Civil Rights - The History of Gay Rights

by Minh T. Nguyen
(written in 1999)

We refer to basic human rights like the freedom of speech and association, liberty, and equal treatment in court as civil rights, because they are fundamental rights that each and every citizen should not be denied on the basis of their sex, race, or religious belief. Though it has been proven that homosexuality -- the sexual desire for those of the same sex as oneself -- has existed since humans have begun documenting human history, the framers of the Constitution did not include the unconstitutionality of discrimination against citizens on the base of sexual preference, thus, making this discrimination perfectly legal.

Inspired by the African American Civil Rights Movement, homosexuals in America began to organize themselves and to fight for the equality and the justice they did not have yet. With the rise of gay rights activists, gay-rights opponents appeared, and the issue about homosexuals' rights turned into a controversial, legal battle, which today is still fought with neither party entirely winning.

By taking a close look at the history of gay rights, common prejudices against homosexuals, and the common arguments used on both sides of this topic without the emotional heat and biases, which is often linked with this controversial topic, one is able to think critically and approach the issue of homosexuality in a more reasonable way.

Homosexuals are defined as people who are sexually attracted by other persons of the same sex. The words "gays" or "gay people" are also common terms used instead of "homosexuals", whereas "lesbians" are only used to describe female homosexuals. These fundamental definitions of homosexuals already indicate that this minority group is evenly distributed throughout the entire society. Homosexuals can be both men and women. They exist in all classes, social groups, races, positions, and countries, regardless of their age or origin. As far as historians can trace back the past, homosexuals have always been in existence, including Julius Caesar, Plato, and Alexander the Great (Sloan 1).

History has also shown that gay people have always been discriminated against. Not only were gay people denied of equal treatment in court ("de jure"), but they also have been victims of violence and harassment in our own society on the base of their sexual orientation ("de facto"). Homosexuality was labeled a felony crime in the past, existing "Sodomy Laws" which prohibit oral and anal sexual intercourse, even between consenting adults, were primarily used to target homosexuals, and the current federal government denies openly gays employment to federal institutions like the CIA, FBI, the army -- nation's biggest employer in the United States -- or the National Security Agency. The government even regularly removes openly gay officials from public positions, and so do a lot of other employers in the private sector (Mohr 6).

In individual cases, homosexuals are often harassed, insulted, kicked, punched, and thrown at by fellow classmates, coworkers, and even family members just for being gay. These discriminations base on prejudices and stereotypes that society has of the gay community.

Among the most common stereotypes are those which carry fear and ignorance. Gays are said to be "child molesters" and "sex-crazed maniacs". They are considered extremely "immoral" because they do not follow social customs, "unnatural" because homosexuality violates the basic functions of genitals and contradicts the nature.

Religious leaders reason that Jesus asks the mankind in the Bible "to go out and have children." Since homosexuals are not able to reproduce children, homosexuality is, therefore, from their prospective an act of sin.

Gayness is considered by opponents a voluntary "act" and "behavior", which a person can act on. Some opponents go that far that, since homosexuality is from their point of view a matter of choice, their sexual practices are "crimes" which make homosexuals criminals.

On the other hand, gays defend themselves by arguing that homosexuality is a characteristic with which they are attached in the early childhood or even with birth. Gays do not have a choice over their homosexuality as heterosexuals do not have a choice over their heterosexuality. Hence, gayness is a condition over which they do not have, just as no one has control over his or her ethnic race, origin, outer appearance, or the class they he or she is born in. In addition, empirical research on adult sexual orientation and molestation of children has shown that gay men are not more likely to molest children than heterosexual men.

Based on this argumentation, homosexuals urged the government to ban discrimination of people on the basis of their sexual preference. However, up until the decades after the Second World War, in which Hitler did not only murdered Jews, but also homosexuals, there has been no powerful and effective gay rights movement. The reason for the ineffectiveness of the first movements lies in the fact that the gay community represents a so-called "invisible minority", that is a minority which "due to the fear of public inacceptance and disadvantage (losing one's job/public humiliation) do not openly reveal themselves" (Mohr 84). Just like the demand for freedom by slaves in the past resulted in more discrimination by the slave-owners, homosexuals faced the same vicious circle.

Since homosexuals often compare themselves with other minority groups like the Jews or the African Americans, they were very inspired by the African American Civil Rights Movement by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His ideas, concepts, and demands for equal protection were adopted by the gay community, and especially King's success is the key element for the sudden rise of the Gay Rights Movement only several years later.

