On June 27, 1969, police raided a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn to enforce vice laws against homosexual behavior. Such raids, in which police often harassed homosexuals, were common in the 1950s and 1960s. In this instance, however, the patrons of the bar rebelled against the police, and members of the surrounding community, most of whom were also gay, joined the revolt. The ensuing riot, which became known as the Stonewall Rebellion, lasted for three days and spawned a newly unified and empowered homosexual community. According to author Roger E. Biery, the event brought visibility and togetherness to many gays and lesbians who had previously felt isolated: “For the first time in history, it was okay to be gay.” The Stonewall riots exemplify the tension that has always existed between homosexuals and the rest of society.
Inspired by Stonewall and the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, gays and lesbians increased their efforts to announce their existence and improve social acceptance of homosexuality. Their first goal was to encourage people to “come out of the closet,” that is, publicly proclaim their homosexuality. Thousands of people did just that, and they engendered a social change movement that has grown substantially. The number of gay and lesbian organizations grew from around fifty in 1969 to almost eight hundred in 1973 and several thousand by 1990. In 1970 five thousand gays and lesbians marched in New York City to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In 1987 over six hundred thousand gays and lesbians marched in Wash13 ington, D.C., to demand equality and civil rights. Since then, thousands of “gay pride” parades and events have taken place every year.
In the three decades following the Stonewall Rebellion, the gay rights movement won significant advances in social acceptance. By 1990 half of the states had decriminalized homosexual behavior, and police harassment of homosexual establishments was reduced. Wisconsin and Massachusetts were the first states to include sexual orientation in their civil rights statutes, and many other states followed their lead. In 1975 the Civil Service Commission eliminated the ban on the employment of homosexuals in most federal jobs. In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and in 1981, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of illnesses. Denmark became the first country to recognize same-sex couples in 1989. Finally, in 2000, Vermont became the first state to offer same-sex couples most of the rights and privileges of marriage under new arrangements called “civil unions.”
The gay liberation movement faced significant obstacles in its crusade for greater visibility and social acceptance for homosexuals. One of the most damaging setbacks was the AIDS crisis, which surfaced in the 1980s. Doctors first recognized AIDS in 1981, but HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was not isolated until 1983. Hundreds of thousands of gay men died from AIDS throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Experts estimate that during the mid-1980s, nearly one hundred thousand new HIV infections surfaced each year. Newspaper headlines announced the dawn of a “gay plague,” and the progress toward gay civil rights was interrupted. As stated by author Edmund White, “When AIDS was first identified, it was called gay cancer, and gays feared massive quarantines, even internment in concentration camps. To be sure, many gays have lost jobs, apartments and friends because they had the disease or were suspected of having it.”
Devastated by the epidemic, gay and lesbian activists focused their efforts on expanding funding for AIDS research and on developing AIDS awareness campaigns. They created a host of organizations, such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, to provide services and assistance to those infected. Local and national organizations also grew in size and number as the community joined together in the fight against AIDS. Activists developed education programs that stressed condom use as the most effective protection against contracting the disease. According to free-lance journalist Anne Christiansen Bullers, “The campaigns were often controversial, but AIDS researchers believe that they were effective, and helped to slow the spread of the disease both within at-risk communities and outside them.” The activists’ efforts were indeed rewarded; the number of new AIDS cases in the United States dropped from 60,805 in 1996 to 41,311 in 2001.
In addition to fighting the AIDS epidemic, the gay liberation movement has battled opposition from conservative and religious circles. One of the most notorious protestors, singer Anita Bryant, launched a successful campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, in 1977. Her success encouraged others, and by the early 1980s, a strong conservative backlash against the gay rights movement had formed. Some states repealed gay civil rights ordinances and some reinstated laws against homosexual acts. In 1982 the U.S. Department of Defense issued a policy stating that homosexuality is incompatible with military service. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan cut funding for AIDS research, and Pope John Paul II called homosexuals “intrinsically disordered” and “evil.” Efforts to stifle the gay rights movement, coupled with significant losses to the AIDS virus, cost gays and lesbians much of their hard-won progress.
Over the last ten years, the gay rights movement has regained much of the public support that it lost in the 1980s, but true equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals has yet to be realized. The 1990s debate over whether gays and lesbians have the right to marry epitomizes the decades-old battle between homosexual supporters and antigay activists. Many gays and lesbians contend that each person has a fundamental right to choose whom he or she wishes to marry; what gender that person is should be irrelevant. Antigay advocates argue that marriage is, and always should be, defined as the union of one man and one woman. Conservatives struck a blow to the gay rights movement in 1996 with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states. Gays and lesbians celebrated their own victory in 2000 when Vermont created civil unions as a way to enable gay and lesbian couples to enjoy many of the same legal rights enjoyed by married couples. Many gays and lesbians consider civil unions a positive step toward equal rights for homosexuals but believe that full equality will only be achieved when same-sex couples have access to conventional marriage.
The conflict over marriage rights for homosexuals illustrates the ambivalence with which society has viewed the gay rights movement since Stonewall. Increased visibility brought significant social changes and enabled gays and lesbians to live and love more openly than they ever had before. Greater visibility also brought vehement protests and denunciations of homosexuals. Homosexuality: Opposing Viewpoints examines the gay liberation movement and other issues in the following chapters: What Are the Origins of Homosexuality? Should Society Encourage Increased Acceptance of Homosexuality? Is Homosexuality Immoral? Should Society Sanction Gay and Lesbian Families? The viewpoints presented in this volume demonstrate that homosexuality remains a controversial issue in American society and politics.