A Civil Rights History: Gays and Lesbians

by Andrea Faville

1777: Thomas Jefferson is considered progressive in his treatment of homosexuals. He proposes changing Virginia state law to reduce the penalty for sodomy from death to castration.

1950: Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red-hunt” for Communists is picking up steam, and Undersecretary of State John Puerifoy warns Congress of a “pervert peril” — prompting a witch hunt for gay government employees. In 1953, President Eisenhower issues Executive Order 10450, banning government employment of gays with the justification that gays and lesbians are leaking U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union.

1981: A new disease appears. Many gay men fall ill. The disease is called GRID — gay-related immune disorder. It is eventually re-named AIDS, as it becomes clear that the disease infects everybody regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race.

Throughout American history, gays have routinely been marginalized and accused of promoting deviant and perverted behavior, corrupting society and spreading disease. As late as 1973, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness along with schizophrenia and psychosis.

Government and law enforcement frequently quashed the gay and lesbian community’s attempts to mobilize and coordinate civil rights activism. In 1925, America’s first gay rights organization closed its doors after only one year of operation because of police and media harassment. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, it was illegal to distribute homosexual publications through the mail; the U.S. Postal Service classified them as “obscenity.”

Excluded by their peers, denied their rights of free speech and freedom of assembly and barred from using federal institutions to foster community, gays and lesbians developed underground communities in urban areas like New York and San Francisco. By the mid-sixties, these cities were unofficially segregated, with certain restaurants, bars and neighborhoods patronized almost exclusively by gays and lesbians.

In 1969, New York City police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. It was common practice at that time for police to harass and sometimes beat the patrons of gay and lesbian bars. This time, the patrons resisted. Word of the resistance spread and more gay and lesbian protesters arrived to join the fray over the following nights. In what would come to be called the “Stonewall Rebellion,” gays and lesbians broadcast the message that they would no longer passively accept mistreatment at the hands of the law.

Gay and lesbian political activism escalated throughout the 1970s and 80s. Their targeted, non-violent tactics won them several political victories. One by one, states began to repeal sodomy laws. Hundreds of thousands marched on Washington, D.C., demanding civil rights protections. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Hate Crimes Statistics Bill, which protected gays and lesbians, as well as other persecuted minorities, from prejudice-driven violence.

Gays and lesbians were elected to public offices in increasing numbers. In 1983, then-Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., became the first openly gay member of Congress. By 2002, after Studds’ retirement, Congress had three other openly gay members: Democratic Reps. Barney Franks of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin, and Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona. And after the 2002 elections, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund claimed 218 openly gay and lesbian elected officials among the nation’s 511,039 elected federal, state and local office holders.

Today, sexual orientation remains an often-bitter civil rights controversy. Most states disallow same-sex marriages. Partners in same-sex relationships often are not entitled to insurance and pension benefits. And sexual orientation remains, for many, a divisive political and social concern. On Nov. 2, 2003, the U.S. Anglican church consecrated the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop. Many hailed the church’s decision as a milestone in acceptance and tolerance. But others, including Anglican churches abroad, saw it as a fundamental violation of the religion’s basic premises and threatened a break from communion with the American Anglican church.

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