One of the most visible social movements today is the gay rights movement. Topics on civil equality, gay marriage, and social acceptance dominate many political debates, as well as conversations between private citizens. The intensity of discrimination against gays has ebbed and flowed over the past several millennia.
History of Homosexuality Around the World
Gay rights news is a very visible topic today, but homosexuality isn’t a new concept. Over the course of thousands of years, different societies have had different attitudes toward homosexuality and gay people. For example, some indigenous peoples who lived in North America prior to European colonization adopted the idea of “two-spirits,” wherein certain members of society were believed to have the spirits of a man and a woman inside them.
According to an article by The Huffington Post, these individuals were seen as doubly blessed and were spiritually gifted. Many people of two-spirits would become holy figures or shaman within their communities. These people often entered roles of religious leadership or were teachers.
In early European cultures, the topic of homosexuality was sometimes seen as an accepted feature of the community but was seen as harmful in other eras. The early Greek philosopher Plato was an early advocate for homosexual relationships, but writings in his later years showed that he had rescinded support for gay relationships.
Interestingly, nearly all of the emperors of early Rome took male lovers. Unfortunately, an emperor named Theodosius, who was a Christian emperor who ruled in the 300s, condemned certain gay males who were then executed. A few hundred years later, another emperor took the law further and decided to condemn all gay males.
Early Examples of Discrimination Against Gays
Gay rights in the last century grew significantly in its visibility and reached a turning point at the millennium with the momentum for gay marriage. However, gay discrimination is not a new topic to society and has been seen in various forms for thousands of years. After the initial restrictions on gay relationships in ancient Rome, later emperors who identified as Christians would place greater emphasis on punishing gay people.
One of the most infamous historical examples of gay discrimination occurred under Adolf Hitler’s regime before and during the start of World War II. According to an essay from the American Psychological Association, psychologists and doctors of the early 1900s had suggested that homosexual and bisexual orientation were found naturally in humans.
However, the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler reversed the long-held tolerance of gay people by putting gays to death and in concentration camps as they did the Jews. A library built by scientist Magnus Hirschfield, which held research on psychology and homosexuality was destroyed by the Nazis in the early 1930s.
Recent Events in the Gay Rights Movement Timeline
Major civil rights movements often experience game-changing events that represent a turning point for the group. For example, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that granted women the right to vote was the most significant event for women’s suffrage.
Likewise, for the African American civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation that forbade discrimination on the basis of race, as well as several other descriptors.
Within the gay rights movement, May 18, 2004 would likely represent one of the most important events for gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual Americans as it was the day that Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. After that landmark event, other states would also allow gay marriage including New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont.
Gay Rights Trailblazers in the 20th Century
The topic of gay rights isn’t one that is new or was introduced recently. According to a timeline of the gay civil rights movement published by PBS, 1950 would see the first official gay rights organization founded. Gay rights activist Henry Hay founded the group in Los Angeles as a way to end discrimination and prejudice of gay people.
The first lesbian rights group would be formed in 1955 in San Francisco. The group was called the Daughters of Bilitis, and they hosted a variety of official functions meant to offer lesbians a safe place to socialize. Unfortunately, lesbian bars and clubs were often visited by the police and women didn’t always feel safe.
Of the gay rights movement 1960s era, the Stonewall Inn raids and riots of 1969 are credited with fueling and inspiring the gay rights movement for decades after the incident occurred. The Stonewall Inn was a well-known gay bar in Greenwich Village, and police raided it in the middle of the night. Angered by the actions of police, angry gay youths rioted and thousands of protesters fought with police.
Significant Battles in the Gay Rights Movement
Social acceptance has been important to the gay rights movement, but the history of gay rights movement also features battles on subjects like AIDS and serving in the military. Gay and lesbian groups of the 1950s and 1960s were often focused on social acceptance and safety, but those groups would end up confronting the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.
Anti-gay groups were very vocal in the 1980s when AIDS started becoming a problem for the gay community, and they used the disease to spread fear during that decade. It would take several years of activism within the gay rights movement before the general public would accept that AIDS was a disease that could impact anyone even if they weren’t gay or sexually active.
Another significant battle in the rights movement concerned military servicemen and women who couldn’t serve because of their sexual orientation, and who were made to operate under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the 1990s. As a way to ensure gay people could serve in the military, the government created a policy which stated that no one could be asked about their sexual orientation when joining the military, but gay people couldn’t broadcast their sexual orientation either.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was seen as an unfortunate compromise between full acceptance of gays in the military, and groups who wanted to ban gay citizens from serving in the armed forces. Gay members of the military would need to deal with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell until 2011 when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finally struck down the ban on gays serving in the military as unconstitutional.
Recent Developments in the Gay Rights Movement
One of the biggest debates within the gay and lesbian rights movement today is marriage, and in 2000, Vermont became the first state to recognize civil unions between gay and lesbian couples. Although the decision was a victory for the gay right movement, the fact that Vermont stopped short of actually legalizing marriage seemed to fuel the movement and create even more momentum.
In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court gave its ruling on gay marriage by deciding that denying marriage to gay couples was unconstitutional. Marriages in Massachusetts began in 2004. Although a variety of religious groups voiced significant opposition to the ruling, other states would soon follow Massachusetts’ example.
In 2005, Connecticut would legalize civil unions, and New Jersey would follow with their legalization of civil unions in 2006. Over the next several years, gay couples around the country would bring lawsuits to the courts of many states and would eventually see victories in many states including Maine, Washington, Nevada, and Illinois.
Today, the LGBT rights movement is a nationwide force that includes participants who identify as gay and straight. Like other civil rights movements, the gay rights movement will likely continue into the foreseeable future until LGBT people are guaranteed rights like marriage and job protection under the law.