There was a time when homosexuality was deemed a mental disorder by the nation’s psychiatric authorities, and gay sex was a crime in every state but Illinois. Federal workers could be fired for the mere fact of being gay.
That time wasn’t long ago — just 50 years.
Today, gays serve openly in the military, work as TV news anchors and federal judges, win elections as big-city mayors and members of Congress. Several hugely popular TV shows have gay protagonists.
And now the gay-rights movement may be on the cusp of momentous legal breakthroughs. Later this month, a Supreme Court ruling could lead to legalization of same-sex marriage in California, the most populous state, and there’s a good chance the court will require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in all U.S. jurisdictions where they are legal — as of now, 12 states and Washington, D.C.
The transition over the last five decades has been far from smooth — replete with bitter protests, anti-gay violence, backlashes that inflicted many political setbacks. In contrast to the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, the campaign for gay rights unfolded without household-name leaders.
Progress came about largely due to the individual choices of countless gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and get engaged.
These were people like a Chicago graduate student who, early on, was willing to confront a high-profile critic of gay relationships. A young community organizer plunging into advocacy work for victims of AIDS. Three gay couples in Hawaii suing for the right to marry at a time when that seemed far-fetched even to many activists.
“It is pretty mind-blowing how quickly it’s moved,” said David Eisenbach, who teaches political history at Columbia University and has written about the gay-rights movement.
Eisenbach contrasted the attitudes of the ’50s and ’60s, when even many political liberals viewed homosexuality as pernicious, to what he sees today.
“There are kids coming out in high school now, being accepted by their classmates,” he said. “Parents, relatives, friends are seeing the people they love come out. It’s very hard to discriminate against someone you love.”
As the Supreme Court rulings approach, here is a look back at three of the gay-rights movement’s pivotal phases and some of the people who chose to get involved.
Into the Streets
Dr. David Reuben had legions of fans after publishing his best-selling “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” in 1969. Murray Edelman wasn’t among them.
Edelman, then a University of Chicago graduate student, was part of a tiny band of activists who launched a gay liberation movement in the city starting late in 1969 and continuing through the early ’70s
When Reuben — who depicted gay men’s relationships as bleakly impersonal and short-lived — was booked to appear on a TV talk show in Chicago in January 1971, Edelman and some fellow activists decided to attend.
Irked at being denied a chance to ask questions, Edelman rose from his seat and headed to the stage toward the end of the session, seeking to confront Reuben face-to-face. He was hauled out of the studio, but the incident received TV and newspaper coverage.
“It was the first time they really acknowledged there were gay activists in the city,” Edelman said.
It was an era abounding with firsts for the gay-rights movement.
Historians can trace its roots back to individuals and incidents many decades earlier, and some pioneering national gay-rights organizations were formed in the 1950s — notably the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
Important events in the history of the gay-rights movement in the United States:
1950: Mattachine Society, widely considered first national gay rights organization, is formed.
1957: Frank Kameny is fired from job as government astronomer because he’s gay; his appeal later reaches Supreme Court before being denied.
1977: After campaign led by Anita Bryant and other conservatives, Miami-area voters overturn ordinance banning anti-gay discrimination.
1978: In San Francisco, Mayor George Moscone and pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk are assassinated.
1979: First national gay-rights march on Washington.
1985: Rock Hudson dies, after acknowledging he had AIDS
1986: U.S. Supreme Court upholds Georgia anti-sodomy law criminalizing consensual gay sex
1987: Second national gay-rights march on Washington; AIDS memorial quilt displayed on National Mall
1993: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy implemented for U.S. military, allowing gays to serve but not to be open about their sexual orientation.
1996: Congress passes Defense of Marriage Act, stipulating that federal government will not recognize same-sex marriages.
1997: Ellen DeGeneres comes out publicly as lesbian in appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
2003: Supreme Court strikes down Texas law criminalizing consensual gay sex.
2004: Same-sex marriages start in Massachusetts in compliance with state high court ruling; many other states adopt bans on same-sex marriage.
2008: California court orders legalization of same-sex marriage; voters overturn the ruling by approving Proposition 8 limiting marriage to one man, one woman.
2010: Appeals court strikes down Florida‘s three-decade-old ban on adoptions by gays.
2011: Military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is repealed; New York becomes largest state to approve same-sex marriage.
But the pace picked up in the 1960s. Frank Kameny, who sued after being fired from his job as a government astronomer for being gay, took his anti-discrimination case to the Supreme Court in 1961 (the justices declined to hear his appeal), and helped stage the first gay-rights protest in front of the White House in 1965. The U.S. Court of Appeals, in a separate case, ruled in 1969 that federal civil servants could no longer be fired solely because they were gay.
Gay activists formed organizations in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Amid the ferment of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement, there was a surge of interest in gay liberation — gays and lesbians publicly revealing their sexuality and evoking it as a source of pride rather than shame.
Edelman, during an hour-long interview, recalled being herded into a police paddy wagon in Washington, D.C., in 1965 after he and other gay men were arrested at a party. He began singing, “We Shall Overcome” under his breath, and the other men in the vehicle joined him.
