated that the Bowers ruling was clearly not correct at the time when it was decided. Therefore, it should not remain a precedent (establishing a rule to be followed in making future decisions) for future court decisions. Gay rights advocates celebrated the decision for not only overturning Bowers, but for the hope it gave in paving the way for further legal advancements concerning issues such as same-sex marriage and the legal equating of heterosexual and homosexual intercourse.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–) dissented (officially disagreed) from the majority opinion for a variety of reasons. For one, he wondered whether lower court decisions that had been based on Bowers could now be called into doubt. Justice Scalia wrote that it was his view that the Supreme Court had become a part of the gay rights movement. This went against the Court's role as a neutral mediator of disputes in the law, regardless of one's personal feelings on issues of homosexuality and morality.

The Court's rulings and opinions in these two cases shed much light on the conflict within the nation regarding gay rights and the law. Should the U.S. Congress pass legislation defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, the law will most likely be tested in the federal courts and perhaps reach the Supreme Court. Gay rights activists would no doubt point to Lawrence to support same-sex marriage despite clear language within the decision that the case did not address the formal recognition of homosexual relationships.

Same-sex marriage

Both sides of the same-sex marriage debate fiercely argued their points at every available occasion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These arguments were offered in the nation's courts, presidential debate lecterns, cable news programs, and newspapers and magazines.

The arguments

Because marriage is officially recognized and regulated by state governments and can be performed in courthouses rather than churches, much of the debate was about the definition of marriage as defined by government. However, many religious organizations and individuals argued that the government cannot automatically bestow rights upon non-traditional forms of marriage. They feared that moral and religious decay would rapidly intensify should same-sex marriage be permitted.

Proponents of same-sex marriage wished not only to publicly declare a commitment to a life-partner as heterosexuals do, they also wished to receive the many legal benefits enjoyed by married couples. In most states, married couples were granted the ability to acquire healthcare coverage from private companies, to bring a foreign citizen into the United States, and to benefit from a partner's last will and testament. Same-sex marriage proponents argued that laws prohibiting marriage between homosexuals were discriminatory because homosexual couples could not enjoy the same marriage benefits as heterosexual couples. Therefore, they argued, that laws not recognizing same-sex marriages were unconstitutional.

The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) in 1996, denied same-sex couples federal benefits. Some of these benefits include: Social Security pensions; survivor benefits for federal employees; relocation assistance for federal civil service employees; Medicaid (government health care benefits for the poor and disabled) coverage; next-of-kin status for emergency medical situations; domestic violence protection orders; inheritance of property; and, joint adoption and foster care benefits. Various states that banned same-sex marriage also denied same-sex couples certain benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples, such as survivor benefits in case of the death of one partner or freedom from medical privacy laws in which one partner has limited access to medical information of the other at time of sickness or injury.

Many opponents of same-sex marriage based their arguments on religious grounds. As previously mentioned, the book of Genesis described the excesses, or overindulgence, in the city of Sodom as well as the city of Gomorrah. Many religious leaders and conservatives point to passages in the book of Leviticus that prescribe punishment for homosexual activity. Critics of these arguments charged that the passages were taken out of context to promote a particular agenda. Nonetheless, many same-sex marriage opponents viewed the Bible as a higher law to be obeyed at the peril of culture and civilization.

Indeed, many religious figures stated that should marriage be redefined as something other than a union between one man and one woman, the rate of homosexuality would increase and the traditional nuclear family would be threatened with extinction. Some pointed to declining heterosexual marriage rates in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, which allowed homosexual marriage, as proof that the traditional family would erode should the United States allow same-sex marriage. These arguments stated that traditional marriage between a man and woman has been the basis of civilized culture all over the world for thousands of years.

A fact that often gets lost in the upheaval is that religious organizations are by no means uniform when it comes to opposition to the question of same-sex marriage. While many organized religions explicitly prohibit homosexual acts and, of course, marriage between those of the same gender, others perform same-sex weddings. Some churches regard any legal prohibitions against same-sex weddings as an infringement on the freedom of religious expression.

Another cornerstone of the argument against same-sex marriage is that the main purpose of marriage is to procreate (to produce offspring). Obviously, a same-sex marriage makes this impossible. Because one of the outcomes of marriage is, in theory, to perpetuate the species, marriage between a man and a woman is seen as a legal support of this biological goal of marriage. The benefits the law and the states bestow upon married couples encourage stability and the population growth.

Many same-sex advocates pointed out that states do not prohibit heterosexual marriages in which one or both persons in the marriage may be unable to reproduce. Nor do states outlaw marriages when a woman is past childbearing age. In addition, same-sex couples often use modern technology and surrogate mothers (women serving in the place of others to give birth through artificial means of establishing the pregnancy) to bear children on their behalf. Also, some referred to laws that give tax credits for children regardless of marital status, such as single-parent families.

Same-sex marriage supporters also argue that allowing gay couples the option would encourage social stability and the raising of families. Perhaps more options would open up for children who are available for adoption. However, many health and child welfare organizations disagreed with that assessment based on bureaucratic reasons and their concerns that effects upon children raised in a home with parents of the same sex are largely unknown. However, studies have shown that children raised in families of same-sex couples fare no worse than those in traditional families.

