United States House Represenative Bella Abzug introduced to Congress the Equality Act of 1974, the first federal civil rights act to include pro- tection for gay and lesbian people. It failed. Gay and lesbian anti-discrimination bills were reintroduced through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, and although each garnered increasing support, it was never enough for passage. In 1996, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was introduced to the floor of the United States Senate, but was defeated by a single vote. As of 2020, ENDA has yet to garner passage.
Executive orders were an easier method to extend LGBTQ protections. In 1998, President Clinton signed an executive order to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal service workforce. In 2014, President Obama signed an executive order to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for all federal contractors.
When the United States Supreme Court decided in 1986 that private sexual acts would continue to be deemed illegal in Bowers v. Hardwick, it threatened LGBTQ civil rights at a fundamental level. Many lower courts used the precedent to rule that LGBTQ people could be judged implicitly criminal and unfit for a number of rights. One example was the 1995 Virginia Supreme Court decision Bottoms v. Bottoms, in which Pamela Kay Bottoms won custody of her daughter Sharon’s child in part because Sharon was openly lesbian. Following similar rationales, state supreme courts in North Carolina and Alabama affirmed the removal of children from lesbian and gay parents.
LGBTQ activists and organizations fought off discriminatory state initiatives in Idaho, Oregon and Maine in the mid-1990s. However in Colorado, they were not so successful. In reaction to lesbian and gay anti-discrimination ordinances adopted in Aspen, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2 in 1992 to prohibit any city, town, or county in the state from any action designed to protect its lesbian or gay citizens. LGBTQ activists fought the measure in the courts, and turned one of their biggest defeats into one of their biggest legal victories. In 1996, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Romer v. Evans that Colorado's Amendment 2 was unconstitutional. This Supreme Court decision was the first to claim that lesbian and gay people were equal to any other citizens and could not be denied participation in society and politics. Besides providing a legal standing to challenge government discrimination, it checked the power of voters or legislators to deny equal rights to LGBTQ people nationwide.
In 2003, the United States Supreme Court delivered another victory for LGBTQ rights when it ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Just as the federal affirmation of sodomy laws had a wide-reaching impact on the LGBTQ community, so too did the abolition. When, in 2004, Massachusetts’ judges ruled that the ban against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, they cited Lawrence v. Texas and its implication that governments should not intrude on “consensual adult expressions of intimacy and one’s choice of partner.” Lawrence v. Texas also cast doubt on such far-reaching practices as the deportation of non-citizen same-sex partners of American citizens, the ban of LGBTQ people from military service, and the removal of children from LGBTQ parents.
Although Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas were critical decisions in supporting LGBTQ rights, the United States Supreme Court did not indicate by their rulings that LGBTQ citizens necessarily had the same status and rights as other minority groups. The justices ruled in 1995 that an LGBTQ group could legally be excluded from a public parade solely because parade organizers disapproved of their message. In 2000, the judges ruled that the Boy Scouts of America, as a private club, could exclude LGBTQ people because the latter’s presence conflicted with the group’s mission and beliefs. At at time when no gender, ethnic, or racial group could be excluded merely because an organization disapproved of them, these Supreme Court decisions suggested that LGBTQ people did not merit the same equal protection.