In this excerpt from “Marriage Equality and Other LGBT Issues in the United States” in Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights, Brian F. Harrison and Melissa R. Michelson introduce the progression of gay rights since the Stonewall Riots in 1969. This has been adapted from the original.
American history is fraught with examples of laws and policies that contradict the basic tenets of the American creed. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal” despite a system of chattel slavery and the subjugation of women, among other ongoing examples of injustice. Ending slavery led the United States into a bloody civil war and inequality still persisted, even after the advances that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement. Miscegenation laws banned interracial marriages in many states until 1967, when the US Supreme Court ruled such bans unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. Women were denied the vote until 1920 and although more than half of American voters today are women, until the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton in 2016, no major political party had chosen a woman as their nominee for President of the United States. In 2016, working women in the United States still make only 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.
These persistent inequalities are, in many ways, the consequence of feelings of social group membership and the tendency by dominant groups to prefer their own in-groups at the expense of perceived out-groups.
Social group membership can sometimes create barriers between one’s perceived in-groups and perceived out-groups, resulting in disagreement about the rights and freedoms that should be extended to subgroups in American culture.
One of the most prominent, contentious issues in American politics of the past few decades concerns the rights of LGBT individuals, particularly around the ability to marry someone of the same sex. Gay and lesbian individuals have seen recent advances in some of their rights, particularly since the unofficial launch of the modern Gay Rights Movement in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. In the 1960s, raids on gay bars were routine; police would arrest patrons and publish their names in the newspaper, often with significant negative consequences for the individuals involved. But on June 28, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back, chanting “gay power” and launching what would become six nights of riots. Stonewall marks the symbolic moment that the LGBT community decided to not accept treatment as second-class citizens but rather to demand that they be treated equally. President Obama marked the significance of that uprising in May 2016 when he declared the Stonewall Inn a national monument, the first national monument in the United States recognizing the struggle for LGBT rights.
Since 1969, the LGBT community has made significant progress in its fight for liberty and equality. Initial efforts focused on freedom from retaliation for being openly gay and the decriminalization of homosexual behavior. The latter goal was attained when the US Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) that laws criminalizing consensual sodomy violated the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office when he won a race to serve on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and in 2000, Vermont became the first state to legalize same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships. In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Gay men and lesbians gained the right to serve openly in the US military in 2011 and the nationwide right to same-sex marriage in June 2015.
Participation in the Stonewall Riots included not just gay men and lesbians but also transgender individuals, many of whom were the leaders of the riots. Rights for transgender people have also advanced significantly since the 1960s. In 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that transsexual persons may marry on the basis of their gender identity, regardless of their assigned gender. In 1977, transgender woman Renée Richards won the right to compete as a woman when the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor in a case filed against the US Tennis Association. In 2010, the federal government extended non-discrimination laws to include transgender civilians who are federal employees. In 2016, the US military changed its policy on transgender service members, allowing those individuals to serve openly without the threat of discharge for their gender identity.
These victories and successes notwithstanding, the fight for equality for the LGBT community is far from over.
Federal law provides no protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for non-federal employees.
Most states do not provide protection from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, nor do they have in place anti-bullying policies that protect LGBT children in public schools. In many states, same-sex couples cannot adopt children; in others, they face considerable obstacles to doing so.
Brian F. Harrison is Lecturer in Political Science at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Melissa R. Michelson is Professor of Political Science at Menlo College.