The Beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement

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“If a Man Lies with a Male as with a Woman, both of Them have Committed an Abomination; They Shall Surely be put to Death; Their Blood is Upon Them.” Leviticus 20:13

In the decade that defined the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, the ignition of the events to follow started on June 28th, 1969. That night, at about 1:20 am, police stormed the most popular gay bar in New York City, the Stonewall Inn. They raided this bar for two main reasons: suspicion of illegal alcohol and drug use, and section 887(7) of the New York criminal law code. This section of the code required people to dress in clothes appropriate to their gender, and with laws like these, transgender men and women, butch lesbians, and drag queens had a difficult time expressing themselves through style.

Within the LGBT community, people found the Stonewall Inn to be a safe haven. The owners of the Inn knew that their main bar was a hot spot for police raids and arrests of people who violated section 887(7), so they kept security as tight as they could. There were two main forms of security in the Inn. One was an “inspection” from Frank Esselourne, who was known for being able to spot a straight guy or undercover cop in seconds (Duberman 122). The next security precaution was a baseball bat kept next to the cashiers. Usually, cops would go undercover and attempt to seduce gay men and drag queens before arresting them. On this night however, the police decided to storm the Inn and make 13 arrests. In turn, the streets of New York retaliated violently in protest of the arrests. The 13 people that were arrested were put into a New York City Police van, which later was broken into and everyone was rescued.

The police, after seeing the force from the New Yorkers that night, retreated into the Inn and locked the door. Shortly after, a gentleman ripped a parking meter out of the ground and used it as a battering ram to break down the doors. Howard Smith, a reporter from The Village Voice, retreated in the bar once the cops did. Regarding to the situation, he said, “the sound filtering in [didn’t] suggest dancing faggots any more; it sound[ed] like a powerful rage bent on vendetta” (Duberman 125). This riot initiated a cascade of similar demonstrations in the following days and they later became known as the Stonewall Riots. News of the riots spread like wildfire; it united people all over the country to start moving towards a future with equal rights for the LGBT community. The nation’s reaction and unification after the Stonewall Riots made the riots the start to the gay rights movement.

Before the Stonewall Riots, very little happened to influence rights for LGBT Americans in a way that promoted equality. The first state to decriminalize homosexual exchanges from two consenting adults in private, Illinois, did not do so until 1961. This means that before 1961, it was possible to be fined or sent to jail for a sexual encounter between two people of the same gender because it was deemed “unnatural.” Sodomy laws like these were put into place all over the nation to stop any forms of sexual encounter that was deemed a sin by the bible, even if it was done in private.

That same year, the Motion Picture Association of America lifted its ban on gay themes in movies. Once this ban was removed, homosexuality was mostly shown in a negative way for the first decade of its allowance to be shown on television. It was not until after the Stonewall Riots that gay themes in movies were shown in a more positive light. Despite these few advances, there were many detrimental practices and laws that were put into action in order to keep societal opinion in a bad place. The biggest hindrance to the hope of any rights for homosexual Americans before the Stonewall Riots was the American Psychiatric Association adding homosexuality to their diagnostic manual. In 1952, the APA listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance. Essentially, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder. Because of this, people explored “cures” for homosexuality, and thus created the rise of conversion therapy.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, conversion therapy became a popular way to make homosexual men become heterosexual. These men would be strapped to a chair, shown naked pictures of men, and then would be electrocuted or given drugs to make them throw up (Burton). After the men were mentally and physically exhausted from all the torture, the doctors would show them pictures of naked women and send them on dates. This practice was created to psychologically trick the mind into associating men with bad things (such as throwing up) and women with love (such as going on dates). These horrid practices homosexual Americans faced before the Stonewall riots fanned the fire of passion against such wrongful acts, leading to the emotional fuel needed for a successful riot.

The Stonewall Riots were the most well-known event to aid the beginnings of the gay rights movement. However, there were a few smaller groups and events that occurred previous to the riots. In fact, one could argue that the spark that lit the match for the gay rights movement was the first known lesbian rights organization formed in 1955: the Daughters of Bilitis. This group was created as an alternative to lesbian bars because at the time, bars with a mostly LGBT audience were often raided by police. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were a lesbian couple that started dating in 1952. In 1955 they took the risk of going to a gay bar, and after being together for three years, they finally met another lesbian couple. Both of the couples quickly bonded over the fact that neither of them knew other lesbian couples. With the hope of meeting other lesbians, the four women founded the Daughters of Bilitis.