“When I look back, I realize I’d made that connection with civil rights even before I came out,” he said. “That was like a turning point … To me it felt right. I didn’t feel ashamed.”
Much of the activity in the ’60s unfolded out of the national spotlight. But the movement broadened — and public awareness grew — after police harassment of patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, sparked three days of riots in June 1969.
Emboldened by Stonewall, Edelman decided to promote gay activism at the University of Chicago, where he recalled gay student life as “basically one restroom where people had sex.”
Through an ad placed in the student newspaper, he and friend convened a meeting to launch a gay liberation group, which started with a handful of members and grew steadily,
“We came to the conclusion that, before we could do anything else, we had to come out,” he said. “We decided to wear buttons — ‘Out of the closets, into the streets.'”
By the summer of 1970, the activists had hosted some well-attended public dances and organized Chicago’s first gay pride parade on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The incident with David Reuben followed a few months later, turning gay liberation into a topic of public conversation for Chicagoans.
It was a far cry from Edelman’s youth — growing up in a Jewish household in Chicago where sexuality was not discussed. Even as a 20-year-old jobseeker in Washington, he was confused and insecure about his sexual identity.
“I was trying to figure all this out,” he said. “There was no support, no place I could read about someone like me. I was totally alone.”
Edelman, now 69, went on to earn a doctorate in human development, work for CBS News and serve as editorial director for Voter News Service, the consortium that conducted exit-polling during several presidential elections.
What did he and his colleagues accomplish four decades ago in Chicago?
“It was a whole new consciousness for gays — we made it OK to be gay,” he said. “We thought that we had strength in each other, that we could define ourselves differently from how society defined us.”
Coping with Crisis
The 1970s brought a rush of milestones as gays came out of the closet and started demanding equal rights — the first openly gay people elected to public office and ordained as ministers, the first municipal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the first national gay rights march in Washington. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
With those winds of change at his back, 27-year-old Tim Sweeney moved to New York in the fall of 1981 to become executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay legal advocacy group.
A few months earlier, The New York Times had published an article under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” Sweeney worried this mysterious illness would give the public another excuse to denigrate and discriminate against gay people at a time when he and his colleagues were feeling hopeful.
“Once we sort of got the government out of our lives and shed some of the stigma of criminalization and mental illness, we were allowed, because we had the safety to do it, to dream about the world we wanted for ourselves,” he said.
He couldn’t have conceived of the pain, losses and political challenges that lay ahead.
It would be a year before the cluster of strange ailments afflicting not only gay men, but intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and some women would have a name — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS — and another year after that before the virus that caused it, HIV, was isolated.
Sweeney had come to Lambda Legal planning to oversee challenges to state laws that criminalized gay sexual activity, to fight police harassment, to represent people fired from or denied jobs because they were gay. That work continued in the earliest years of the epidemic while volunteers and community clinics performed the day-to-day task of caring for the growing numbers of terminally ill.
Soon, though, the scourge became all-encompassing.
In 1983, Lambda took on the case of a doctor being evicted from his rented Manhattan office because he treated people with AIDS. A court blocked the eviction, ruling that it violated state laws protecting the disabled; the decision provided a template for securing insurance coverage and other basic rights for the afflicted. As panic and prejudice spread in the general population, gay lawyers also sought to protect the confidentiality of patients who were being tested or treated for the disease.
The epidemic not only made gay people more visible than ever, but also spotlighted the absence of legal protections for their relationships. Survivors who cared for longtime partners found themselves barred from hospital rooms, frozen out of funerals and stripped of shared possessions. Without marriage as an option, couples prepared wills and even tried to adopt one another so their relationships would be respected in the event of death.
And death loomed terrifyingly. By the end of 1985, 15,527 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States and 12,529 deaths attributed to the disease.
But President Ronald Reagan still had not uttered the word “AIDS” publicly and the government had not devised a plan for combatting the disease.
“What we found out in facing a new pandemic worldwide is that we absolutely could not save the lives of our brothers and sisters without having the government extremely involved in our lives,” Sweeney recalled. “It was the government’s responsibility to fund research. It was the government’s responsibility to guarantee access to health care.”
Seeking to intensify pressure on federal officials to invest in a national response, Sweeney became public policy director and eventually executive director of the New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the nation’s first AIDS service organization.
It was a huge operation, with 235 staff members and 4,000 volunteers feeding, counseling and advocating for 3,000 people with AIDS every month. The group, and similar organizations in other major cities, also promoted “safe sex” messages that later would be credited with slowing infection rates.
Reflecting the growing anger within the gay community over the government’s slow response to the epidemic, Sweeney also participated in the launch of ACT UP, an advocacy group that used protests and civil disobedience to bring urgency to the cause of developing effective drugs.
“We were losing in those days dozens and dozens of clients at GMHC every single month. We had staff who died. We had board members who died … It was a very dark period,” he said. “We somehow took that incredible loss and fury we all felt about how dispensable certain people in this society thought we all were and forced change in the system.”