The Gay Rights Movement is rooted in the so-called Stonewall riots, marking the first major attempt of gays to organize themselves and to resist discrimination. In the summer of 1969 policemen in New York started to raid unlicensed bars, resulting in closings of five gay bars with minor street disturbances. The Stonewall Inn, an unlicensed and Mafia-operated bar in Greenwich Village, was raided by nine policemen in the early mornings of June 28th 1969. As the policemen arrested and escorted five employees and customers, they faced an unexpectedly angry and violent mob outside the Stonewall Inn, yelling, throwing coins, rocks, beer bottles, and bricks at the policemen. During the following forty-five minutes, the nine policemen were involved in a violent struggle, in which the protesters were beaten by policemen, and in which the crowd tried to set the bar with the policemen inside on fire. As police reinforcement arrived, the crowd which had already rose to about 400 angry protesters, finally spread out, but re-gathered for two additional nights around the then-closed Stonewall Inn to protest against the police's discrimination of gay bars, shouting slogans like "Gay Power", "Legalize gay bars", and "Gay is good."

The significance of this local incident, however, is tremendous, and it had an enormous influence on the national level. New gay rights groups were formed within days, "Gay Power" meetings were held in Greenwich Village, and existing gay rights groups started a series of activities to call for national, organized resistance against discrimination.

This rapid rise of organization in the entire nation achieved to change, at least, a part of the mainstream's cultural view on homosexuality. Empirical data obtained by experiments, combined with this changing social norm, led the Board of Directors of the American Psychiatric Association to finally remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, marking this the first major success of the gay community. It opened up doors for a series of new political campaigns of organizations, pushing for changes in the way gays were viewed by society, and for protection from discrimination in jobs and housing.

However, with the rise of the pro-gay activists, anti-gay activists started to organize themselves. One of the most famous anti-gay activists is Anita Bryant, who successfully campaigned to repeal an ordinance in St. Paul in 1978 to prohibit anti-gay discrimination. In her campaign named "Save Our Children", she opposed the fact that homosexuals have been allowed to work as teachers in elementary schools and claims that they not only lead their children into homosexuality, but also portray threat to our vulnerable society.

In a similar fashion, homosexuals have been targeted when AIDS became a worldwide problem in the early years of the eighties. Gay men were primarily infected with HIV due to the fact that their sexual activity, which includes the semen transmission between two man, makes them extremely vulnerable. As females who have sexual contact with HIV-infected men were infected, and as children, drug-addicts who share infected needles, became potential targets of AIDS, homosexuals have been blamed as a threat to the innocent society. They were labeled disease carriers, and were said to "pollute" an innocent part of the human population. Once more, recent empirical studies were needed to show that "the assumption that all or most gay people have AIDS [...] is simply wrong" (Bender 84). In fact, heterosexual sex is nowadays the main cause for the virus to spread, representing 90% of new AIDS-cases.

As homosexuality is becoming more and more socially accepted during the eighties, gay rights groups started to shift their campaign towards equal political treatment. Basically, gay rights movement is defined as the demand of gays to be treated as equal citizens with the same rights, privileges, and treatment as heterosexuals do.

Progressive success did the Gay Rights Movement gain during the last decades concerning the military issue. In 1942 the U.S. military took side in the controversial issue about homosexuality, as it banned all homosexuals and denied them the right to enter military service by arguing that their presence would make heterosexual soldiers feel "uncomfortable" and decrease their efficiency and productivity.

Although gays have been asking for equal rights since then, it was President Clinton who took the first pro-gay step. Being lobbied by successful gay rights activists, president Clinton introduced the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Although "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" does not remove the ban of homosexuals in the military (what president Clinton had promised the gay community during his political campaign), it legalizes the existence of gay soldiers in the military as long as they do not publicly reveal their sexual orientation ("don't tell"). Furthermore, military officials are not allowed to ask soldiers about their sexual orientation ("don't ask").

Though this policy might be intended to decriminalize homosexuality, it clearly still discriminates against homosexuals, given the fact that they are denied of First Amendment rights like the freedom of speech and association, and that they are not treated as equal citizens (violates the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment). From this arguments, six lesbian and gay soldiers questioned the entire policy in Able vs. USA, and gained major success as U.S. Federal Judge Eugene Nickerson of the Eastern District of New York struck down the entire policy on July 2nd 1997 for it violates the Constitution's equal protection guarantee.

