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The History Of Social Movements For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, And Transgender People

An earlier version of this essay was written as an appendix to a lesson plan for high school psychology teachers called The Psychology of Sexual Orientation: a modular lesson plan/teaching resource for high school psychology teachers (login required). The full lesson plan is part of a set of 19 unit lesson plans that were made as a benefit for APA members and can be found in a section of the APA website that is only for members.

Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexuality and same-sex relationships in every culture that has been written about, whether they were accepted or not.

Bonnie J. Morris, PhD, wrote a short history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) social movements.

On June 12, 2016, one person opened fire on many people at the gay dance club Pulse in Orlando. People are calling this hate crime the worst mass shooting in U.S. history because at least 49 people died and another 50 were hurt. It happened during the weekend when cities and towns all over the world celebrated LGBT Pride.

The fact that mayors, police and FBI officials, local and national politicians, and even the President of the United States reached out to express outrage and concern right away shows how far the LGBT community has come in terms of acceptance and public support. Even though the LGBT community and individuals are still the targets of hate violence and backlash all over the world, the hard work of activists and allies has brought us to a time when it is the violent people who are called sick, not the people who are hurt.

People who might now call themselves LGBT or queer have been persecuted by church, state, and medical authorities for hundreds of years. This led to the start of social movements that fought for their rights and acceptance. Where laws or traditional customs made it illegal to be gay or to dress differently based on gender, this could be shown through public trials, exile, medical warnings, and words from the pulpit. These forms of persecution kept homophobia alive for hundreds of years, but they also made whole groups of people aware of the fact that people are different.

Before the scientific and political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were few organizations or resources for people who realized they shared this identity and were at risk, or who dared to speak out for tolerance and change. As the public media and ideas about human rights grew, activists from all walks of life came together. They got their courage from sympathetic medical studies, banned books, new sex research, and a more democratic atmosphere. By the 20th century, there was a movement to recognize gays and lesbians. Feminism and new anthropologies of difference helped this happen.

But throughout the 150 years of homosexual social movements (roughly from the 1870s to today), leaders and organizers struggled to address the very different concerns and identity issues of gay men, women who identified as lesbians, and others who identified as gender variant or nonbinary. White, male, and Western activists whose groups and ideas helped fight homophobia didn’t always represent the wide range of racial, class, and national identities that make a larger LGBT agenda more complicated. Often, women were left out of everything.

How did LGBT activism get started? Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexuality and same-sex relationships in every culture that has been written about, whether they were accepted or not. We know that there was homosexuality in ancient Israel because it is against the law in the Bible. In Ancient Greece, however, both men and women were involved in homosexual relationships.

There is also strong evidence that some people have lived at least part of their lives as a different gender than they were given at birth. From Sappho’s lyrics about same-sex desire in the seventh century BCE to youths raised as the opposite sex in cultures from Albania to Afghanistan, from the “female husbands” of Kenya to the Native American “Two-Spirit,” there have always been alternatives to the Western male-female and heterosexual binaries.

These facts slowly spread to the West through travelers’ journals, missionaries’ church records, diplomats’ journals, and reports by medical anthropologists. Eyewitness accounts from a time when there wasn’t much else to read or watch were, of course, full of the biases of the (often Western or white) observer. This made people think that homosexual practices were strange, foreign, savage, medical, or a sign of a lower racial hierarchy. European and Christian colonizers fought against the peaceful growth of transgender and bisexual acceptance in different native cultures.

During the time of European exploration and empire-building, the fact that Native American, North African, and Pacific Islander cultures accepted “Two-Spirit” people and same-sex relationships shocked European invaders, who didn’t like it when people didn’t fit into their narrow ideas of “male” and “female” roles. In the New World, the European powers had their own laws against what they called “sodomy.” In 1566, the Spanish put a Frenchman to death in Florida for being gay. This was the first known case of a death sentence for homosexuality in North America.

