The History of the LGBTQ+ Community and where we are now

Every June, thousands of pride parades occur in the United States in honor of pride month.

I grew up a very sheltered child. My parents never discussed or educated me on things such as racism, sexism, or the LGBTQ community. It’s not that they were against it; they just never discussed it with me. Naturally, I was forced to learn about all the evils and issues in the real world by myself as I grew up, something that was honestly very difficult for me. How was I supposed to get educated when I was kept in the dark for so long? Luckily for me, the incredible people surrounding me on a daily basis have shed some light on these topics, especially the LGBTQ community.

My first experience with the LGBTQ community occurred when I was about nine years old. I had borrowed a plethora of books from my local library, and I plopped down on the couch to read them. I was most excited to read a book called Drama, a graphic novel by Raina Telemeiger, the same author who’d written the best-selling book Smile. As I grew more and more immersed into the pages, a sudden plot twist gripped my full attention. One of the characters, a boy, was forced to dress up as the girl lead in a school play after the actual actress for the role refused to go on stage. This boy then kissed the male lead- which is how the play should’ve gone- and then they admitted their feelings for each other later on in the book. Nine-year-old me was extremely, extremely confused. Never had I encountered a book, movie, or TV series that represented the LGBTQ community until that moment. I never knew that a boy could kiss a boy and a girl could kiss a girl; it was a foreign concept to me. I didn’t even know that it was something that could happen, so I stayed in the dark for years, and when I should’ve been searching for answers, I went on with my life, and the book slowly slipped away from my memory.

I can’t remember the exact moment I truly understood what was happening in that book scene, but I do remember the exact moment where it all made sense: a boy and a boy or a girl and girl can love each other like how a boy and girl can love. After this revelation, it seemed like the world made a whole lot more sense. However, there were so many more things that I had yet to learn. In middle school, a lot of my friends and classmates started to identify as so many things I had never even heard of- bisexual, lesbian, pansexual, transgender, etc. I wanted to support them in every way I could, so I educated myself by listening to them, reading articles online, and researching what it meant to be part of the LGBTQ community. From that point on- and still to this day- I am an ally. Although I do not identify with the LGBTQ community and don’t know what it is like, I will forever fight for their rights with them. However, even though there are many allies out there, there are also many people who dislike and even despise the LGBTQ community. My friends have all shared their experiences of receiving homophobic comments from their parents, family members, and even complete strangers. In our society today, there are still many injustices facing the LGBTQ community today. How did we get here? Let’s go back a little bit in history.

Most historians agree that there is evidence of LGBTQ couples in every documented culture. We know that it existed in ancient Israel simply because it is prohibited in the Bible, whereas it flourished between both men and women in Ancient Greece. Unfortunately, eyewitness accounts in this era were riddled with the biases of mostly white people, who added to already existing beliefs that homosexual practices were foreign, savage, a medical issue, or evidence of a lower racial hierarchy. The peaceful flowering of early trans or bisexual acceptance in different indigenous civilizations met with opposition from European and Christian colonizers, who believed that it was a sin (according to the Bible).

Later on, in the age of European exploration and empire-building, Native American, North African, and Pacific Islander cultures accepting of same-sex love shocked European invaders who objected to any deviation from traditional “masculine” and “feminine” roles. The European powers enforced their criminal codes against what was called sodomy in the New World. The first known case of homosexual activity receiving a death sentence in North America occurred in 1566 when the Spanish executed a Frenchman in Florida. Against emerging national power and Christian faith, what might have been learned about same-sex love or gender identity was buried in scandal.