However, gays still are not satisfied as long as the most controversial issue concerning equal protection rights -- the question about legalizing same-sex marriage -- is still not solved. A legal marriage is accompanied with a vast amount of legal advantages, including tax advantages, next-of-kin-status (which gives one partner of a relationship the right to visit the other partner in hospitals), rights of inheritance in the absence of a will, and retirement benefits, but homosexuals face the problem that same-sex marriages are not allowed in any state for the time being. When in 1983 one of the first cases was brought to public, in which a lesbian couple was denied to see each other in hospital after a partner's accident, the court referred to the legal definition of marriage, that is the union of one man and one woman. Given this disadvantage and discrimination by our own government, gay rights activists have been trying to lobby politicians and representatives for almost two decades. They are urging state governments to legalize same-sex marriage.

Nonetheless, the only state to attempt legalizing same-sex marriage is Hawaii. Circuit Court Judge Kevin Chang ruled in December 1996 that the state of Hawaii should not deny gay couples a marriage license, after the governor of Hawaii signed a bill prohibiting same-sex marriages on June 22, 1994. This case is now being held in the state legislature, and will be voted by the citizens of Hawaii in 1998. This legislation, if approved, would mark the most significant success in the legal battle about homosexuality. Polls, however, have shown that the majority of the Hawaii citizens would rather support an amendment which "reserves marriage to opposite-sex couples." Once again do homosexuals compare themselves with African Americans who were denied of interracial marriage before Supreme Court's decision to decriminalize interracial marriages in Loving vs. Virginia, 1967.

The comparison between the gay community and the African American society can be seen throughout the entire movement. The lynching of black men who where falsely accused of raping white women (or the discrimination of Jews who were falsely accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices for that matter) parallels false accusations that homosexuals all molester children and/or lead children into homosexuality. Both minorities ask for equal social and political treatment. Although the African American society has gained political freedom and equality de facto, the gay community still faces both the discrimination de jure and de facto. One has to realize that the current federal law does not prohibit discrimination against gay people; sexual orientation discrimination remains perfectly legal.

Nevertheless, the Gay Rights Movement was able to take further steps towards freedom, equality, and dignity in recent years. Nine states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the District of Columbia, hundreds of businesses and universities have enacted laws that protect gay people from employment discrimination. More than a dozen cities (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and the District of Columbia) have introduced the status of "domestic partnership" which, although it does not legalize same-sex marriage, gives homosexual couples the same legal advantages as heterosexual couples have. In addition, a 13-12 vote by the University of California Board of Regents on November 21st 1997 will finally extend health care benefits to gay partners of UC employees at all Californian public universities. President Clinton is the first sitting president throughout U.S. history to publicly address the gay community. His pro-gay speech on November 8th 1997 at a fund-raising event is highly regarded by gay rights activists for it emphasizes the need of homosexuals' equality.

As we approach the turn into a new millennium, the citizens of the United States is once more deeply divided. Important decisions on homosexuality are to be made, and countries like Denmark and Norway serve as models, as the governments have legalized gay marriages already in 1989 and 1993.

It is, therefore, important for the people to be involved in this issue and to clearly take side, rather than just avoiding the problem. If one tries to avoid the problem of integration of homosexuals just out of convenience, one is as irresponsible as those who did not take side when the nation was deeply divided when it came to the question about slavery, women's right to vote, and African Americans' equal protection rights. The history of tolerance is going to reach another landmark, and no one should miss the opportunity to raise his or her voice.

Bibliographical References

Adam, Barry D. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement, Boston, 1987

American Civil Liberties Union, "For First Time, NY Federal Judge Strikes Down Entire Law Barring Gays From Military Service." American Civil Liberties Union Press Release., July 2nd 1997

----. "Lesbian and Gay Rights." American Civil Liberties Union Briefing Paper Number 18., 1996

Brummett, Barry. "Ideologies in Two Gay Rights Controversies." Gay Speak - Gay Male and Lesbian Communication. Ed. James W. Chesebro. New York, 1981

Cozic, C.P., at al. "AIDS." Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, Edition 1995,  Macromedia Inc., 1994

Mitchell, Chris. "Same Sex Marriage in Hawaii.", April 15th 1997

Mohr, Richard D. A More Perfect Union. Boston, 1994

Rutledge, Leigh W. Gay Decades. New York, June 1992

Shogren, Elizabeth. "Clinton's Speech to Gays, Lesbians Will Be A First." Los Angeles Times, November 8th 1997, A1, A11

Sloan, Jerry. "A brief history of gay rights.", 1997

Weiss, Kenneth R., and Dave Lesher. "UC Regents Defy Wilson, OK Gay Partner Benefits." Los Angeles Times, November 22nd 1997, A1, A27

(no author) "Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health."