Some lawmakers argued that permitting same-sex marriage in the United States would start a slippery slope of nontraditional marriage, such as marriage between family members, known as incest, or polygamous (having more than one spouse at a time) marriages. Advocates of same-sex marriage argued that such consequences have not come to pass in countries that allowed gay marriage, such as the Netherlands.

In the United States, over 1,100 laws take the marital status of individuals into account, such as inheritance laws and next of kin notification in case of death or serious injury. Supporters of same-sex marriage claimed that the denial of marriage by the government is a direct violation of due process, as provided in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These arguments about same-sex marriage were on prominent display in the nation's courtrooms in the early twenty-first century.

Constitutional questions

Issues of great controversy in U.S. history have often been subject to the ultimate constitutional test—amending the text of the Constitution itself. The same-sex marriage issue was no different. Because some individual states have passed legislation permitting same-sex marriage, many politicians and interest groups opposed to gay marriage worked to introduce a constitutional amendment banning homosexuals from legally recognized marriage. Each of the individual states governed civil marriage according to the individual state's laws and regulations. A constitutional amendment would, in effect, federalize marriage laws. By 2006 Massachusetts was the only state permitting same-sex marriage.

In 2003, Republican U.S. representative Marilyn Musgrave (1949–) of Colorado introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) bill that would ban same-sex marriages. U.S. senator Wayne Allard (1943–), another Republican from Colorado, sponsored the legislation in the U.S. Senate. While neither the House nor the Senate had approved FMA by the constitutionally required two-thirds majority vote, Allard reintroduced FMA in the Senate in 2005. In June 2006 the proposed amendment failed to pass on a Senate vote.

The language of the FMA bill explicitly defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. It prohibited the individual states from allowing same-sex marriages. In states that had already passed legislation or state constitutional amendments permitting same-sex marriages, the laws would be null and void and the marriages performed under those laws automatically dissolved.

The 2004 presidential election and the FMA

Because the votes in the House and Senate on the first FMA proposal came in 2004, the issue became an important part of that year's presidential campaign between the incumbent, Republican George W. Bush, and his Democratic rival, U.S. senator John Kerry (1943–) of Massachusetts. In the Senate that year, the FMA bill was subjected to a filibuster (a parliamentary procedure used to delay legislative business by talking at the podium about any chosen subject). When the Senate voted to end debate and proceed with a vote, senators defeated the motion. No actual vote on FMA occurred. Senator Kerry and his vice presidential running mate, U.S. senator John Edwards (1953–) of North Carolina, however, stayed on the campaign trail rather than travel to Washington, D.C., to cast votes against FMA and create an opportunity for President Bush to appeal even more to conservative voters.

Perhaps the most famous incident during the 2004 presidential campaign regarding the issue of same-sex marriage occurred during a debate between Kerry and Bush. Senator Kerry mentioned that Mary Cheney (1969–), a daughter of U.S. vice president Richard Cheney (1941–), was a homosexual and insisted that it was a natural part of her personality rather than a conscious decision. Kerry's comment earned him a strong rebuke from the Cheney family.

Kerry opposed the particulars of the FMA. However, he also personally opposed same-sex marriage in general, favoring civil unions (legal partnerships) instead. President Bush supported the FMA but stated that he did not object to civil unions should the FMA be defeated. While some, including most vociferously the many evangelical (teaching a close personal relationship with God through rigorous faith in written passages of the Bible) Christian organizations that are politically active, attributed President Bush's reelection in 2004 to his stances on issues such as the FMA, the Republican Party was divided on the question of civil unions. However, less than 20 percent of Republicans supported same-sex marriage. Two states that President Bush did not win in 2004, Michigan and Oregon, passed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Civil unions are legal partnerships between two people and confer many of the legal benefits of marriage. States and jurisdictions vary on those rights, however, and supporters of same-sex marriage argued that civil unions created a situation that was unequal from marriage. Opponents of civil unions said that they were merely the introduction of same-sex marriage, only by a different name. In the early twenty-first century, civil unions were legal within the United States in Vermont, California, and Connecticut. More Americans supported civil unions, more so than same-sex marriages. Legal scholars were divided on the question, but many believed that FMA would also prohibit civil unions.

Sexual orientation and the culture

During the late twentieth century, many organizations that promoted and worked to ensure the participation of homosexuals in all facets of life including employment, government, education, and entertainment gained prominence. Groups such as Human Rights Campaign and Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation maintained a significant presence in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals. Human Rights Campaign, for example, had over 600,000 members. Such groups had formal legislative strategies, regular staff, and financial donors that made them a considerable force in politics.

Advocacy groups attempted to garner equal rights for homosexuals, lesbians, and individuals who identify themselves as transgender. In addition to lobbying, or petitioning, elected officials, such groups produced and distributed public service announcements, created educational programs, and backed political candidates who supported the cause of equality for homosexuals. Many groups provided legal counseling, legal aid, and assistance to those who felt they had been the victims of hiring discrimination, passed over for job promotion, or fired because of their sexual orientation.

