LGBT in the United States

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the United States have a long history, including vibrant subcultures and advocacy battles for social and religious acceptance and legal rights.

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  • America is a different country now, a dozen years on from what Frank Rich described in 1999 as "[t]he homophobic epidemic of '98, which spiked with the October murder of Matthew Shepard." After a decade of legislative fighting, federal hate crimes legislation was finally extended to protect gay people in 2009. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed as a rider to the National Defense Reauthorization Act and was signed into law by President Obama during his first year in office.
    The president has done an "It Gets Better" video; so too have the White House staff and some leading Democrats in the United States Senate. Gay marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia; "Don't ask, don't tell" has been overturned; America has elected its first openly lesbian U.S. Senator -- and from the Midwest! -- and even the president backs same-sex marriage rights.
    America is a different country now. But the "Stone Age," as Jodi Foster has called it, in which gay people were seen as perverts justifiably targeted for violence or invective, is a none too distant a memory, and in too many quarters it is still extremely difficult for people -- especially very young people -- to be out and gay without experiencing severe social, physical, or economic repercussions (as the documentary Bully showed this past year, in case any one had any doubt).
    Today, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling, 58 percent support gay marriage, up from 41 percent in 2004, while opposition has dropped from 55 to 36 percent. A March CNN/ORC International survey puts the jump as an increase from 40 to 56 percent support from 2007 through 2013.
  • And so the question arises: How does America address its homophobic past as it moves forward into a more tolerant future? If American views on gays have changed -- and they have, with shocking rapidity -- that means there are a lot of people in this country who used to hold more deeply anti-gay views than they do today, and who may be ashamed of what they once thought and said in what now seems a distant and unenlightened era. Two thirds of the change in views on gay marriage comes from "individuals' modifying their views over time" and only "one-third was due to a cohort succession effect, or later cohorts replacing earlier ones," according to sociologist Dawn Michelle Baunach, who looked into the issue in a 2011 Social Science Quarterly piece. Most such people have had the privilege of a private life, where their participation in an ugly ideology that diminished and damaged gay people is something they speak of only in conversation with friends, or recall within the inmost sanctuary of their own thoughts. But some people have been living public lives a long time, and have left a very public paper trail of their expressions of discomfort and distaste. What is the proper response to the discovery of such information?
    How do we as a society react when people openly change their views in public on gays, and on same-sex marriage?
    And are we finally ready to get beyond the politics of the mid-1990s?
  • What's happening now is a wholesale repudiation of the 1990s move to eject gay people from the American family, writ large. The reason for DOMA was anti-gay animus by a group of men who showed their respect for marriage by divorcing multiple times and having affairs. The reason to undo DOMA is a rejection of that animus, and the growing recognition there is no way to argue against same-sex marriage that is not ultimately an argument for the moral inferiority of gay people. As of Friday, only four Democrats in the U.S. Senate had not come out in favor of gay marriage.
    "I have concluded the federal government should no longer discriminate against people who want to make lifelong, loving commitments to each other or interfere in personal, private, and intimate relationships," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said. "I view the ability of anyone to marry as a logical extension of this belief."
    The reason to not support gay marriage is the lingering sense that there's something strange or not right about it. That it's fine for gay people to do what they want in privacy, but that their relationships are not the same as straight ones. Not as powerful, not as loving, not as legitimate.
    "[T]his is the inevitable extension of my efforts to promote equality and opportunity for everyone," said Sen. Mark Warner in announcing his new views. "[A]s many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality," observed Senator Claire McCaskill in a Tumblr post.
  • The 1990s are over. Newt Gingrich, who stepped down as House Speaker after the Republicans performed poorly at the polls in 1998, in 2012 lost his comeback bid and the Republican presidential primary. Former representative Bob Barr, the sponsor of DOMA in 1996, in 2009 recanted his support for the bill and said gays should be allowed to marry. Bill Clinton -- who signed it the bill with a statement saying "I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages" -- has too.
    But if that moment of moralism in the mid-90s deserves to be remembered, it's for the lesson that the American people, when they stop being upset about an issue, really let it go. Clinton was impeached over his infidelity, but he hung on to office and became one of the most beloved ex-presidents ever. His party even won seats in the House and Senate the same year his scandal dominated the news, as the public defied political predictions and turned against the moralists instead of the man they accused.
    As the drumbeat of shifting views of gay marriage continues, each voice affirms gay people as part of the American family, and each senator freshly legitimizes gay Americans as he or she repudiates past views or clarifies new ones. Whatever happens with the Supreme Court, this moment of change and affirmation -- this moment of public evolution -- is having a power all its own.
  • The origins of the two political movements at the heart of America's culture war are as humble as they are contemporary. The cultural ferment of the 1960s stands as the prelude to the battle to come. The first rousings of the modern gay movement date back to a sultry summer night in June 1969 when a ragtag group of drag queens and teenage hustlers rebelled against police harassment outside the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar. The gays and lesbians who led the disturbance had little more to rely on than their anger. In a time when police raids on gay bars were the norm, they were largely at the mercy of hostile city officials. Routinely described as freaks and perverts in the press (one newspaper mockingly described the protesters as "Queen Bees"), they had little political organization to speak of, were characterized as mentally ill by the mainstream of the medical profession, and were generally banished from jobs and families if their sexuality was discovered. The political weakness and precarious social position of gays and lesbians at the time of Stonewall remains a fact that the religious right, intent on painting them as privileged and pathological, has been loath to accept.
