In 1965, members of the LGBT community rallied in the American capital and gathered in front of the White House to stage the first LGBT rights demonstration in the United States. The LGBT movement has been at the forefront of intrastate sociopolitical affairs since then. Over the years, the American government and society have become considerably responsive to the needs and concerns of the LGBT community amidst oppositions. However, it is still important to remember that the history of the LGBT movement in the United States has been characterised by an arduous struggle that spanned for decades.
Before the landmark demonstration in the American capital, there were already several organisations formed to address the concerns of gays and lesbians. The Mattachine Society, for example, was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles and became one of the first organisations to promote the rights of gay men while the Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian civil and political rights organisations formed in San Francisco in 1955. Both organisations also provided moral support and encouraged gays and lesbians to assimilate as much as possible into the prevailing heterosexual culture. Furthermore, these organisations served as venues for discussions and research, while also becoming instrumental in promoting the need to build and maintain LGBT communities.
ONE, Inc. also had a remarkable impact in the early phases of the LGBT movement. Founded by William Dale Jennings in 1952 and joined with likeminded colleagues Don Slater, Dorr Legg, Tony Reyes, and Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay, the gay rights organisation had a fully functional machinery to include a public office, administrative infrastructure, logistics, a telephone, and the first publication that reached the general public, ONE Magazine. The emergence of One, Inc. marked a huge leap in the history of the LGBT movement in the U.S.
But a more visible American LGBT movement emerged as an offshoot of the Stonewall Riots that transpired in New York beginning 28 June 1969. The still-existing Stonewall Inn is a popular tavern and recreational bar in Greenwich Village, New York City that caters to gay men. However, before the 1969 riots, this bar and other similar establishments were common target of police riots, often citing liquor violations as reason. LGBT community in New York cried foul. Sordid tales of harassments during these raids were common. Furthermore, homosexuality was largely discriminated around this time because of existing sodomy laws that outlawed sexual acts between persons of the same sex.
The specific police raid of Stonewall Inn on 28 June 1969 was different. When police officers barged into the establishment, they were welcomed by a large group of gay men determined to drive them away. The scene drew attention from the neighbourhood. Soon, Greenwich Village residents had organised protests and riots that lasted for several nights. Their clamour was to empower the LGBT community and encourage members to be open about their sexual orientation without fearing government persecution.
Undoubtedly, the Stonewall Riots served as a catalyst for stirring the LGBT movement. But an organised and widespread movement did not emerge immediately from the Stonewall Riots. Still, the sociopolitical climate around that time was largely tolerating and permissive. Several mainstream organisations to include the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Sociological Association, the Lutheran Church, and the American Bar Association had voiced out their strong opposition against laws that penalised and discriminated homosexuality. It is also worth mentioning that the emerging LGBT movement was an offshoot of other sociopolitical movements and ideologies, such as gender equality and feminism, African-American civil rights, and anti-war sentiments. Around this time, however, the concern of the LGBT community largely centred on gay liberation—a concept that was focused less on civil rights and more on personal empowerment.
The movement accomplished several breakthroughs beginning 1970. Among these included the declassification of homosexuality as a disease in 1974 by the American Psychiatric Association. The increasing visibility of specific LGBT communities in cities and states promoted gradual acceptance and better social integration. The Gay Liberation Front that emerged after the Stonewall Riots proliferated across colleges and universities in the early 1970s.
Subsequently, the movement shifted from liberation to civil rights. In 1974 for instance, liberal lawmakers had started pushing for amendments in the Civil Rights Act to extend federal government protection against LGBT discrimination. The growing popularity of LGBT demonstrations in San Francisco resulted in the birth of the Rainbow Flag in 1978 that later became the worldwide symbol of the movement and the entire community. Nonetheless, beginning 1970, the social and academic environment created an atmosphere for supporting the emerging LGBT movement.
The LGBT movement eventually evolved to become an established political ideology and social movement centred on full acceptance of LGBT people in society. Community members and supporters have rallied to oppose discrimination or homophobia, challenge dominant constructs of masculinity and femininity, and promote equal rights. However, further attempts to advance LGBT movement and promote LGBT rights at the federal level were somehow unsuccessful due to the emerging opposition. During the latter part of the 1970s, conservative politicians and religious leaders rallied to have numerous LGBT-related legislations repealed and blocked. For years to come, the supporters and opponents of the LGBT movement marked one of the greatest divided in the American society.
Another accomplishment of the LGBT movement was the removal of sodomy laws in the U.S. During the 1770s and until 2003, American sodomy laws deemed several sexual act punishable under law, including sexual acts between same-sex people. Illinois was the first state to abolish sodomy law in 1961. Throughout the 20th century, the gradual liberalisation of American norms led to the elimination of sodomy laws in most states but the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of several provisions. However, in 2003, the Supreme Court reversed earlier decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, thus striking down sodomy law in Texas and by extension, invalidating sodomy laws in 13 other states. Same-sex sexual activity became legal in every U.S. state and territory.
Possibly, one of the most notable accomplishments or key developments in the history of the LGBT movement was the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Assertions to obtain civil marriage rights and benefits for same-sex couples started in the 1970s. However, the clamour became increasingly prominent beginning in 1993 following the Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr v. Lewin that declared the state prohibition against same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
The arrival of the 21st century saw a growing public support for same-sex marriage. On 17 May 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state and the sixth jurisdiction in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. President Barack Obama also became the first incumbent U.S. to support same-sex marriage during a pronouncement made on 9 May 2012. Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to legalise same-sex marriage through popular vote or public referendum.
While there were several states that barred same-sex marriage, the United State Supreme Court made a historic decision on 26 June 2015 that ultimately allowed same-sex marriage across all 50 states by declaring state prohibition as unconstitutional.