What could have been learned about same-sex love or gender identity was buried in scandal as the nation’s power and Christian faith grew. In a strange way, both wars between new countries and the deaths or departures of male soldiers left women behind to live together and helped men form strong bonds with each other. Same-sex friendships did well in places where it was frowned upon for single men and women who weren’t related to each other to freely mix or hang out. Especially women’s relationships were not looked at closely because there was no risk of getting pregnant. Still, in many parts of the world where clitoridectomy was a common practice because of genital circumcision, women’s sexual activity and feelings were limited.

Where missionaries forced Europeans to dress a certain way, which was a clear sign of gender, we find a complicated history of both gender identity and resistance. The way the Bible was interpreted made it illegal for women to wear pants or for men to dress like women. Sensationalized public trials warned against “deviants” but also made “deviants” like Joan of Arc popular as martyrs and heroes. The word “faggot” comes from a stick of wood used to burn gay men in public. Even though it was against the law, cross-dressing was popular in early modern Europe and America. Because sexism kept women and girls from jobs and economic/educational opportunities that were only for men, they might try to pass as men to get access to experiences or money they want.

A lot of women who were not necessarily transgender chose to do this. Women “pretended” to be men, sometimes for years, so they could fight in the military (like Deborah Sampson), work as pirates (like Mary Read and Anne Bonney), go to medical school, and do other things. Men and women who lived as the opposite gender were often only found out after they died. This was because male and female clothing and grooming were so different in much of Western culture that it was easy to “pass” in some places. Also, roles in the arts where women were not allowed to work required men to play female roles. This often created a high-status, competitive market for people we might call transwomen today, in places like Shakespeare’s theater, Japanese Kabuki, and the Chinese opera. This acceptance of performance artists, and the fact that “drag” humor is so popular, Cross-culturally, it may not have been the start of transgender advocacy, but it did make the arts a safe place for LGBT people who built careers on disguise and illusion in the theater.

During the time of sexology studies, a small group of well-off medical experts began to push for a limited tolerance of people who were born “invert.” Before the 19th century, there wasn’t much formal study of what we now call homosexuality in the West. For example, medical texts called women with big clitorises “tribades,” and they had strict rules about how to punish men who did homosexual things. European doctors and scientists like Carl von Westphal (1869), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1882), and Havelock Ellis (1900) were among the first to try to understand the range of sexual behavior in people (1897). In their writings, Krafft-Ebing and Ellis were open to the idea that being gay or bisexual is natural for a certain group of people. However, they also called a “third sex” degenerate and abnormal.

Sigmund Freud wrote in the same time period. He didn’t think homosexuality was a disease or a crime, and he thought bisexuality was a natural trait that started when a baby’s gender wasn’t known. But Freud also thought that lesbian desires were a sign of immaturity that women could get over by getting married to a man and letting him be in charge. Through magazines and presentations, these writings slowly reached people who were interested in learning more about people like them. Some, like the English writer Radclyffe Hall, were happy to accept the idea that they were born the wrong way around.

Magnus Hirschfeld, a German researcher, went on to collect more information by starting Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science, which is Europe’s best library archive of materials on gay cultural history. Between the two World Wars, England had a backlash against gay and lesbian writers like Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. This was in contrast to Germany, which had more lenient laws and a thriving gay bar scene. But when Hitler’s Third Reich came to power, Germany’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee stopped being so open-minded. On May 10, 1933, the Nazis burned the books in Hirschfeld’s large library.

Before World War II, not many people in the United States tried to start groups that supported gay and lesbian relationships. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, gay life in cities like New York’s Greenwich Village and Harlem did well before World War II. The blues music of African-American women showed different kinds of lesbian desire, struggle, and humor. Along with male and female drag stars, these performances showed straight people what the gay underworld was like during Prohibition, when speakeasy clubs broke race and sex rules. The chaos of World War II made it possible for gay men and women who had been living alone to meet each other as soldiers and war workers.