    • John Gallagher and Chris Bull, The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s (1996), Ch. 1
  • The "silent majority," Viguerie determined, was as motivated by a constellation of family issues, exemplified by gay rights and abortion, as the old conservative standard, anticommunism. The transition was a relatively smooth one. The old right had couched its anticommunism in the rhetoric of family values long before it was fashionable. Even though communism both in the United States and abroad was notoriously homophobic, the old right viewed it as weakening the Christian fabric of the nation, which would enable homosexuals to gain a stronger foothold. Homosexuals were often lampooned as limp-wristed "pinkos," and perhaps the staunchest anticommunist of all, J. Edgar Hoover, took to attacking both homosexuals and communists in identical terms. Faced with the reality that communism was a dying ideology even before the decline of the Soviet Union, the new right and the religious right came to depict homosexuals as one of the chief evils of the modern world. It was the homosexual movement, particularly by gaining admission to the U.S. armed services, that would destroy America from within and make it vulnerable to foreign armies. Furthermore, by infiltrating the schools, homosexuals, like communists, had an insidious influence on the nation's most vulnerable commodity, its children. The new emphasis would leave the new right well stocked with new enemies closer to home after the fall of the "Evil Empire" in the mid-1980s.
    • John Gallagher and Chris Bull, The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s (1996), Ch. 1
  • The most bitter showdown came in California in 1978, when state senator and gubernatorial candidate John Briggs of Fullerton, armed with Bryant's contributor list, launched a drive to ban open homosexuals, or anyone advocating the 'gay lifestyle," from teaching in public schools. Largely as a result of unexpected opposition from then-governor Ronald Reagan and other prominent conservatives, the Briggs initiative lost by more than one million votes, 3.9 million to 2.8 million. Under intense lobbying from gay activists including David Mixner, who would go on to become a key adviser to President Clinton, Reagan refused to endorse the initiative on libertarian grounds, which should have tipped off his religious right supporters that he was not to be their messiah. The initiative "is not needed to protect our children--we have that legal protection now," Reagan said. "It has the potential of real mischief.... What if an overwrought youngster, disappointed by bad grades, imagined it was the teacher's fault and struck out by accusing the teacher of advocating homosexuality. Innocent lives could be ruined."
    • John Gallagher and Chris Bull, The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s (1996), Ch. 1
  • Embittered by the unexpected defeat, Briggs, who once described gay men as women trapped in men's bodies," called San Francisco the "moral garbage dump of homosexuality in this country." The Briggs battle coincided--indeed, helped propel--the first stirrings of urban gay political power. In San Francisco, Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977. In Milk, antigay crusaders like Bryant and Briggs had met their match. The product of a middle-class Jewish family in Woodmere, New York, Milk supported Barry Goldwater's right wing presidential campaign in 1964. Caught up in the radicalism of the 1960s, Milk grew a ponytail, traded in his suit for bellbottoms, and headed off to San Francisco, where he opened a camera shop on Castro Street. By 1973, Milk was already blazing gay political trails, finishing tenth in a field of thirty-two candidates for the Board of Supervisors, despite the gay establishment's warning that it was too soon for an openly gay candidate to seek elected office.
    • John Gallagher and Chris Bull, The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s (1996), Ch. 1
  • American society is already hospitable to passive and effeminate males. What they need is affirmation as men so that their existing androgyny does not lead to sexual suicide; to impotence and homosexuality. Contrary to the feminist view, the latitude of the two sexes is not the same. While women can venture into the masculine sphere without grave damage and can even indulge in occasional lesbianism, the greater sexual insecurity of males makes it more difficult and unsettling for them to engage in female roles. Homosexuality, moreover, can inflict permanent damage on their sexual identities. Because males must bear the burdens of initiation and performance in sexual activity, a homosexual fixation is often permanent. A man cannot be easily rescued by an aggressive woman.
    • George Gilder, Sexual Suicide (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973), p. 226
  • While there are many people who accept the romantic propaganda about male homosexual existence, the life of tricks and trades is in fact agonizing for most of its practitioners. Lasting relationships are few and sour. The usual circuit of gay bars, returning servicemen, forlorn personal advertisements, and street cruises affords gratifications so brief and squalid that the society should do everything it can to prevent the spread of the disease. This emphatically does not mean harassing or imprisoning homosexuals. In fact, the worst perversion occasioned by homosexuality is the police practice of entraptment. But at the same time it is crucial to affirm precarious males of their heterosexuality. Natural compassion for men who are already homosexual- and our recognition that men who are already homosexual- and our recognition that some have adjusted happily- should not lead us to praise or affirm the homosexual alternative or to acquiesce in its propaganda.