By mid-1993 Sweeney had left Gay Men’s Health Crisis to care for his older brother, Mark, who would die of AIDS the next year. The deaths still were mounting, but federal engagement had been gradually increasing. President Bill Clinton established an AIDS policy office in the White House, and Congress passed legislation protecting people with AIDS and those suspected of being infected with the HIV virus from discrimination. Under pressure from activists, the pace of federally funded research and the timeline for getting experimental drugs to consumers picked up.
In 1996, a turning point with the introduction of drugs that would eventually change AIDS from a death sentence to a somewhat manageable disease, Sweeney returned to full-time activism with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the group that would eventually secure the passage of a law legalizing same-sex marriage in New York. Since 2007, he has led the Gill Foundation, which funnels millions of dollars annually into gay-rights organizations.
For historians, there is no doubt that AIDS hastened the gay-rights movement’s growth by shining a light on inequality and mobilizing the gay community.
“It galvanized collective action, organizing and the habits of giving — giving time as well as money,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “It helped to develop a notion of what it was to be a responsible member of the gay community.”
Sweeney put it this way:
“When they saw how much we cared, how much we organized and reached across every barrier, whether it was race or gender or neighborhood or class, to say we would care for each other, the fact that we showed that kind of heart and innovation and courage in spite of what was just relentless stigma and dehumanization, I think that really changed the country’s sense of who were as human beings.”
Then Comes Marriage
The three gay couples didn’t even have an attorney, let alone an inkling of the weighty consequences, when they arrived at Hawaii’s Health Department on Dec. 17, 1990, to apply for marriage licenses.
Indeed, one couple, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, had met only six months earlier. They’d fallen in love; Dancel had already bought Baehr a ring.
“For us, it wasn’t part of long-term strategy,” Baehr said in a recent interview. “It was the emotional part of wanting that respect, and wanting the protections of things like health coverage.”
The couples’ applications were rejected — unsurprising given that same-sex marriage was legal in no state or nation — and their plan to file a lawsuit floundered when major gay-rights groups turned down the case.
Eventually, a lawyer in private practice, Dan Foley, took the case, which dragged on for five years while a backlash materialized. Hawaii lawmakers voted in 1994 to limit marriage to unions between a man and woman, and in September 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages and said no state could be forced to recognize such marriages that might become legal in another state.
In December 1996, the three couples and their legal team — reinforced by New York-based gay-rights lawyer Evan Wolfson — won the first-ever judgment ordering a state to legalize same-sex marriage. Circuit Judge Kevin Chang said Hawaii failed to provide sound reasons for banning such marriages, and rejected the claim that same-sex couples are less fit to raise children than heterosexuals.
The victory was short-lived. Chang suspended his ruling the next day to allow an appeal, and in 1998 it was rendered moot when Hawaii voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment giving state legislators the power to limit marriage to heterosexual unions. Over the next two decades, 30 other states passed amendments banning gay marriage — including California with a ballot measure that’s been challenged in one of the cases now before the Supreme Court.
Despite all the setbacks, the campaign for marriage equality grew inexorably from a quixotic cause to a broad mass movement now supported, according to many polls, by a majority of Americans.
Under a court order, same-sex marriage began in Massachusetts in 2004. Soon legislators and voters in other states were legalizing it without court pressure. With the addition of Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota in May, there are now 12 gay-marriage states.
Among the millions of Americans who’ve shifted their views is Rick Eichor, who opposed the Hawaii lawsuit in 1996 as deputy state attorney general.
Eichor said he had no strong opinion on gay marriage at the time, though he argued in court that children have a fundamental right to grow up in the company of their biological mother and father.
“Now I’m solidly in favor of same-sex marriage,” he said. “I think it’s time. It probably was time a long time ago.”
Evan Wolfson, who puzzled some of his Harvard law professors back in 1983 with an academic paper arguing for gay marriage, is now president of Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group that has played a key role in the movement. He married a management consultant in 2011, a few months after gay marriage became legal in New York.
The Hawaii case, Wolfson says, “was the real turning point.”
“It was the first time in the history of the world that the government was forced to come before a trial judge and show a reason for excluding gay people from marriage,” Wolfson said. “We were able to show that the government doesn’t have one.”
Tens of thousands of American gays are now legally married, though none of the Hawaii couples who filed the suit are among them.
The two men, Joseph Mellilo and Pat Lagon, were partners for nearly 30 years before Mellilo died in 2006.
Tammy Rodrigues and Toni Pregil, partners for 26 years, entered into a civil union in Hawaii after that became an option last year. Now retired in Las Vegas, they say they’d get married if that’s ever allowed in Nevada.
Baehr and Dancel broke up not long after Chang’s 1996 ruling, though they stay in touch.
“Being part of that case, and such a public face of it, brought us closer, and we felt very fortunate to be part of it,” Baehr said. “But it also placed a lot of stress on us.”
Baehr, who works on gay-rights issues in Montana for the American Civil Liberties Union, believes same-sex marriage will eventually prevail nationwide. Short term, she’s hopeful the Supreme Court will order federal recognition of the same-sex marriages that exist now, striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act that surfaced as a backlash to the Hawaii lawsuit.
“We’ve had that feeling like DOMA is our responsibility — it was a bad thing that happened in part because of what we’d done,” Baehr said. “To see it made right, two decades later, is going to be very sweet.”
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