The group started as a social club for openly gay women as well as closeted women. Eventually, the group became a grassroots-based activist group as well as a safe space for members of the lesbian community. Despite the label of an “activist group,” the Daughters of Bilitis remained a social club in most senses. It was not until after the Stonewall Riots when the main focus of the group became educating the public and young lesbians. The inspiration from the Stonewall Riots led to the creation of the Daughters of Bilitis and other activist groups that educated and inspired the gay community. Because the group did not become an activist group until after the media attention following the Stonewall Riots, the Stonewall Riots are a more memorable start to the unification of the gay community and the start of the gay rights movement.

One of the reasons why the Stonewall Riots is looked at as the start of the gay rights movement was because of the commemorations that followed. On June 28th, 1970, exactly one year after the riots, community members in the New York City area remembered the riots by marching along the streets around the Stonewall Inn. This event was called Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day. This march started at Greenwich Village and travelled up Sixth Avenue and ended in Central Park. Many New York City lesbian and gay activist groups marched along with 2,000 others to remember the riot that created conversations about homosexuality throughout the nation. This march attracted a significant amount of attention from local and national news and media companies.

Later, Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day was known as the first of many gay pride parades. The New York City pride parade has been held annually in June since this first march up Sixth Avenue. The popularity and attention of the pride parades grew and soon a sister march began to occur every year in Los Angeles. Eventually, pride parades became an annual occasion throughout the nation; today, there are hundreds of pride parades in urban areas worldwide. The impact of the Stonewall Riots sparking the idea of an annual tradition to celebrate homosexuality and unify the gay community assists in marking the riots as the beginning of the movement for homosexual rights.

In 1973, four years after the Stonewall riots and three years after the first pride parade, the American Psychiatric Association held their annual convention. Now that homosexuality was getting more attention, the heads of the APA wanted to decide what they should do about homosexuality being listen in their diagnostics manual. They asked almost 10,000 psychologists who attended to vote on whether or not homosexuality should be removed from their manual, also known as the DSM-II. 5,854 psychologists voted to remove it and 3,810 voted to keep it (Burton). Because this vote was so close, the people in charge of the creation of the DSM-II decided to compromise. Rather than removing homosexuality altogether, the APA decided to replace it with “Sexual Orientation Disturbance.” This lessened the severity of homosexuality, but kept it in the DSM-II nonetheless.

It was not until 1987 that homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM-II all together. Years after it was completely removed from the DSM-II, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its International Classification of Diseases, or ICD, with its release of the ICD-10 in 1992. This not only exponentially slowed down the number of adults and children attending conversion therapy sessions, but it created a slightly less biased global view against homosexuals. The Stonewall Riots attracted attention from the media and gave the people of America a reason to talk about gay rights; this was a huge factor in bringing about the elimination of homosexuality from the DSM-II and the ICD-10. If gay Americans continued to keep quiet and not speak up and fight for their rights, there is no telling whether homosexuality would ever be removed either list of diseases and diagnoses.

The ban of same-sex marriage after the Stonewall Riots was a driving force in the gay rights movement. Before the Stonewall era, the United States would simply not recognize same-sex marriage in terms of federal benefits and other legal terms. Churches and other religious institutions that followed the Old and New Testament would also not recognise same-sex marriage by not having their priests and preachers marry homosexual couples. However, same-sex marriage was never officially banned until 1973. The state of Maryland became the first of many states to officially ban same-sex marriage. One by one, other states followed and had written laws against a marriage between two people of the same gender. The ban of same-sex marriage in the United States was not the only setback during the gay rights movement, for other legal setbacks were happening around the nation.

In Dade County, Florida, a civil rights ordinance was created to aid the prevention of discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1977. This was a big step for the gay rights movement considering the lack of anti-discrimination legislation in the United States. Six months later, voters repealed the ordinance, shattering hope for any change in the Dale County area in terms of less discrimination towards homosexuals. One year later, in 1978, the major of San Francisco selected Harvey Milk, an openly gay man to be his supervisor. While this was a huge step towards equality, tragedy quickly followed this triumph. That same year, Milk and the mayor of San Francisco were killed by a former supervisor. This caused heartbroken candle lit protests and marches throughout the city. Another less eminent effect of the murder of Harvey Milk was fear.

If Harvey Milk, a local public figure, was shot for being gay, other gay people were bound to face dangers similar to this for simply being themselves. The beginning of the gay rights movement was followed by many bans and setbacks that prevented the change they wanted to bring to this country. The bravery of public figures was quickly followed by violence and hatred. Despite these setbacks hurting the cause the gay rights movement stood for, the media attention made homosexuality a topic of conversation for the average American citizen. In the end, this attention, just as the negative and positive attention from the Stonewall Riots, benefitted the gay rights movement by spreading the word around the nation.

At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party officially announced its support for gay rights as former President Barack Obama was running for his second term. Previous to this, there were many Democratic candidates that were openly unsupportive of gay rights. Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, was a Democratic candidate who made many changes that were detrimental to the gay rights movement.

