Homosexuality had traditionally been both illegal and socially unacceptable in the United States from the colonial era down to the 20th century, despite the fact that Americans had been involved in gay and lesbian relationships since the earliest days of the country. By the 19th century, a division had started to emerge between the law, which in some parts of the world called for death for the crime of same-sex sodomy, and philosophers, writers and artists who pushed for secular reforms that would do away with laws based on religious ideology. However, little changed until the twentieth century.
While U.S. gay rights groups had begun to form in the 1920s, it was only after World War II that they developed into a political and social force. By the 1950s, such groups led marches for gay rights under the name of the “homophile movement” and aiming to secure a place for gays and lesbians within mainstream American culture. However, the repressive political and social mores of the time limited the effectiveness of their peaceful protests, and Hollywood and Washington worked together to demonize gay Americans. Hollywood movies depicted them as sick and marked for death, while Washington conducted a “lavender purge” of suspected gays in government.
The suppression of the homophile movement helped to create a stronger reaction among gays and lesbians, who developed a more extreme and more confrontational culture, one that actively rejected the mainstream that had rejected them. This radical attitude helped to inspire the patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York rioted and resisted efforts by New York police to raid the bar in an effort to suppress gay activity. This new radicalism, its flames fanned by the Stonewall Riot, culminated in the creation of the Gay Liberation movement at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, modeled on the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements of the era.
The Gay Liberation Movement
The new gay rights movement emphasized gay pride and helped to celebrate gayness as an identity. When the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1973, it helped to solidify the idea that gay identity was no longer synonymous with deviance and vice.
However, the gay rights movement transformed yet again in the wake of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, which disproportionately affected gay men. When the U.S. government did not provide significant assistance to help with what was then known as “gay cancer,” many in the gay community blamed homophobia for the delayed response. The visibility that AIDS conveyed on gay people, and the coalescing that it produced in the gay community, helped to set the stage for the gay rights movement to push for political reform and full legal rights, not just the decriminalization of sodomy.
In the 1990s, as the number of Americans who said they knew a gay person or had a gay family member increased, support began to build for legal recognition of gay relationships. Gradually, states began the long process of decriminalizing sodomy and legalizing gay marriage. This process moved forward in fits and starts, with progress occurring more often through the courts than through the legislative process. A pair of rulings from the Supreme Court, one legalizing sodomy and the other legalizing same sex marriage, helped to establish gay equality before the law. However, while social attitudes have liberalized in the past two decades, the gains were not equal across all levels of society, and many more conservative areas continue to look for legal ways to limit the rights of gay and lesbian Americans.
Overall, the story of the gay rights movement is one of gradual gains marked by periods of resistance. Over time, social attitudes have grown more accepting, and the resistance to gay rights is not as strong as it was just a decade ago. If progress continues along similar lines, in the near future the question of gay equality will seem as antiquated as the question of whether women should vote.
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