Road to Pride: an lGBTQ Civil Rights timeline

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As Pride Month 2021 comes to a close, we pay tribute to the LGBTQ community's decades long fight for equality.

It’s LGBTQ Pride Month and the pandemic clouds are parting in the sky to reveal a full spectrum of rainbow colors. Tons of brands and companies have released multicolor products paired with LGBTQ support initiatives, and hundreds of parties are planned all over the world. But all this vibrant (and well-deserved) celebration begs the question:

How did America’s LGBTQ community go from being marginalized and discriminated against to being a minority group that’s estimated to have 800 billion dollars in spending power?

Don’t get us wrong – parades and merch don’t mean that LGBTQ people aren’t facing injustice every day, or that individuals and companies should ease up in the fight for true equality. But in the spirit of progress and in celebration of everything activists and heroes have accomplished so far, here are a few noteworthy milestones in the road to pride

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August 1966 - Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

Three years before Stonewall, a lesser-known riot occurred in San Francisco that marked the beginning of transgender activism in the city. The social movements of the 1960’s brought greater understanding of the transgender identity – but this emerging acceptance still clashed with the powers that be. 

The staff at Compton’s Cafeteria would often call police on transgender patrons, and officers would make violent arrests on the basis of “female impersonation.” One evening in August the cafe exploded into violence after one officer grabbed a woman, and she fought back by allegedly tossing a cup of coffee into his face. The riot that followed spilled out into the streets where trans women tussled with police using their purses and high-heeled shoes as weapons. By the next day, the protest of police brutality had taken the entire Tenderloin neighborhood by storm, and a large group of LGBTQ San Franciscans picketed outside Compton’s Cafeteria for several days. 

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot brought increased awareness to the mistreatment of transgender people by police and institutions, and it led to the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit (NTCU) in 1968

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June 1969 - The Stonewall Riots ​

The first sentence of the White House’s official 2021 Pride Month press release credits The Stonewall Riots with kicking off the LGBTQ rights movement. 

At around 1:00am on June 28th, 1969 police began a raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City – one of few establishments that didn’t discriminate against LGBTQ customers gathering and socializing. Raids like this were common, but that night as police grouped, harassed and handcuffed queer bargoers, the situation escalated. As Stonewall patrons began to resist arrest, LGBTQ people came flooding out of gay bars and restaurants in the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood to protest the police (and celebrate queerness) in the streets.

The Stonewall Uprising and its ensuing protests sparked political action where LGBTQ activists publicly stood together against police brutality and social stigma. Today in 2021, Gay Pride Parades and Pride Month are held in June to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. 

June 1970 - Christopher Street Liberation Day

Also known as the first-ever Gay Pride Parade, the Christopher Street Liberation Day was a march organized by New York’s LGBTQ activists on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Inspired by social movements of the past decade like Martin Luther King’s marches and protests against the Vietnam war, this parade was one of the first times a pride flag waved. However, it’s worth mentioning that the rainbow pride flag as we know it today was not commissioned by Harvey Milk or hand-sewn by queer artist Gilbert Baker until 1978.   

In 1970, only San Francisco and Los Angeles joined in, but this OG nonviolent protest is the ancestor of the pride parades we see in almost every major city in the country today.

December 1973 - American Psychiatric Association Decision

With a contentious vote of 5,854 to 3,810 the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove “homosexuality” from its list of mental disorders. The decision came in the wake of years of dedicated activism from some of the oldest gay rights groups in US history, most notably the Mattachine Society (which predates Stonewall).

June 1981 - CDC First Reports on AIDS Epidemic

In June of 1981 the CDC released a report detailing rare lung infections and immune system failure in otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles. This was the first documentation of the HIV/AIDs crisis which would go on to claim about 700,000 lives in the US. Lacking resources and support from both the federal government and a fearful public, gay men and women created peer/ally led aid organizations like ACT UP, which is still active today. 

The AIDS Crisis left a lasting imprint on the social fabric of the US. The epidemic brought new forms of homophobia to the forefront and led to the tragic and senseless death of countless Americans. It also led to some of the most significant LGBTQ political organizations and demands for LGBTQ human rights.

April 1997 - Ellen Degeneres Comes Out in Time Mag

If you were watching TV in the 90’s there’s no doubt you remember when Ellen Degeneres made history by becoming the first openly gay character on a major broadcast network. The actress declared to the world “Yep, I’m Gay” in Time Magazine’s April 1997 issue, and a few weeks later her character on the ABC sitcom Ellen followed suit. She famously discussed her sexuality on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and to Dianne Sawyer in an episode of 20/20. 

The ‘coming out’ announcements of public figures like Degeneres and olympic diver Greg Louganis indicated a turning point in American society’s acceptance of LGBTQ people into the mainstream worlds of entertainment and sports.

Photo by Alan Light

November 2003 - MA Court Recognizes LGBTQ Marriage Rights

Massachusetts made history in 2003 when the state’s highest court became the first in the country to recognize same-sex marriage. In Goodridge v. Department of Public Health the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state’s Constitution legally required them to stop withholding marriage licences from same-sex couples. 


In the early 2000’s a handful of states began to stray from federal legislative guidance (see: the Defense of Marriage Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, overturned in 2013) and legalize queer civil unions. By the end of the decade, gay marriage was legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire. 

October 2009 - Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

In 1998 two violent hate crimes took place in the US, and both were later proven in court to be motivated by homophobia. James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, and a few months later 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed outside Laramie, Wyoming. Murderers in both cases were convicted without the use of hate crime laws, because none existed to protect LGBTQ people at the time. 

Passed in Congress and signed by Obama in 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was designed in response to these murders to help local law enforcement agencies identify and solve hate crimes. In a legal victory for the LGBTQ community, the act adds ‘bodily harm or attempted harm motivated by perceived sexuality’ to the defining legal characteristics of hate crimes.   

June 2015 - Gay Marriage Legalized in All 50 States

On June 26th, 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment guarantees same-sex couples the same rights to marriage as everyone else. 

That sunny day in June – which some argue should be a national holiday – was one of unbridled joy and raucous celebration nationwide. The 13 existing state-level bans on gay marriage were deemed unconstitutional, and the ruling madated that every single city hall begin to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

June 2020 - SCOTUS Rules Federal Law Protects LGBTQ Workers From Discrimination

One of the most recent Supreme Court LGBT decisions ruled that Americans can’t be fired from their job because of their gender presentation or sexuality. After several gay and transgender plaintiffs filed suits protesting discrimination in the workplace, the cases eventually reached the nation’s highest court.

The decision protects the rights of 1 million American workers who identify as transgender, and the 7 million workers who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual etc. It opens the door for further LGBTQ empowerment in the workplace and beyond. 

2021 And Beyond - More To Come...

Looking back at these decades of activism, heroism and bravery provides a glimpse into just how far the LGBTQ community has come on the road to pride. 

 

Thanks to all the activists and allies of the past who stood up and spoke out, and all those to come next. 

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