Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement Research Paper

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Tolerance of (and attitudes about) gay and lesbian behavior varied throughout history as religious proscription gave way to punitive civil laws and “enlightenment” made homosexuality a mental illness rather than a crime. The first efforts at “gay liberation” were a phenomenon of the early twentieth century. Hot-button issues in the twenty-first include marriage rights for gays and the harsh persecution of homosexuals in more than seventy countries.

Gay men and lesbian women have existed throughout history, although attitudes toward them have varied in different eras. In ancient Greece people tolerated homosexual liaisons under certain circumstances, whereas certain verses of the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic scriptures speak of homosexual behavior as a grave sin. Negative attitudes toward homosexuality often evolved from interpretations of these scriptures and were written into the civil law in numerous countries. In 2010 more than seventy countries have laws that criminalize homosexuality, and in some countries homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. In 2002, according to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed four men for homosexuality; in June 2009 a homosexual man was decapitated and then publicly crucified in Riyadh after being charged with murder and abduction. In Brazil, according to the international AIDS charity AVERT, 2,509 gay men were executed between 1997 and 2007.

During the Enlightenment the punitive attitude toward homosexuals was replaced in many European countries by the belief that being gay is a mental disease. (The Enlightenment was a philosophic movement of the eighteenth century marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism.) Instead of being executed, homosexuals were committed to insane asylums. But in England the Labouchere Amendment (named after the British Member of Parliament Henry Labouchere) was passed in 1885, making homosexual conduct punishable by two years in prison. This law would be used to convict the Irish author Oscar Wilde in 1895. It was also exported to all of the British colonies, many of which still had a version of it on the books well into the 1980s. (It was repealed in England in 1967.)

For centuries people seemed to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude about sexual orientation. Famous people were believed to be homosexual, but modern historians often have a difficult time finding proof because in the past people considered writing in any detail about private sexual conduct to be vulgar. The so-called Boston marriage of Victorian times is a good example: Strong and independent women established loving friendships and lived together as companions, but few documents conclusively show whether these relationships included sex or were mainly platonic.

What we know as “gay liberation” is a comparatively modern phenomenon. In countries such as Germany people made sporadic efforts to change the laws or change society’s attitudes. In Berlin the little-known author Karl Maria Benkert (who later changed his name to “Karl Kertbeny”) became an advocate for the rights of homosexuals (in fact, he is credited with inventing the term); in 1869 he wrote several essays challenging the myths that homosexuals are effeminate or defective and stating his belief that homosexuality is natural (a person is born that way) rather than a moral failing. Although he was a man ahead of his time, Benkert’s assertions did not become the prevailing views of his era. Occasionally an enlightened doctor or educator would take up Benkert’s views. In Germany in 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld, a neurologist, founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Hirschfeld regarded homosexuals as a “third sex” and advocated unsuccessfully for the repeal of laws that criminalized their behavior. When the German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, groups who taught tolerance of gays were banned, and thousands of homosexuals were later put to death by the Nazis.

In England in 1914 the psychologist Havelock Ellis co-founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. In addition to educating the public about human sexuality, Ellis taught tolerance of homosexuals; he believed that being homosexual (educators and doctors used the term sexual inversion) is not a disease and should not be considered a crime, but his ideas found little support in England at that time. In 1928, when the British novelist Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness, a book that was sympathetic toward its lesbian characters, the British government immediately judged it to be obscene, and all copies were seized.

Early U.S. Gay Rights Organizations

Rights was perhaps the first U.S. gay rights organization. Postal clerk Henry Gerber founded it in 1924, but by 1925 Chicago police had shut it down. Gerber was briefly arrested, he lost his job, and his efforts at advocating for homosexuals received little public support.

