Brief History of

the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement

in the U.S.


The Homophile Years (1940s-60s WWII, Cold War, McCarthyism):


 Growth in the urban subculture of gay men and lesbians.

 Government and police harassment, persecution, and investigation of gays.



 The homophile movement remained small and relatively marginalized.


End of 1960s

 Rise of activism + Gay is good

 Reformist goals:

 decriminalization of homosexual acts,

 equal treatment and equal rights under the law,

 dissemination of accurate,

 unbiased information about homosexuality.


 right to publish gay and lesbian magazines,

 first employment discrimination cases won,

 constraints on police harassment,

 dialogue opened in the scientific and religious communities,

 media visibility,

 organizational impulse,

 denunciation of how gays and lesbians are a mistreated, persecuted minority.

 Problems: Societys hostility against homosexuals and the penalties attached to exposure.



Stonewall and the Emergence of Radical Gay Liberation


June 1969

 Stonewall Riot Symbol of a new militance. Result: a radical mass movement.


Early 1970s

 Gay Liberation Front (GLF): Radical gay and lesbian activism.

 Influences: civil rights movement, Black Power movement, white student movement, antiwar movement, and feminism.


 Attack of the systemic oppression of gays and lesbians.

 Analysis of gay oppression and sexism.

 Making common cause with all the oppressed and commitment to a larger project of political change.

 Public demonstrations and emphasis on visibility.


 New rhetoric of pride and affirmation.

 Political, social, and cultural organizations that helped build a movement and a community.

 Public affirmation of homosexual identity (coming out in public).

 Problems: Employment discrimination, arrests, political conservatism, economic entrenchment, and lack of attention to sexism and racism.



 Reformative politics: Rather than try to destroy the old in order to build something new, they sought recognition and inclusion in American society.

 Gay Activist Alliance (GAA).

 From liberation to activism.

 Emphasis on coming out and gay rights. They expected and demanded acceptance for who they were.

 Militant and angry protests.

 Language of pride and self-affirmation; rejection of mainstream cultural views of homosexuality.

 Single-issue organizations, completely gay-focused, with clearly specified structures and processes.

 Goals: ending job discrimination, media invisibility, church and military discrimination.


 1973 the American Psychiatric Association eliminates homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

 less discrimination and harassment,

 greater visibility,

 new economic opportunities for gay-oriented businesses (bars, bathhouses, discos, restaurants, etc.)

 a much larger and congenial gay world.



 Most gay mens lack of understanding of institutionalized sexism forced lesbians to fight for political and action agendas that recognized their needs. Thus, they formed their own autonomous lesbian groups, developing a separate lesbian-feminist movement where lesbians with experience in womens liberation and women with experience in gay liberation converged.


 Developing an ideology of lesbianism that challenged the invisibility of lesbianism, the new rhetoric of gay liberation, mainstream feminism, and heterosexuality.

 Building institutions and creating lesbian-only spaces where a culture and a community could flourish.


 a self-sufficient lesbian community

 crisis lines and community centers,

 magazines, newspapers, publishing companies, bookstores, film collectives,

 food co-ops, restaurants, etc.

 self-defense schools and shelters for battered women.


CHALLENGES (late 1970s):

 Religious fundamentalism and new conservatism: The New Rights crusade against homosexuality. The movement lacked the financial resources, the numbers, the influence, and the political sophistication to counter the threat.

 Internal tensions in the movement.

 Collapse of the lesbian-separatist utopia because of economic recession.

 Autonomous organizing efforts of lesbians and gays of color, who demanded inclusion in both representation and setting of agendas.


THE IMPACT OF AIDS (1980s early 1990s):

 Through the effective response to the epidemic, the movement achieved a high level of sophistication, influence, and permanence.

 Money, skills, and recruits went toward building AIDS service and advocacy organizations, as well as the broader agenda of gay politics.

 Dramatic increase in the level of organization and visibility of gays of color, whose communities were the most affected by the epidemic.

 Lesbians got involved in the fight against AIDS, thus starting to work more closely with gay men and assuming leadership roles in formerly male-dominated organizations.

 A new culture of sexuality developed.

 Activists with years of grassroots experience are now able to have careers in the movement.

 Return to tactics of direct action and civil disobedience.

 Revival of a radical political analysis and broad strategic vision within the movement.

 Participation in coalition with other movements around issues of common concern.


 Source: DEmilio, John. After Stonewall. Queer Cultures. Eds. Deborah Carlin and Jennifer DiGrazia. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004. 3-35.