Early efforts to understand the range of human sexual behavior came from European doctors and scientists including Carl von Westphal (1869), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1882), and Havelock Ellis (1897). Their writings were sympathetic to the concept of a homosexual or bisexual orientation occurring naturally in an identifiable segment of humankind, but the writings of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis also labeled a “third sex” degenerate and abnormal. Sigmund Freud did not consider homosexuality an illness or a crime and believed bisexuality to be an innate aspect beginning with undetermined gender development in the womb. Yet Freud also felt that lesbian desires were an immaturity women could overcome through heterosexual marriage and male dominance. These writings gradually trickled down to a curious public through magazines and presentations, reaching men and women desperate to learn more about those like themselves. German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld went on to gather more information by founding Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science, Europe’s best library archive of materials on gay cultural history. His efforts combined with Germany’s more liberal laws and thriving gay bar scene between the two World Wars, contrasted with the backlash in England against gay and lesbian writers such as Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. With the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, however, the former tolerance demonstrated by Germany’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee vanished. Hirschfeld’s great library was destroyed and the books were burnt by Nazis on May 10, 1933, ending any tolerance of the LGBTQ community in Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, in the United States, there were few attempts to create advocacy groups supporting gay and lesbian relationships until after World War II. However, prewar LGBTQ life flourished in urban centers such as New York’s Greenwich Village and Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The blues music of African-American women showcased varieties of lesbian desire, struggle, and humor. These performances, along with male and female drag stars, introduced a gay underworld to straight patrons during Prohibition’s defiance of race and sex codes in various clubs. World War II allowed formerly isolated gay men and women to meet as soldiers and war workers; and other volunteers were uprooted from small towns and posted worldwide. Many minds were opened by wartime, during which LGBT people were both tolerated in military service and officially sentenced to death camps in the Holocaust. This increasing awareness of an existing and vulnerable population, coupled with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of homosexuals holding government jobs during the early 1950s (Second Red Scare) outraged writers and federal employees, including Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Allen Ginsberg, and Harry Hay. The start of the civil rights movement led to the first American- based political demands for fair treatment of gays and lesbians in mental health, public policy, and employment, which led to the first mainstream LGBTQ movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The first primary organization for gay men was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland. Other important organizations on the West Coast included One, Inc., founded in 1952, and the first lesbian support network Daughters of Bilitis, was founded in 1955 by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Through meetings and publications, these groups offered information and outreach to thousands. These first organizations soon found support from prominent sociologists and psychologists. In 1951, Donald Webster Cory published “The Homosexual in America”, asserting that gay men and lesbians were a legitimate minority group, and in 1953 Evelyn Hooker, Ph.D., won a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study gay men. Her groundbreaking paper, presented in 1956, demonstrated that gay men were as well-adjusted as heterosexual men, often more so. But it would not be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a “sociopathic illness” classification in its diagnostic manual. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, gay men and lesbians continued to be at risk for psychiatric lockup as well as jail, losing jobs, and/or child custody when courts and clinics defined gay love as sick, criminal, or immoral.

In 1965, as the civil rights movement won new legislation outlawing racial discrimination, the first gay rights demonstrations took place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., led by activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The turning point for gay liberation came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the popular Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village fought back against ongoing police raids of their neighborhood bar. Stonewall is still considered a watershed moment of gay pride and has been commemorated since the 1970s with “pride marches” held every June (pride month!) across the United States. Recent scholarship has called for better acknowledgment of the roles that drag performers, people of color, bisexuals, and transgender patrons played in the Stonewall Riots.

Expanding religious acceptance for gay men and women of faith, the first out gay minister was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1972. Other gay and lesbian church and synagogue congregations soon followed. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), formed in 1972, offered family members greater support roles in the gay rights movement. And political action exploded through 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, in 1979, the first march on Washington for gay rights. The increasing expansion of a global LGBT rights movement suffered a setback during the 1980s, as the gay male community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic, demands for compassion and medical funding led to renewed coalitions between men and women as well as street theatre by groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Queer Nation. Enormous marches on Washington drew as many as one million gay rights supporters in 1987 and again in 1993. In the same era, one wing of the political gay movement called for an end to military expulsion of gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers, with the high-profile case of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer publicized through a made-for-television movie, “Serving in Silence.” Despite the patriotism and service of gay men and lesbians in uniform, the uncomfortable and unjust compromise “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (established by President Bill Clinton) emerged as an alternative to decades of military witch hunts and dishonorable discharges.

As a result of hard work by countless organizations and individuals, helped by the internet and direct-mail campaign networking, the 21st century heralded new legal gains for gay and lesbian couples. Same-sex civil unions were recognized under Vermont law in 2000 and Massachusetts became the first state to perform same-sex marriages in 2004; with the end of state sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), gay and lesbian Americans were finally free from criminal classification. Gay marriage was first legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Canada; but the recognition of gay marriage by church and state continued to divide opinion worldwide. After the impressive gains for LGBT rights in post-apartheid South Africa, conservative evangelicals in the U.S. began providing support and funding for homophobic campaigns overseas.

