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
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
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
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
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
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.
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