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4.4: LGBTQIA+ History

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    4.4 LGBTQIA+ History

    Combined with the sexual revolution and the feminist movement of the 1960s, the counterculture helped establish a climate that fostered the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Many gay rights groups were founded in Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities that were administrative centers in the network of U.S. military installations and the places where many gay men suffered dishonorable discharges. The first postwar organization for homosexual civil rights, the Mattachine Society, was launched in Los Angeles in 1950. The first national organization for lesbians, the Daughters of Bilitis, was founded in San Francisco five years later. In 1966, the city became home to the world’s first organization for transsexual people, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, and in 1967, the Sexual Freedom League of San Francisco was born. Through these organizations and others, gay and lesbian activists fought against the criminalization and discrimination of their sexual identities on a number of occasions throughout the 1960s, employing strategies of both protests and litigation.


    In the 1970s, gay replaced homosexual as the term of choice from within the community. Initially, gay was predominantly used as an umbrella term meaning both gay and lesbian people. When the phrases gay rights movement and gay liberation movement are used, it refers to the fight for gay and lesbian rights. As the 1970s progressed, lesbian activists preferred to be identified as lesbians, rather than gay or gay women. Outside of the broader meaning of the term gay in "gay rights movement" and "gay liberation movement" or in organizational names from the 1970s (such as the Gay Liberation Front and National Gay Task Force), when the term gay is used in this text it refers specifically to gay men. Although the term LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) has been used throughout the text, it is not a term people used in 1970s. Transgender and bisexual activism emerged in the 1970s, but each functioned on the outskirts of the gay liberation movement. In fact, in this era, transgender and bisexual activists often faced discrimination from gay and lesbian communities. Transgender is used in this text as an umbrella term that covers all people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior differs from those typically associated with the sex they were at birth. Queer was considered a derogatory term in the 1970s, unlike the positive all-inclusive meaning it has today. (page 60)


    LGBTQ Representation dates back to the earliest human civilizations. However, gay and lesbian communities only started to gain visibility in America with the development of industrialized urban centers in the late 1800s, most notably in New York. In 1903, New York police, under pressure from religious morality groups, conducted the first known raid targeting gay men. The Armed Services launched its first known investigation of homosexual behavior in 1919, with a probe into the activities of its cadets in Newport, Rhode Island. Although the military had a long history of persecuting homosexual activity dating back to the Revolutionary War, the Armed Services only officially made consensual sodomy a criminal offense in 1920. Alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933 saw a period of greater freedom for LGBTQ people. Illegal speakeasies allowed LGBTQ people relatively safe places to congregate away from police intervention. Performers such as Gene Malin, Ma Rainey (IMAGE 4.14), and Bessie Smith openly espoused gay and lesbian identities, while female impersonators such as Julian Eltinge became popular international performers. Books with gay, lesbian, and transgender themes such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness garnered wide popularity. Annual drag-queen balls drew thousands of participants in New York, while smaller balls gained popularity across the nation.

    Ma Rainey photograph.

    IMAGE 4.14 Ma Rainey


    During the 1960s, police departments across the nation enforced state bans on serving alcohol to LGBTQ people by raiding bars suspected of serving LGBTQ patrons. So when New York City police entered the LGBTQ-serving Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969, they expected the typical routine of shutting down the bar and arresting selected patrons. But when arrested patrons resisted and a threatening crowd gathered, police retreated back into the bar for protection. By the time that police reinforcements arrived, a riot had erupted in the streets that would continue for nights to follow. The moment would come to symbolize the beginning of the gay liberation movement. The next year, commemorative marches and “gay-ins” were organized in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to coincide with the anniversary of the riot. New York’s march, which started small with tens of people, grew to hundreds then to thousands as it entered Central Park. A Los Angeles contingent enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to acquire a city permit; it became the first LGBTQ march sanctioned by a city government. These marches developed into an annual event, grew in size and participation, and soon spread across the nation and the world in cities small and large as a reminder and celebration of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.