Other volunteers were uprooted from small towns and sent all over the world. During the war, LGBT people were allowed to serve in the military and were sent to death camps by law during the Holocaust. This changed the minds of many people. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of homosexuals who worked for the government in the early 1950s outraged writers and federal employees like Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Allen Ginsberg, and Harry Hay, whose own lives were shown to be second-class under the law.

A growing civil rights movement (Martin Luther King’s key organizer, Bayard Rustin, was gay) led to the first political demands for fair treatment of gays and lesbians in mental health, public policy, and employment. Alfred Kinsey’s 1947 Kinsey Report and other studies showed that there was a much wider range of homosexual identities and behaviors than was previously thought. Kinsey made a “scale” or spectrum that went from completely straight to completely gay.

The Mattachine Society, which was started in 1950 by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland, was the main group for gay men who felt like they were being treated unfairly because of their culture. Other important homophile groups on the West Coast were One, Inc., which was started in 1952, and Daughters of Bilitis, which was started by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in 1955.

Thousands of people got information and support from these groups through meetings and publications. Sociologists and psychologists who were well-known at the time quickly backed these first groups. In 1951, Donald Webster Cory wrote “The Homosexual in America” in which he said that gay men and lesbians were a real minority group. In 1953, the National Institute of Mental Health gave Evelyn Hooker, PhD, a grant to study gay men. Her groundbreaking paper, which she gave in 1956, showed that gay men were just as well-adjusted as straight men, and sometimes even more so.

But it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association stopped putting homosexuality in its diagnostic manual as a “illness.” During the 1950s and 1960s, gay men and women were still at risk of being locked up in a mental hospital, going to jail, losing their jobs, and/or losing custody of their children because courts and clinics saw gay love as sick, illegal, or immoral.

In 1965, the civil rights movement won a law that made it illegal to treat people differently because of their race. At the same time, longtime activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings led the first gay rights protests in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. On June 28, 1969, people at the popular Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village fought back against police raids of their neighborhood bar. This was a turning point for gay rights. Stonewall is still seen as a turning point for gay pride. Since the 1970s, “pride marches” have been held every June across the United States to remember Stonewall. Scholars have recently said that drag performers, people of color, bisexuals, and transgender people who went to the Stonewall Riots should be given more credit for what they did.

During the 1970s gay liberation movement, there were a lot of political groups that were often at odds with each other. Lesbians who were influenced by the feminist movement of the 1970s started their own collectives, record labels, music festivals, newspapers, bookstores, and publishing houses. They also called for lesbian rights in mainstream feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Lesbian festivals, bookstore readings, and music concerts for women were very successful at getting women to become activists. The feminist movement against domestic violence also helped women leave abusive marriages, while for lesbian mothers, keeping custody of their children became the most important thing.

In 1972, the United Church of Christ ordained the first openly gay minister. This was a step toward making religion more open to gay men and women of faith. Soon, there were also gay and lesbian church and synagogue groups. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was started in 1972 to give family members more support roles in the gay rights movement. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the election of openly gay and lesbian representatives like Elaine Noble and Barney Frank, and the first march on Washington for gay rights in 1979 are all examples of how political action exploded. In the 1980s, there was a setback to the growing global LGBT rights movement. The AIDS epidemic killed a lot of gay men, which led to renewed coalitions between men and women and angry street theater by groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation. As many as a million people marched on Washington for gay rights in 1987 and again in 1993. Direct mail helped the growth of right-wing religious groups that thought AIDS was God’s punishment.

In Washington, a group of political lobby groups called the “New Right” competed with national LGBT organizations to get religious groups exempted from any new LGBT rights protections. During the same time period, one part of the gay rights movement called for an end to the military’s practice of kicking out gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers. The case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, which got a lot of attention because of a made-for-TV movie called “Serving in Silence,” was used as an example. Even though gay men and lesbians in uniform are loyal and serve their country well, the compromise is uncomfortable and unfair. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came about as an alternative to witch hunts and dishonorable discharges in the military for decades. Yet more service members ended up being discharged under DADT.