In 1951 Los Angeles music teacher Harry Hay and several of his colleagues founded another U.S. homophile organization, the Mattachine Society. It was followed in 1955 by the Daughters of Bilitis, founded by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin as an advocacy group especially for lesbians. These organizations provided support and encouragement but often did so quietly. Although they sought more respect and tolerance, they also advised members to assimilate as much as possible and to avoid dressing or behaving in ways that would call attention to their lifestyle. Later some militant members of the emerging gay liberation movement would regard the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis as accommodationist, too willing to remain in the closet and too afraid to stand up for greater acceptance; but in a society dominated by the conservative politics of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, when homosexuals were often arrested for “lewd conduct,” the 1950s were not a good time to be vocal about one’s sexual orientation.

Although no single event created the U.S. gay rights movement, most historians agree that the Stonewall Riots were a defining moment. In June 1969 in New York City police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn; such raids were common and usually resulted in numerous arrests. But this time the bar’s patrons decided to fight back, leading to three days of civil unrest. In the United States this was the era of the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and that environment may have encouraged homosexuals to actively oppose the prejudice they often encountered. The Stonewall Riots mobilized the homosexual community and led to an increasing unwillingness to assimilate or accommodate.

What happened at Stonewall would happen in other cities. In Canada Toronto’s gay community was subjected to a series of raids of bath houses in February 1981. Police used sledgehammers and crowbars and arrested 338 people. Members of the gay community were horrified by what they felt was overkill, and the next night four thousand gay men and lesbian women staged a protest march, the largest demonstration of its kind in Toronto. Like Stonewall, the demonstration energized the gay community, making members even more determined to fight for better treatment.

In India, a country where gay and lesbian acts are still criminal offenses, a defining event occurred in December 1998. A movie by the director Deepa Mehta premiered, but this one was unique. Fire featured a subplot in which two women fall in love. Religious conservatives were outraged and attacked the theater in Mumbai (Bombay) where the movie was being shown, breaking windows, beating up patrons, and vandalizing the building. Similar events occurred in other Indian cities. However, this time a coalition of civil libertarians, human rights activists, and free speech advocates joined with members of the lesbian community to march and protest both the attacks and the government’s efforts to censor the movie. This protest march marked one of the first times that lesbians had been visible in India; most lived hidden lives, afraid to call attention to themselves. The protest march led to the founding of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights. In June 2003 a rally and march were held in Calcutta to protest laws that make homosexuality punishable by ten years in prison; several hundred people marched peacefully in one of the few public demonstrations held by India’s gay community.

A number of groups emerged in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s to fight for the rights of gay men and lesbian women. One of the best known was the National Gay Task Force (NGTF) in 1973; in 1985, it changed its name to the more inclusive National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). The organization not only advocates for changes in discriminatory laws in the United States, but also conducts sociological studies about society’s changing attitudes, works with the government to develop strategies to combat violence against gays, monitors the media for antigay content, and conducts international conferences about gay issues. When AIDS first appeared in the United States during the 1980s, NGLTF was at the forefront in combating myths and prejudices and educating the public about HIV. A more vocal and sometimes controversial organization is ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Founded in 1987, it is known for its slogan “Silence=Death” and its commitment to speak out against discrimination in a demonstrative manner, using tactics of civil disobedience called “direct actions.” ACT-UP works to change both policy and attitudes about AIDS. Another advocacy group is GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination), which was founded in 1985 to monitor the media and advocate for an end to antigay stereotypes in print, broadcasting, and film.

British Activist Groups

In England one of the best-known activist groups is OutRage, founded in 1990. It, too, uses civil disobedience, staging unique and often provocative direct actions to call attention to discrimination and to defend the rights of England’s gay community. OutRage is especially good at getting media coverage: Members have staged “kiss-ins,” performed a ceremony described as an “exorcism of homophobia,” and staged noisy but nonviolent demonstrations at police stations when the group felt that the police were not doing enough to arrest people who attack gays. Another gay rights group in the United Kingdom is Stonewall, which was founded in 1989. It uses lobbying, working with government officials and members of Parliament, to improve the legal rights of gays. Stonewall has also done research on attitudes about homosexuality and sponsored workplace forums so that employers can better understand and support diversity.