    The first cases of what would later be termed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were reported in 1981 when young men in three major United States cities were hospitalized with cases of extremely rare, deadly opportunistic infections. Within fifteen years, AIDS would become the leading cause of death for Americans aged 25-44. Now it is known that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, is a blood-borne, sexually transmitted disease that cannot be acquired via casual contact. But in the early 1980s, all anyone knew was that this new illness was fatal. The ambiguity was a recipe for panic and blame. Because the first reported cases of disease were among gay men, public opinion pigeonholed the burgeoning epidemic as a “gay plague.” The stigma of homosexuality remained strong in the 1980s, a decade which began with no federal or statewide anti-discrimination laws in place to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ people. This prejudice seemed to be a primary cause of the relative inaction of the federal government to address the epidemic. From June 1981 to June 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spent $1 million on AIDS, which by October 1982, had stricken 634 Americans and killed 260. Across the same time frame, the CDC spent $9 million on Legionnaires' disease, which had caused fewer than 50 deaths. Even more troubling, because of the long incubation period, it was estimated that a quarter of a million Americans were infected by the time of the first deaths. Some gay men reacted to the sudden appearance of AIDS in the community with denial. Scant public health warnings and virtually absent media attention gave rise to theories that the new disease didn’t actually exist or couldn’t be spread by sexual contact. The early inability of scientists to find the cause of the disease contributed to the confusion. Doctors and activists who spoke of a coming cataclysm were distrusted and dismissed for exaggerating the threat. Many gay men felt that authorities were trying to put them back in the closet and reverse the hard-won battles for acceptance and visibility.

    Photograph of the wall of placards at the Washington Mall that symbolizes all of the San Franciscans who had died of AIDS.

    3.pngIMAGE 4.15 A still image from the 1989 documentary entitled “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” – a documentary that gave an account of the early days of AIDS activism in America.

    The text on the bottom of the poster reads: “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on with the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable... Use your power...Vote...Boycott...Defend yourselves...Turn anger, fear, pain into action.” A pink triangle was the symbol used to mark gays in Nazi concentration camps.

    Remixed from:

    ACT UP New York, “Silence = Death,” Digital Public Library of America, CC BY 3.0.

    Morgan, Kyle and Rodriguez, Meg, "The American LGBTQ Rights Movement: An Introduction" (2020). Textbooks Series (imprint). 2. CC BY-NC.

    ACT UP and the AIDS Crisis

    In 1981, doctors began to identify the disease that would come to be known as HIV/AIDS in young gay men in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco. Because of high rates of infection in gay communities and misconceptions about the disease’s origin and transmission, public perception conceived of AIDS as a “gay plague.” By the end of 1986, 11,932 AIDS-related deaths had been reported in the United States and the disease was spreading rapidly across demographics and through multiple forms of transmission. However, the US government had done little to advance education and prevention.

    In March 1987, gay rights advocate Larry Kramer and an initial group of approximately 300 activists formed the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) in meetings at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York. Angered by US government homophobia that led to inaction and mismanagement of the AIDS Crisis, ACT UP sought to improve the quality of medical and social services for persons with HIV/AIDS and raise international awareness about the disease and its devastating impact. Tactics included non-violent protests, targeted demands, and poster campaigns. Major urban areas with large LGBTQ populations, like New York and San Francisco, became centers of ACT UP work, but active chapters organized in a loose network appeared in cities across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Working alongside—and sometimes in tension with—other AIDS-awareness projects like the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, ACT UP was known for its radical protest strategies. Targets of these protests included numerous politicians, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    By the early 1990s, the original ACT UP network was splintered by internal political conflict, but its impact was clear. Through its advocacy, the organization had helped to lower the price of drugs, transform the FDA’s approval process for them, include patients with AIDS in new drug trials, diminish the social stigma of AIDS, and educate people about prevention. This work supported medical advances that, by the mid-1990s, helped reduce the number of AIDS-related deaths for persons infected with HIV. This primary source set uses documents, photographs, posters, and other promotional materials to tell the story of ACT UP during the AIDS Crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    Remixed From:

    Franky Abbott. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America. CC BY 3.0.