In modern times, homophobia is still very prevalent in society. With multiple hate crimes being committed, including the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student. Although tragic, his death helped bring upon the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Matthew Shepard Act, named in his honor. This act criminalized crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. And we can never forget the attack on the Pulse Club in Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub.

And here we are, hundreds of thousands of years later. As you may have noticed, many changes happened only in the last fifty years, so the expansion of LGBTQ rights has been a fairly recent ordeal. But what a busy fifty years it’s been! More and more young people are finding expression through their sexual orientation, LGBTQ couples and transgender people are openly and their struggles are openly portrayed on TV, and in June, pride parades flood the streets as LGBTQ celebrates their community. Increasing numbers of people have been less afraid to come out to loved ones than they were just twenty years ago. With the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 in the United States, the LGBTQ community has gone great lengths in achieving the rights they deserve. However, there is so much more that needs to be done. People still are openly homophobic and toss around derogatory terms at LGBTQ couples like they’re harmless. Some people are so afraid to come out to their parents because they’re homophobic they decide to end their lives over it. Gay couples can be denied a wedding service, flower arrangements, and even the adoption of kids just because of their sexual orientation. And some people struggle to come to terms even with their own sexuality, hence the term “internalized homophobia.” Some parents even take it so far as to send their kids off to “conversion therapy”, as if it’s going to “fix” them. What they don’t understand is that being gay isn’t a choice, it’s something in your nature. It’s not an on/off switch you can magically turn off whenever you want. The only thing this is doing for kids is showing them that being their true selves isn’t okay, which is so damaging in many aspects. If someone truly loved their kids, I believe that they would learn to accept and love their child how they are. Of course, the main argument in LGBTQ rights is the institution of religion: the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, right? I am not religious, so I’m not going to preach religion, but what I can say is that there are other interpretations of the Bible, saying that Jesus loved everyone, even their sexual orientation. I know many devout Christians, and every single one of them has enough love and acceptance in their hearts to accept the LGBTQ community. Even Pope Francis stated in 2012 “Who am I to judge?”, which gave hope to LGBT Catholics worldwide. The expansion of religious acceptance for gay men and women of faith started when the first out gay minister was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1972, and other gay and lesbian church and synagogue congregations soon followed. There is no reason to hate gay and lesbian couples. Love is love, which is the most important thing in the world. Who cares if a woman and woman love each other? The only thing that should matter is that they love each other.

Today, only ten U.S. states have an executive order, administrative order, or personnel regulation prohibiting discrimination in public employment only based on either sexual orientation or gender identity. Furthermore, only four states require the teaching of LGBTQ history to students. Ten? Four? No, the number should be fifty! I am a firm believer that teaching kids about the injustices that the LGBTQ community has faced and are currently facing will make them more educated and more likely to be accepting. “One of the best ways to overcome intolerance is through education and exposure to different people and viewpoints,” said Senator Heather Steans. After all, no one is born to hate; they are taught to hate. The teaching of LGBTQ history will result in more open-minded kids, and exposing them at younger ages will normalize it more. When I think of my confused nine-year-old self, I wish that somebody, anybody would’ve just educated me sooner. Kids shouldn’t be kept in the dark. After all, they’re our future, and our future needs to be more tolerant and accepting of everybody, and teaching LGBTQ history in schools is a great start. In all my 12 years of public school education, I have not once had a class discussion on LGBTQ rights, and I only briefly touched upon their history in APUSH this year. It seems like LGBTQ history is virtually annihilated from history class curriculums, which is just unacceptable. Every aspect of history is important, not just the part where the rich white men debate about the rights of minorities. Furthermore, although LGBTQ rights are making great strides in the United States and becoming more normalized than it was just twenty years, ago, being gay is still something that can result in the death penalty in twelve countries, and is still illegal in seventy. Remember, don’t just fight for your American allies; fight for the people around the world who cannot legally be simply themselves. So, ask yourself, what can I do to help? Become an ally. Sign petitions and go to protests. Educate not only the people around you but also yourself. Fight to make a change in your community and make your voice heard. We’ve come a long way, but there’s so much more to do to finally reach our destination of justice.

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.