Australia seems to have been influenced by the U.S. gay rights movement. Melbourne has a chapter of Daughters of Bilitis. Australia also has a number of activist groups, such as the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, which has fought for the decriminalization of homosexual behavior. Economic advocacy groups, such as the Australian Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association (AGLTA), also work to find gay-friendly and gay-tolerant hotels and places for visitors to shop.


Even in countries where homosexuality is still regarded as a sin or a crime, advocacy groups exist, but they run the risk of being shut down by the government. For example, in Nepal in June 2004 the Supreme Court imposed a ban on the Blue Diamond Society, which advocates on behalf of gay men and lesbian women and conducts HIV/AIDS education. Advocacy groups exist in a handful of Muslim countries (most notably Turkey), but in more theocratic cultures gay men and lesbian women have turned to the Internet to discuss issues while avoiding government crackdowns. In the United States some Muslim immigrants started Al Fatiha (the Opening) in 1997; when it held a conference in 1998, participants came from all over the United States and from South Africa, Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands to discuss the problems facing gay Muslims worldwide.

Although advocacy has been helpful in many parts of the world, Amnesty International stated in its 2000 report that more than eighty countries still have laws that define homosexual behavior as criminal; twenty-six of these countries are Muslim. (The 64-page 2009 report on state-sponsored homophobia issued by the International Lesbian and Gay Association also lists eighty countries.) In some countries such laws are rarely enforced, whereas in others homosexuals are persecuted. In 2003 Human Rights Watch wrote a report critical of how the government of Egypt rounds up, jails, and possibly tortures homosexuals. In Tanzania the government in April 2004 passed legislation that would make homosexual acts punishable by twenty-five years in jail. In Poland marchers who attempted to stage a peaceful demonstration in favor of gay rights in June 2004 were attacked and beaten by members of a far-right group called the “Mlodziez Wszechpolska” (All Polish Youth), part of the nationalistic and militantly antigay Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families).

Perhaps the first country to add to its constitution a provision that outlaws discrimination against gays is South Africa, which did so when its new constitution was written in 1994; an advocacy group, the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, had much to do with getting the provision approved. Led by professor Edwin Cameron and gay activist Simon Nkoli, the coalition also has litigated to have laws that criminalize homosexual acts overturned and gained medical benefits for same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage and civil unions have become a hot-button issue for gay men and lesbian women, and activist groups fight to expand benefits and rights to gay couples. Some people, mostly religious conservatives, have resisted the idea of gay marriage. In the United States, Massachusetts became the first state to permit gay marriages in May 2004; Vermont recognized civil unions in July 2000. Same-sex marriage became legal in Connecticut in 2008, and in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2009. But in a conservative backlash, thirty states have passed laws banning such partnerships. And in California, which briefly allowed same-sex marriages in early to mid 2008, voters reversed the ruling late that year. Worldwide the Netherlands, Belgium, and three provinces of Canada permit same-sex marriage, and a few European countries—France, Norway, Denmark, and Germany—offer limited forms of civil union. Some countries that once criminalized homosexuality are gradually relaxing such laws; in India in 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled that banning sexual relations between consenting gay adults is unconstitutional. But more typical is what occurred in June 2004 in France, when two gay people were married by the mayor of Begles, a suburb of Bordeaux. The mayor, Noel Mamere, was promptly suspended for a month, and the marriage was nullified by the French courts. And in Uganda, where a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage passed in 2005, the government has repeatedly been accused by human rights groups of harassing gay men and lesbians.

Worldwide many people now see gay rights as a human rights issue, and certainly more acceptance exists than did when the Stonewall Riots occurred. However, as long as conservative religious views predominate, and as long as stereotypes persist, members of the gay and lesbian rights movement will continue their work.


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  2. Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory: An introduction. New York: New York University Press.
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  4. Rimmerman, C. (2002). From identity to politics: The lesbian and gay movements in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  5. Snyder, R. Claire. (2006). Gay marriage and democracy: Equality for all. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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