A look at the changing face of LGBT rights in the United States throughout history

A look at the changing face of LGBT rights in the United States throughout history

Imagine not being able to tell the world who you really were without being accused of having a mental disorder. Imagine not being able to have sex with someone you loved without the risk of being arrested. Imagine being the victim of a hate crime and the police shrugging their shoulders and telling you that you weren't protected by the law so there was nothing they could do. These are only three of the nightmarish situations that LGBT people had to suffer through mere years ago.

To many of us here in 2017, it seems virtually unthinkable that these fundamental rights were stripped from people and there's no denying that there has never been a better time to be gay in the United States. Yet the fight for LGBT rights is far from finished. Join us as we take a look back at the harrowing battle so far.

What rights?

Before the early 20th century the concept of “rights” for LGBT people was practically laughable. If you were gay, you simply didn’t deserve the same liberties, kindness and opportunities that your straight counterparts did and instead you were forced to receive “help”, with homosexuality seen as a sin you had to purge from your system. Treatments for homosexuality included being injected and made to be violently ill all over yourself and a shock being delivered directly to your genitals every time you experienced any form of positive response to a slide show of models of the same sex. In fact, mainstream medical researchers in Germany apparently went as far as implanting testicles from corpses into the bodies of homosexual men, usually without their consent.

The LGBT rights flag Credit: StockSnap

Back then, sodomy laws were slowly being enacted around the world and gay men and women were said to have no control of their bodies, their relationships or their health. Some homosexual people didn’t even believe themselves that they should have any rights at all.

Having it drilled into their head time and time again that being sexually attracted to a member of their own sex was a crime had worked, and some gay people had been brainwashed into believing that they were unwell or worse, that their lives weren't living at all. So if some homosexual people didn’t even believe in the movement, how did the LGBT rights movement manage to clamber up and stand on its own two feet?

The beginning

The first real American gay rights movement dates back to 1924, when the Society for Human Rights in Chicago became the country’s first recognised gay organisation, having received a charter from the state of Illinois. It produced the first American publication for homosexuals, Friendship and Freedom.

But anyone who has even a remote knowledge of gay rights will know that it was never going to be that easy. The Society for Human Rights was shut down when several of the members were arrested after they were reported to the police by vice president Al Weininger’s wife, who accused them of “strange doings” in front of her children. Newspapers across America lapped up the story, with the Chicago Examiner erroneously reporting that Weininger and other members of the Society had performed sex acts in front of his children and that society literature had encouraged men to abandon their wives and children. Despite avoiding prosecution, society founder Henry Gerber’s life was completely destroyed by the accusations, with his defence costing him his life savings, his reputation and his employment. The society had imploded, showing everyone that gay people could insist upon equality, but that didn’t mean it was going to be given to them.

Yet, despite being short-lived, the society had started something. After years of hiding from public view and stamping on their feelings, people were finally gathering together to confirm a hushed truth that had been boiling underneath the surface for quite some time: that gay people deserved rights too.

A heart for LGBT rights Credit: StockSnap

A return to traditional values

Although it would be easy to assume that other gay organisations would follow, the concept of having rights took a battering in the 1930s and 1940s as America returned to the traditional values that had been ridiculed during the 1920s. Instead of making strides like they should have done, gay rights were suddenly being bulldozed backwards, with LGBT people deemed “fruitcakes” destined for the “fruitcake factory”.

However, when World War II began, Uncle Sam was often willing to overlook the sexual orientation of lesbians. Although some lesbians were still rejected from the Women’s Army Corps, classic “butch” lesbian fashion seemed to convince recruiters that they would be useful in mechanics and motor vehicle operating work. “It should be noted,” a group of Marine Corps examiners at Camp LeJeune reportedly advised their colleagues, “that women showing a masculine manner may be perfectly normal sexually and excellent military material."

Despite this, the growing influence of psychiatry in America led the military to classify some homosexual troops as psychologically unfit for service. Employment in certain other areas was closed off to gay people with President Eisenhower signing an order barring homosexuals from serving in governmental roles and the Senate authorising an investigation into homosexuals in the government.

A turning point

After lying somewhat dormant - or at least hushed - for years, the gay rights movement gained steam again in the 1960s and suddenly began to make real progress. As civil rights, black power, feminist and anti-war movements sprouted, gay Americans saw their struggle take off again.

Credit: Getty

On the morning of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York. Although it was definitely not out of the ordinary for police to target gay establishments, what happened afterwards was truly groundbreaking. For the first time ever, the crowds fought back. As three drag queens and a lesbian were pulled away, people who had been drinking at the bar began throwing bottles at the police, jeering and jostling them. Eventually, policemen had to barricade themselves inside the bar as the revolution spread and hundreds of people rioted on the street, making it the first major demonstration for homosexual rights ever. It quickly become a symbol of a new militancy, not to mention the important event that led to the modern fight in the United States.

The mass movement

The years that followed Stonewall saw homosexual people gain rights that many would have believed impossible. In 1962, consensual sexual relations between same-sex couples was decriminalized in Illinois. This was the first time that a state took such action. In 1970, the first LGBT Pride Parades were held and by 1973, the American Psychiatric Association had extraordinarily eliminated homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Furthermore, in 1977 Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. America was legally acknowledging that some people are simply attracted to members of the same sex. But there was a storm brewing and it was about to hit the gay community.


On June 5, 1981, the virus that would become known as HIV was mentioned for the first time in a medical publication. From the very beginning, HIV was a disease associated with gay men and for a period of six months in 1982, the condition was even mistakenly labelled "Gay Related Immune Deficiency". With gay activism exploding across the country and gay social life becoming more open, Americans had been more able than ever to indulge in promiscuity if they so felt like it, but the autoimmune disease marked the end of what has been referred to as the "golden age of promiscuity". It was also the beginning of a whole new wave of discrimination against gay people; all of a sudden mothers didn't want gay people picking up their babies, people didn't want them to kiss them on the cheek and there was an overall shame, distrust and stigma around the LGBT society. The homophobic epidemic continued, but gay people and their supporters continued fighting tooth and nail throughout the 1990s and 2000s to gain equal opportunities and fair treatement.

Rights in the modern day

So, what are LGBT rights like in present day USA? With gay marriage legalized across all 50 states, the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy repealed and with more openly gay athletes in the Olympics and politics than ever before, homosexual people have more rights than ever. But we don't have time to sit around and pat ourselves on the back. While gay rights activists should be praised about the rights they have gained, there are so many rights to liberties left to painstakingly prise from the administration's hands in modern day America.

Two LGBT men holding hands Credit: StockSnap

According to a federal law, lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people are not protected against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the private sector; they're also not protected when it comes to purchasing, renting or leasing a home on the basis of sexual orientation. Some Catholic churches will not admit children into their school if their parents are gay, President Trump has just announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military and even toilets have become the battleground for transgender rights, with some states forcing people to use the toilet that correlates to their birth certificate.

Gay people have many more rights than they used to; they are able to express their love in public and have the freedom to be themselves. But the battle is not yet won in America and prejudice continues to this very day. With this in mind, it's completely right to celebrate how far we've come, but we cannot lose sight of how far we have to go.