Many consider the gay rights movement in America to have begun with the Stonewall riots in 1969. These riots were the beginning of actual activism for gay rights, but previous organizations with nondescript titles were founded to support gay men and women in the fifties. The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were the first steps in the creation of a gay community, and were supported by Illinois repealing its sodomy law in 1961.
The Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village were the first instance that gay activists stood up to the constant police raids of gay bars and clubs. These riots were the ancestors of current gay pride parades held in cities across the world and commemorate the day that gay Americans began to clearly unite to bring about political change.
The seventies saw continued gay rights activism and its results. The first gay pastor was ordained in California and homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s book of official disorders. As seen in the recent movie “Milk,” 1978 was the year that Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the U.S. The next year, over 75,000 people marched for the gay civil rights cause in Washington D.C.
The eighties brought the support of the Democratic Party as it added sexual orientation to its platform’s list of things to be protected from discrimination. The eighties also brought the discovery of AIDS and subsequent organizations and programs to provide relief and fight the spread of AIDS, such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The end of the decade heralded a world first: Denmark became the first country to legalize same-sex civil unions. At its 20 year anniversary, 30 countries have since enacted civil union legislature to give some sort of recognition and rights to same-sex couples.
The whirlwind of gay rights activism in the nineties included Bill Clinton’s bill banning discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation. Unfortunately another Clinton institution was the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military. While this was at first an attempt to allow homosexual individuals a chance to participate in the military, it ended up also being easy grounds for termination in a stereotypically homophobic career path and is generally seen as a backwards step in the gay rights movement.
There is no better way for a minority political movement to gain sympathizers than when it is the victim of terrible violence. The torture and murder of Matthew Shepard and the subsequent protests from anti-gay protestors at his funeral colored homophobia a delicate shade of evil, provoking support for gay rights across a wide span of people. Just a year and a half after his death, Vermont became the first state in the U.S. to legalize civil unions.
Since Vermont put its foot through the door, the rights of same-sex couples have risen and fallen along the rocky upward path towards equality. Civil unions offer many of the same benefits as marriage, but depending on the state doesn’t offer all the benefits and isn’t recognized the same way. In 2004, San Francisco began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, but was swiftly muted by President George Bush who called for a country-wide ban on same-sex marriage. In May 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, but was squashed by the passing of Proposition 8 in November, in which the people of California voted to define marriage as a purely heterosexual institution.
While the political scuffle seemed to be working in Bush’s favor in California, Massachusetts declared that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and legalized marriage for same-sex couples in 2004, becoming the first state in the U.S. to do so. In 2008, Connecticut joined the club and in 2009 Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire all legalized same-sex marriage. Also in 2009, President Obama began allowing benefits to all same-sex partners of federal employees, regardless of state. Benefits at this time do not include full healthcare coverage, but are an important first step in the gay rights movement under Obama’s presidency.
Additional timelines of the Gay Rights Movement