Gay rights and support groups also made strides in demystifying AIDS. When the epidemic first came to prominence in the collective conscience in the mid-1980s, it was viewed as a gay disease. Many of those afflicted were indeed homosexuals. However, public awareness and education, much of it funded and created by advocacy groups and grassroots organizations, created a change in perception. When prominent heterosexual athletes like Earvin "Magic" Johnson (1959–) and Arthur Ashe (1943–1993), and children like Ryan White (1971–1990) of Kokomo, Indiana, contracted the disease, most realized that it could strike anyone.

One area of progress advocacy groups had made was in altering the language of nondiscriminatory policies in workplaces and places of higher education. In addition to the inclusion of homosexuals as those protected in nondiscriminatory policy wording, many institutions were adding other categories as well. For instance, in 2006, Harvard University announced that it would add gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy. Corporations also followed suit. In 1997, only one company listed in the Fortune 500 (a ranking of the top five hundred companies based on their income published by Fortune magazine) officially protected transgender employees. Eighty-two of the five hundred companies listed protected such employees on the job in 2006.

Another area of progress to which advocacy groups pointed was health benefits awarded to employees and their domestic partners. In 1990, fewer than two dozen employers in the United States offered some sort of benefits that were equal to spouse benefits. The number has steadily climbed since then. The number of employers offering domestic partner benefits increased by 2006. According to a 2006 report by the Human Rights Campaign, as of March 1, 2006, 49 percent of Fortune 500 largest companies offered domestic partner benefits.

Corporations sometimes found themselves in the middle of controversy regarding marketing campaigns. In 2005, the Ford Motor Company pulled advertising from several gay magazines, most notably The Advocate, a leading national newsmagazine in the United States for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Ford claimed that the move was a result of a general loss of revenue and the difficulties facing the auto industry. Several gay advocate organizations met with Ford, which reversed course and promised to continue supporting several events within the gay community. Several anti-gay organizations expressed their displeasure with Ford for continuing to advertise in magazines that they said promoted a homosexual agenda.

The entertainment world

The latter half of the twentieth century saw a gradual increase in the inclusion of openly gay characters, especially in television. Comedienne and actress Ellen DeGeneres (1958–) sparked controversy in 1997 by announcing that she was a lesbian. DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time magazine over the headline "Yep, I'm Gay." As a result, she became the first gay performer to play a gay character on a hit television show. However, a media storm was ignited. Religious and conservative groups protested, and ABC soon cancelled her Ellen program. This action led to accusations of homophobia by gay advocacy leaders.

Despite the protests and objections of many viewers, gay characters became much more commonplace as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first. In 1998, NBC debuted a comedy titled Will & Grace, that featured a gay male character as the lead and one as the supporting actor. Other weekly series, such as Spin City and Mad About You, featured prominent gay characters. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy featured a group of homosexual men improving the fashion sensibilities of heterosexual men. It debuted in 2003 to high ratings and critical acclaim and inspired several spin-off series in other countries. Movies, such as Brokeback Mountain, released in 2005 and winner of the Academy Award for best movie of the year, heightened awareness of the difficult conflicts faced by homosexuals. The movie Transamerica, also released in 2005, featured a lead character struggling with gender identity. It was nominated for numerous awards.

For as much success as the gay community had in making their presence felt in the entertainment industry, stereotypes and gay-bashing were still prominent. Many criticized rap artists for violent lyrics directed against homosexuals. One popular rapper in particular, Eminem, also known as Marshall Mathers (1972–), was criticized by the gay community for what were seen as a significant amount of homophobic lyrics in many of his albums. Some of his lyrics were so controversial and offensive to listeners that the mother of Matthew Shepard (1976–1998), the murdered gay Wyoming college student, recorded a public service announcement speaking out against homophobia.

Sexual orientation prejudice persists

While much progress was made in countering the sexual orientation prejudice against homosexuals and the stigma attached to same-sex affection, gay rights advocates argued that much more could be done to equalize society than has occurred. The same-sex marriage debate was a major front in the battle for equality. The June 2006 vote in the U.S. Senate may further define the arguments. Nevertheless, the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century saw a drastic increase in the rights of homosexuals and an appreciation for their talents and contributions to society.

For More Information


Brown, Mildred, and Chloe Ann Rounsley. True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism: For Families, Friends, Coworkers and Helping Professionals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Cheney, Mary. Now It's My Turn. New York: Threshold, 2006.

Gagnon, Robert A., and Dan O. Via. Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Gerstmann, Evan. Same-Sex Marriage and the Constitution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hirsch, H. N. The Future of Gay Rights in America. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Richards, David A. J. The Case for Gay Rights. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2005.

Sullivan, Andrew. Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con. New York: Vintage, 2004.

Wolfson, Evan. Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People's Right to Marry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.


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"Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Rights." Human Rights Watch. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

"Marriage/Relationship Recognition." Human Rights Campaign. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

"Youth and Schools Programs." Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. (accessed on November 29, 2006).