    • George Gilder, Sexual Suicide (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973), p. 226
  • The chief attraction of homosexual activity is that it does not require confidence or male identity or even face-to-face self-exposure. It can even be informed without an erection. It is thus an inviting escape for the fallen male. Nonetheless, actual homosexuality is by no means inevitable in such cases. A man can recover from his dejection, restore hos confidence, and return to full heterosexuality. This is the usual course of events. It is tragic, therefore, if the cultural ambience provides more easily for homosexuality than for recover of normal patterns. In many parts of urban America this tragedy is a way of life.
    • George Gilder, Sexual Suicide (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973), p. 227
  • Even laws enacted for broad and ambitious purposes often can be explained by reference to legitimate public policies which justify the incidental disadvantages they impose on certain persons. Amendment 2, however, in making a general announcement that gays and lesbians shall not have any particular protections from the law, inflicts on them immediate, continuing, and real injuries that outrun and belie any legitimate justifications that may be claimed for it. We conclude that, in addition to the far-reaching deficiencies of Amendment 2 that we have noted, the principles it offends, in another sense, are conventional and venerable; a law must bear a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose, Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools, 487 U. S. 450, 462 (1988), and Amendment 2 does not.
    • Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion in Romer v. Evans (decided 20 May, 1996), 517 U.S. 620, 635, joined by Associate Justices Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
  • The primary rationale the State offers for Amendment 2 is respect for other citizens' freedom of association, and in particular the liberties of landlords or employers who have personal or religious objections to homosexuality. Colorado also cites its interest in conserving resources to fight discrimination against other groups. The breadth of the amendment is so far removed from these particular justifications that we find it impossible to credit them. We cannot say that Amendment 2 is directed to any identifiable legitimate purpose or discrete objective. It is a status-based enactment divorced from any factual context from which we could discern a relationship to legitimate state interests; it is a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake, something the Equal Protection Clause does not permit. "[C]lass legislation ... [is] obnoxious to the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment .... " Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S., at 24.
    We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws. Amendment 2 violates the Equal Protection Clause, and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado is affirmed. It is so ordered.
    • Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion in Romer v. Evans (decided 20 May, 1996), 517 U.S. 620, 635-636, joined by Associate Justices Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
  • For at least 8 years, Republican domestic policies have demonstrated that man is capable of doing good only in an atmosphere of liberty and faith, not compulsion and atheism. However, man's basic nature is inclined towards evil, and when the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter.
  • Another legislative initiative at the onset of the Reagan Revolution was the Family Protection Act of 1981, the first sweeping policy aimed at limiting government intervention in many areas of family life and bolstering the conjugal, two-parent family as normative. The Act provided for a variety of traditional family support measures such as a restriction of federal funds for abortion, a restraint of federal interference with state statutes pertaining to child abuse, a redefinition of abuse to exclude parental spanking, and a prohibition of funds for homosexual legal services and other anti-family activities. The act incorporates sound principles of federalism and self-government, while refusing to acknowledge homosexuality and abortion as acceptable behaviors and actions. It is noteworthy that these latter two issues are even framed in the context of family policy, a noticeable omission of Democratic policy makers, who discuss these as issues of personal liberty distinct from the family. The Republican vision is cognizant of immorality and the attack on family values as the root of otherwise secular social problems, and the legislative response demonstrates an unwillingness to [legitimize] those actions which are both cause and effect of family breakdown.
  • The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite. The constitutional amendment before us here is not the manifestation of a "'bare ... desire to harm' " homosexuals, ante, at 634, but is rather a modest attempt by seemingly tolerant Coloradans to preserve traditional sexual mores against the efforts of a politically powerful minority to revise those mores through use of the laws. That objective, and the means chosen to achieve it, are not only unimpeachable under any constitutional doctrine hitherto pronounced (hence the opinion's heavy reliance upon principles of righteousness rather than judicial holdings); they have been specifically approved by the Congress of the United States and by this Court.
    In holding that homosexuality cannot be singled out for disfavorable treatment, the Court contradicts a decision, unchallenged here, pronounced only 10 years ago, see Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U. S. 186 (1986), and places the prestige of this institution behind the proposition that opposition to homosexuality is as reprehensible as racial or religious bias. Whether it is or not is precisely the cultural debate that gave rise to the Colorado constitutional amendment (and to the preferential laws against which the amendment was directed.) Since the Constitution of the United States says nothing about this subject, it is left to be resolved by normal democratic means, including the democratic adoption of provisions in state constitutions. This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected, pronouncing that "animosity" toward homosexuality, ante, at 634, is evil. I vigorously dissent.
    • Antonin Scalia, author of the dissenting opinion in Romer v. Evans (decided 20 May, 1996), 517 U.S. 620, 636, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
  • If it is constitutionally permissible for a State to make homosexual conduct criminal, surely it is constitutionally permissible for a State to enact other laws merely disfavoring homosexual conduct... And a fortiori it is constitutionally permissible for a State to adopt a provision not even disfavoring homosexual conduct, but merely prohibiting all levels of state government from bestowing special protections upon homosexual conduct.
    • Antonin Scalia, author of the dissenting opinion in Romer v. Evans (decided 20 May, 1996), 517 U.S. 620, 641, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

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