Remember: We’re Not The First Advocates for Equality

As I wait with bated breath for the Supreme Court to make a decision on the repeal of DOMA and Proposition 8, I’m reminded of all those that came before me. In the past several years, the LGBTQ community has seen some incredible legal, social, and political advances. Just in my lifetime, I’ve seen several states pass laws that recognize same-sex unions, gays and lesbians in the military be allowed to discuss their sexuality openly, and have experienced a huge growth in cultural acceptance of the queer community.

To put this in a different perspective, here are some numbers. A document from the Movement Advancement Project recorded that between 2000 and 2010, the United States experienced a 1300% increase in states outlawing gender discrimination based on gender presentation, a 600% jump in the number of high school Gay-Straight Alliances, and today, majority (57%) support for marriage equality. Though I could take the glass-half-empty perspective here and discuss how much more work has yet to be done, instead I would like to take this time to honor all of the people before me that paved the way for these advances.

As someone who will probably marry a female, I’ve benefited (and will continue to benefit) from the growing climate of acceptance and understanding. But as a student of sexuality and gender, I can’t forget the history. So, here’s a little overview of some recent LGBT activist history, from my brain and Wikipedia.

1950: The Mattachine Society. The start of the homophile movement, the Mattachine Society was a group of gay rights activists based in Los Angeles. Though this seems par for the course today, this type of organization was pretty much forbidden at the time, and the members took oaths of secrecy and met in discrete locations. They aimed to unite “homosexuals,” educate the world about homosexuality, and prevent discrimination.

1955: Daughters of Bilitis. Following the Mattachine’s footsteps, the DOB was the first Lesbian organization in the U.S. The group did research, held public forums and speak outs, and provided support to members of the community. Similarly to the Mattachine Society, DOB started as a small, members-only club, but grew into a popular organization with chapters in four major U.S. cities.

1961: Illinois the first U.S. State to Decriminalize “Sodomy.” Until this point, anyone caught (or merely suspected of) participating in a homosexual act was deemed insane, and either imprisoned or forced into a mental institution.

1966: The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. As one of the only spots for trans* people to gather freely in San Francisco, the Compton’s Cafeteria was regarded as a safe haven. So, it came as a surprise when a bartender called the police one night as a result of “rowdiness.” When a police officer became physically aggressive with a trans woman, she tossed her drink in his face, which led to a riot. The outbreak was followed by a series of picket lines the next day, protesting the restaurant’s prohibition of transgendered individuals.

1969: The Stonewall Riots. Following a violent and humiliating police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a local LGBT hotspot, members of the community came together to protest the police force and their treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. This led to the creation of several gay rights organizations, as well as the first annual Gay Pride marches in several U.S. cities, a tradition that still takes place today on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

1972: PFLAG is Founded. The Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is a prominent support network for the LGBT community that still thrives today.

1973: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Removes Homosexuality from its List of Disorders. After the research of Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker, which proved that homosexuality was much more common than people thought and critiqued the inherently biased studies of homosexuals in mental institutions, the American Psychiatric Association conceded that people probably shouldn’t be locked up on the basis of their sexual preferences.

1978: Gay Rights Activist and City-County Supervisor Harvey Milk is Assassinated. Milk was the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in the United States. He passed a series of laws to protect the rights of the LGBT community in San Francisco before he was killed by an angry coworker. After his death, Milk became an icon for the community.

1983: Gerry Studds Comes Out on the Floor of Congress. After this announcement, Studds, a Massachusetts representative, became the first openly gay man to service in Congress. He was then reelected the following year. Go Massachusetts!

1987: ACT-UP. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was founded in 1987 in response to the growing health crisis and the government’s (in)activity. The organization used innovative methods to gain community support, utilizing the work of writers, artists, and community organizers in support of the cause.

1993: Clinton Passes DADT. In hopes of creating a safer community for LGBT people in the military, President Clinton passed a law asking for silence around sexual orientation. While this prevented some discrimination, it also created a veil of uncomfortable silence and fear.

1993: Brandon Teena was Murdered. Teena, a young transman from Nebraska, was raped and murdered by a group of men. This garnered a good deal of attention- even more after his story was adapted for the Academy Award-winning movie, Boys Don’t Cry. It’s important to recognize that though this story got some media attention, this is just one of thousands of hate crimes committed against LGBT-identified people.

1996: Defense of Marriage Act Passed. President Clinton, with the help of Congress, passed this law that allowed only opposite-sex marriages to be recognized nation-wide. As a result of this, same-sex partners were not given the same national rights as “spouses” (think taxes, legal parenthood, medical proxying). This act is now on the table to be repealed.

1998: Matthew Shepherd is Murdered. Shepherd, a 22 year old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and murdered on the side of the road for being gay. This hate crime received significant media attention, which fueled Westboro Baptist Church’s protest of Shepherd’s funeral. However, as there were no laws in Wyoming that recognized this type of discrimination, the perpetrators were not charged with committing a hate crime. After years of lobbying for proper legislation, Congress finally passed the Matthew Shepherd Act in 2007, which recognized violent acts as a result of sexual orientation or gender presentation as hate crimes. President Bush then vetoed this act in 2008. President Obama followed this by signing the act into our legislation in 2009.

2004: Massachusetts Becomes First U.S. State to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage. Though these marriages would not be (and still are not) recognized across state-lines, couples in Massachusetts were able to marry freely. When the bill was signed in, hundreds of couples lined up at the State House to have their marriages recognized.

2008: California Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage. For 6 months. From May-November of 2008, same-sex marriages were recognized by the state, but with the enactment of Proposition 8, all of these marriages were annulled.

2011: Repeal of DADT. Clinton’s attempt at a non-discriminatory law was finally repealed, allowing gay and lesbian members of the military to be open about their sexual identities.

2012: Our Country was Represented by Six Gay State Legislators. This is pretty cool.

In these next few days, as we wait for the Supreme Court to rule on DOMA and Proposition 8, I urge you all to take the time to not only remember those who fought the many fights leading up to this one, but to thank them.

About Michaela


Michaela is a recent Seven Sisters graduate with a self-designed degree in Sexuality Studies. When she's not blogging, you'll find her teaching Health and Wellness and A Cappella to high school students, helping women find properly fitting bras, and working as an editor on a documentary. She hopes to continue her education one day with a PhD in Feminist Anthropology.