In April 1997, millions of Americans watched as actress Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television. This started a new era of gay celebrity power and media visibility, but it wasn’t without risks. Celebrity performers, both gay and straight, kept being some of the loudest people calling for tolerance and equal rights. In the 1990s, when the media paid more attention to gay and lesbian civil rights, trans and intersex voices started to get more attention. Books like “Gender Outlaw” (1994) and “My Gender Workbook” (1998) by Kate Boernstein, “Myths of Gender” (1992) by Ann Fausto-Sterling, and “Transgender Warriors” (1998) by Leslie Feinberg helped to make women’s and gender studies more open to transgender and nonbinary Because of the hard work of many groups and people, and with the help of the Internet and direct-mail campaigns, gay and lesbian couples have made new legal gains in the 21st century. Vermont legalized same-sex civil unions in 2000, and Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex marriages in 2004.

When Lawrence v. Texas struck down state sodomy laws in 2003, gay and lesbian Americans were no longer considered criminals. Gay marriage was first legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Canada, but the idea of church and state recognizing gay marriage continued to divide people all over the world. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, LGBT rights made a lot of progress. In response, conservative evangelicals in the U.S. began supporting and funding homophobic campaigns abroad. The death penalty for gays and lesbians in Uganda was one of the harshest in Africa.

In the first part of the 21st century, there was a new focus on transgender activism and a rise in the use of words that questioned the idea of two genders. More and more movies and TV shows showed transgender women and shows about same-sex couples raising children. Transphobia, cissexism, and other words (like “hir” and “them”) became more common, and more transgender youth and adults were shown in movies and on TV. But there were still problems between lesbian and trans activists. For example, national LGBT groups didn’t go to the long-running Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival because it included trans people. Like many woman-only events with a mostly lesbian base, Michfest had supported the idea of bringing together women and girls born female. After its 40th anniversary in August 2015, the festival was no longer held.

Internet activism grew while many of the public places where LGBT activists used to meet, like bars, bookstores, and women’s music festivals, started to close down. For many younger women activists, the term “queer” replaced the term “lesbian.” When the gains made in the U.S. were not matched by equal rights laws in the other 75 countries where homosexuality was still illegal, the focus shifted to activism around the world. As of 2016, LGBT identity and activism were still punishable by death in ten countries: Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Yemen. The plight of the LGBT community in Russia was given a lot of attention during the 2014 Winter Olympics, when President Obama sent a group of out LGBT athletes. LGBT Catholics all over the world found hope in what the new Pope Francis said (“Who am I to judge?”).

Between spring 2015 and spring 2016, the United States may have changed the most. In late spring 2015, Alison Bechdel’s lesbian-themed Broadway play Fun Home won several Tony Awards, former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner changed his name to Caitlyn Jenner, and the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015. (Obergefell v. Hodges). By spring 2016, two movies, Carol and The Danish Girl, had themes that were both lesbian and transgender. And the Supreme Court said that if a lesbian couple adopted a child in one state, the adoption had to be recognized in all states. During the same time, the United States also had a lot of racial profiling problems and tragedies, which led LGBT activism to focus on “intersectionality,” or recognizing how race, class, gender identity, and sexism all affect each other.

With the June 12 attacks on the Pulse Club in Orlando, intersectionality became clear as straight allies held vigils to mourn the loss of young Latino drag queens and lesbians of color. With unanswered questions about the killer’s possible ties to ISIS terrorism, other voices are now calling for alliances between the LGBT and Muslim communities and greater recognition of the perspectives of those who are both Muslim and LGBT in the U.S. and around the world. The possible repression of identity, which may have influenced the killer’s choice of victim, has brought new attention to the cost of internalized or culturally expressed homophobia in and outside of the United States.

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