Clinton served his terms as the President from 1993-2001. His first year in office, he signed a policy that would be in effect across all of the branches in the military that prevented gay and lesbian Americans from fighting for their country. He later followed up with his famous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which he claimed was created to stop the mistreatment of closeted gay people in the military. Despite this legislation, gay and lesbian Americans who served in the military were prevented from expressing themselves, and were forced to hide who they truly were in order to maintain employment. Three years later, during his fourth year as the President, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act.

This act banned the government at the federal level from recognizing same-sex marriage, disregarding whether the state the couple was from would allow them to marry. As this act was signed, marriage was nationally defined as “a legal union between one man and one woman.” While same-sex marriage was already banned in most states, to have it banned nationally made it much more difficult for gay couples to commit to each other in a way that straight couples could. The devastating ban of same-sex marriage nationwide was detrimental to the gay rights movement. Nevertheless, the LGBT community continued to hold pride parades annually in memory of the Stonewall Riots and eventually grew strong enough to overcome national setbacks.

Despite many ordeals created by leaders in the United States, the LGBT community continued to raise their voices to make changes towards equal rights. In 1977, Billy Crystal, a famous television actor played the first reappearing openly gay role in a primetime TV show. The show was titled “Soap,” and it was created to mock daytime soap operas. Crystal’s character “Jodie Dallas” was the first main character to give a good impression of homosexuality on a television show. ABC received an immense amount of praise from the gay community for allowing a gay character to appear on such a popular show.

ABC was also the network that was home to another popular television show with a gay main character 20 years later. However, this time ABC did not get as much praise for how they handled having a gay character on their TV show. Ellen DeGeneres, an award-winning actress and comedian, came out as gay on her self-titled television series “Ellen.” Months later she appeared on the cover of the April issue of TIME magazine next to the words “Yep, I’m Gay” in 1997. Her bravery was praised by many and hated by many others. She was soon fired from ABC, and her TV show was cancelled. DeGeneres’s fans were outraged.

Six years later, Ellen moved forward and she signed a contract for her own daytime talk show in 2003 called “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on NBC. Ellen getting fired for being gay, and then making a name for herself with a different television network was a huge inspiration to the LGBT community. The many celebrities that came out as gay after the Stonewall Riots helped the movement for gay rights because their actions were inspiring to the rest of the gay community. Without the riots, being gay would still be a taboo subject and celebrities might not have had as much bravery when coming out to the public.

The night of June 28th, 1969 was the start of the gay rights movement. Every brick thrown at police officers, every damaged parking meter, and every news article sparked the gay rights movement in the United States. The riots received a great deal of attention from the media which lead to more of a focus on the LGBT community. Not only were heterosexual Americans more aware of the gay rights movement, but homosexual Americans were unified. The inspiration dispersed amongst many gay and lesbian Americans caused them to speak up about a cause they believed in.

The road to equality is never a smooth one, for there were many tragic setbacks to the gay rights movement. Politicians created legislation banning same-sex marriage, and there were many acts of violence against the gay community. Despite these setbacks, the community grew stronger against the hate they were facing. The unjust American legal system and wrongful discrimination from employers and peers led the gay community to start a movement for their well-deserved rights. The commemoration of these riots, or annual pride parades, brought together the members of the LGBT community and kept their cause going.

The Stonewall Riots also brought together the gay and lesbian people living in the United States with the inspiration for the creation of movements and activist groups. Since the Stonewall Riots, there has been a vast amount of changes to legislation regarding gay rights. Without these riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement, there is no telling whether gay and lesbian Americans would have the same rights they do today. Although the LGBT community has had a rather successful movement so far, they are still fighting for more changes to come. The end goals of this movement may not ever be achieved, but the gay community’s unification and strength will never rest as long as their goals have not been met.

Works Cited

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  3. Duberman, Martin. “The Night They Raided Stonewall.” Grand Street, no. 44, 1993, pp. 120–147. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25007620.
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  7. Morris, Charles E., and Thomas K. Nakayama. “Paying Mind to GLBTQ Pasts.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 1, no. 2, 2014, pp. v-vii. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/qed.1.2.000v.
  8. Poindexter, Cynthia Cannon. “Sociopolitical Antecedents to Stonewall: Analysis of the Origins of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States.” Social Work, vol. 42, no. 6, 1997, pp. 607–615. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23717267.
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  10. Chicago Tribune. “GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENT`S PATH.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 3 Sept. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1989-06-26-8902120553-story.html.
  11. CNN Library. “LGBT Rights Milestones Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/lgbt-rights-milestones-fast-facts/index.html.

Cite this paper

The Beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement. (2021, Jul 20). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-beginnings-of-the-gay-rights-movement/

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