The New Gay Rights Movement

Gay Rights Flag

Many Americans mark the Stonewall riots, the six nights of protest in New York City’s West Village, as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but there’s another gay revolution going on right now in the U.S. that while less violent, is no less significant.

Visible signs are evident in the flurry of states that have legalized same-sex marriage, starting with Massachusetts in 2004. Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Iowa and New Hampshire have followed, and New York and New Jersey are reportedly on the verge. And many people say Prop. 8, the gay marriage ban in California, won’t last.

Homosexuality has also become common place in American pop culture. Ellen DeGeneres revived her TV career after she came out and has even become a “face of Cover Girl” makeup model. Gay singer Adam Lambert came a close second in the American Idol contest recently, in which 100 million viewers voted, this just months after Clay Aiken came out.

“There has never been a better time to be gay in American than now,” said Daniel O’Donnell, one of four openly gay members of the New York state assembly and brother of TV star and lesbian activist Rosie O’Donnell. “There has been a change just in the past couple of years. We’ve never been as close to equality as citizens in my lifetime.”

But for most of our history, gays were forced to stay in the closet, for fear of oppression and even violence.

Before Stonewall

Laws against sodomy, broadly defined as a sexual "crime against nature,” date back to colonial times, but homosexuality wasn’t considered a public issue in American life until 1948, when Alfred Kinsey, an Indiana University scientist published his report on human sexuality, insisting, contrary to psychiatric conjecture up to that point, that homosexual inclinations are in fact not “abnormal or unnatural.” The national best seller is considered the first essential document of gay liberation. The reaction to the momentary visibility was swift and repressive in the 50s, when homosexuals were targeted along with communists as security risks.

Oppression of gays was pervasive in the government and all aspects of American life throughout the 50s and 60s. Attitudes towards homosexuals didn’t change until 1969 when a riot sparked by a few drag queens outside of Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village marked the beginning of modern gay life in America.


“The day before Stonewall, everyone was in the closet. The next day, everyone was out of the closet,” says Dick Leitsch, former president of the Mattachines, an early gay-rights group.

Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 60s but on June 28th, gays and lesbians fought back against the persecution. Tensions between the New York City police and gay party goers erupted into more protests over the next several days. Within weeks, the gay community organized into activist groups to concentrate efforts on establishing places for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of being arrested. Months later, three newspapers were established to promote rights for gays and lesbians.

Finally, two years later, on June 28, 1970, the first Gay Pride marches took place in Los Angeles and New York, commemorating the anniversary of the riots. Similar marches were organized in other cities, and today Gay Pride events are held annually throughout the world toward the end of June.

The Stonewall riots transformed the gay rights movement from one limited to a small number of activists into a widespread protest for equal rights and acceptance. The movement has managed to spur some major change although they have encountered some stumbling blocks along the way.

  • In 1973, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders.
  • In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and fourteen years later in 1996, the Supreme Court struck down Colorado legislation which attempted to deny gays and lesbians protections against discrimination. Still, more than two decades later, the federal government has yet to provide gays protection against discrimination in the workplace.
  • In 1993, then President Bill Clinton’s attempt to revoke the prohibition against gays in the military backfired when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was instituted, thus permitting gays to serve but banning homosexual activity. Consequently, thousands of men and women in the armed forces were discharged.
  • In 2000, Vermont became the first state to legally recognize civil unions between same sex couples. Connecticut and New Jersey soon followed.
  • In 2004, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Iowa and New Hampshire followed suit, and New York and New Jersey are reportedly on the verge.
  • In May 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled than same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. More than 18,000 gay couples were married before voters approved a ban in November.
  • In the same election, Arizona and Florida approved the passage of measures that ban same sex marriage, and Arkansas passed a measure barring gays from adopting children.

Gay rights across the world

Newsweek calls the gay rights movement a “global civil rights revolution,” but the fact remains that being gay in many countries could get you killed or imprisoned.

Same sex acts could get you the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, but Iran in particular is notorious for its persecution of gays.

In 2007, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stunned the world when he said, referring to the U.S., “We don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We do not have this phenomenon.”

Homosexual men usually face the brunt of the anti-gay violence. This is not to say that lesbians don’t exist or are accepted, it’s more an issue of visibility. There are simply substantially more documented cases of violence against gay men.

In Nigeria, men convicted of having same-sex relations have been stoned to death. In Saudi Arabia, gay men have been beheaded in public squares. In 2001, 52 Egyptian men who were suspected of being gay were imprisoned and tortured.

While such brutal laws do not currently exist in the U.S., headlines have reported countless cases of gays falling victim to violence via the hands of citizens. The tragic case of Matthew Shepard has become one of the most famous examples of a hate crime in recent history.

On the night of October 6th and 7th, 1998, 22 year-old Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence, beaten within an inch of his life and left for dead in the near freezing temperatures. Eighteen hours later, he was found by two passing motorcyclists who thought at first that Shepard was a scarecrow because of the way he was positioned on the fence. Shepherd died six days later as a result of his injuries.

The heartbreaking story hit the national circuit when gay rights groups everywhere started calling attention to the Matthew Shepard case as a demonstration of the need to adopt hate crime legislation. Anti-gay groups started fighting this because they believed this meant gays would have some sort of “special rights.”

Today there is still no federal law against hate crimes based on sexual orientation (while similar laws are on the books for gender, race, disability, religion, etc.). One was finally passed in 2007 by both houses of Congress but vetoed by President Bush.

Sadly, while the number of hate crimes tallied by the FBI dropped in 2007 – the most recent year for which data are available – violence against homosexual individuals has reached record numbers.

What now?

A gay exorcism YouTube video has caused controversy in recent weeks. The video shows church members standing over a young man lying on the floor, his body convulsing, as church members cast a “homosexual demon” from his body. The 20-minute video posted by Manifested Glory Ministries is being called abuse by gay and youth advocates.

In response to the accusations, the church released a statement describing the ritual as a casting out of spirits.

“We have nothing against homosexuals. I just don’t agree with their lifestyle,” said the Reverend Patricia McKinney of Manifested Glory Ministries.

While it’s impossible to say how often similar exercises occur in churches nationwide, Kamora Herrington, who runs a mentoring program at True Colors, a gay advocacy group for gay youths, says, “This happens all the time.”

Whatever the case, the video demonstrates that many in the U.S. still see homosexuality as unnatural and immoral. Some church groups, like Exodus International, believe that gays can “become straight” through prayer and counseling.

The nation is looking to Obama for guidance. During his campaign, he called himself a fierce advocate for gay rights, but gay rights groups are now questioning this claim as they wait for him to live up to his promises on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies the recognition of same-sex marriage at the federal level, and the flawed “Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell” military restrictions.

Although many in the gay community have complained about Obama’s “foot-dragging” on gay rights legislation, many concede that he is the most gay-friendly president in history. Obama was the first president to mention gay rights in his election victory speech, and two openly lesbian women were on his short list to fill the supreme court vacancy. The president also appointed more than 30 homosexual men and women to senior posts within his administration. He invited Comedian (and lesbian) Wanda Sykes to serve as guest speaker of the high-profile White House Correspondents Dinner, and this past spring Obama specifically sent out invitations to gay parents to attend the annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn.

Only time will tell if Obama proves himself the “fierce advocate” he touted himself to be, but a revolution in gay rights has ensued and will not be silenced.


The Guardian Huffington Post Newsweek