In 50 years, huge strides for gay-rights movement

2013-06-09T00:00:00Z In 50 years, huge strides for gay-rights movementThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

There was a time when homosexuality was deemed a mental disorder by the nation's psychiatric authorities, and gay sex was a crime in every state but Illinois. Federal workers could be fired for the mere fact of being gay.

That time wasn't long ago — just 50 years.

Today, gays serve openly in the military, work as TV news anchors and federal judges, win elections as big-city mayors and members of Congress. Several hugely popular TV shows have gay protagonists.

And now the gay-rights movement may be on the cusp of momentous legal breakthroughs. Later this month, a Supreme Court ruling could lead to legalization of same-sex marriage in California, the most populous state, and there's a good chance the court will require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in all U.S. jurisdictions where they are legal — as of now, 12 states and Washington, D.C.

The transition over the last five decades has been far from smooth — replete with bitter protests, anti-gay violence, backlashes that inflicted many political setbacks. In contrast to the civil rights movement and the women's liberation movement, the campaign for gay rights unfolded without household-name leaders.

Progress came about largely due to the individual choices of countless gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and get engaged.

These were people like a Chicago graduate student who, early on, was willing to confront a high-profile critic of gay relationships. A young community organizer plunging into advocacy work for victims of AIDS. Three gay couples in Hawaii suing for the right to marry at a time when that seemed far-fetched even to many activists.

"It is pretty mind-blowing how quickly it's moved," said David Eisenbach, who teaches political history at Columbia University and has written about the gay-rights movement.

Eisenbach contrasted the attitudes of the '50s and '60s, when even many political liberals viewed homosexuality as pernicious, to what he sees today.

"There are kids coming out in high school now, being accepted by their classmates," he said. "Parents, relatives, friends are seeing the people they love come out. It's very hard to discriminate against someone you love."

As the Supreme Court rulings approach, here is a look back at three of the gay-rights movement's pivotal phases and some of the people who chose to get involved.


Dr. David Reuben had legions of fans after publishing his best-selling "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" in 1969. Murray Edelman wasn't among them.

Edelman, then a University of Chicago graduate student, was part of a tiny band of activists who launched a gay liberation movement in the city starting late in 1969 and continuing through the early '70s

When Reuben — who depicted gay men's relationships as bleakly impersonal and short-lived — was booked to appear on a TV talk show in Chicago in January 1971, Edelman and some fellow activists decided to attend.

It was an era abounding with firsts for the gay-rights movement.

Historians can trace its roots back to individuals and incidents many decades earlier, and some pioneering national gay-rights organizations were formed in the 1950s — notably the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.

In the 1960s, gay activists formed organizations in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Amid the ferment of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement, there was a surge of interest in gay liberation — gays and lesbians publicly revealing their sexuality and evoking it as a source of pride rather than shame.

Edelman, now 69, went on to earn a doctorate in human development, work for CBS News and serve as editorial director for Voter News Service, the consortium that conducted exit-polling during several presidential elections.

What did he and his colleagues accomplish four decades ago in Chicago?

"It was a whole new consciousness for gays — we made it OK to be gay," he said. "We thought that we had strength in each other, that we could define ourselves differently from how society defined us."


With those winds of change at his back, 27-year-old Tim Sweeney moved to New York in the fall of 1981 to become executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay legal advocacy group.

A few months earlier, The New York Times had published an article under the headline "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." Sweeney worried this mysterious illness would give the public another excuse to denigrate and discriminate against gay people at a time when he and his colleagues were feeling hopeful.

"Once we sort of got the government out of our lives and shed some of the stigma of criminalization and mental illness, we were allowed, because we had the safety to do it, to dream about the world we wanted for ourselves," he said.

He couldn't have conceived of the pain, losses and political challenges that lay ahead.

It would be a year before the cluster of strange ailments afflicting not only gay men, but intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and some women would have a name — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS — and another year after that before the virus that caused it, HIV, was isolated.

Soon, the scourge became all-encompassing.

The epidemic not only made gay people more visible than ever, but also spotlighted the absence of legal protections for their relationships. Survivors who cared for longtime partners found themselves barred from hospital rooms, frozen out of funerals and stripped of shared possessions. Without marriage as an option, couples prepared wills and even tried to adopt one another so their relationships would be respected in the event of death.

And death loomed terrifyingly. By the end of 1985, 15,527 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States and 12,529 deaths attributed to the disease.

For historians, there is no doubt that AIDS hastened the gay-rights movement's growth by shining a light on inequality and mobilizing the gay community.

"It galvanized collective action, organizing and the habits of giving — giving time as well as money," said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. "It helped to develop a notion of what it was to be a responsible member of the gay community."


The three gay couples didn't even have an attorney, let alone an inkling of the weighty consequences, when they arrived at Hawaii's Health Department on Dec. 17, 1990, to apply for marriage licenses.

Indeed, one couple, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, had met only six months earlier. They'd fallen in love; Dancel had already bought Baehr a ring.

"For us, it wasn't part of long-term strategy," Baehr said in a recent interview. "It was the emotional part of wanting that respect, and wanting the protections of things like health coverage."

The couples' applications were rejected — unsurprising given that same-sex marriage was legal in no state or nation — and their plan to file a lawsuit floundered when major gay-rights groups turned down the case.

Despite all the setbacks, the campaign for marriage equality grew inexorably from a quixotic cause to a broad mass movement now supported, according to many polls, by a majority of Americans.

Under a court order, same-sex marriage began in Massachusetts in 2004. Soon legislators and voters in other states were legalizing it without court pressure. With the addition of Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota in May, there are now 12 gay-marriage states.

Evan Wolfson, who puzzled some of his Harvard law professors back in 1983 with an academic paper arguing for gay marriage, is now president of Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group that has played a key role in the movement. He married a management consultant in 2011, a few months after gay marriage became legal in New York.

The Hawaii case, Wolfson says, "was the real turning point."

"It was the first time in the history of the world that the government was forced to come before a trial judge and show a reason for excluding gay people from marriage," Wolfson said. "We were able to show that the government doesn't have one."

Tens of thousands of American gays are now legally married, though none of the Hawaii couples who filed the suit are among them.

Baehr, who works on gay-rights issues in Montana for the American Civil Liberties Union, believes same-sex marriage will eventually prevail nationwide. Short term, she's hopeful the Supreme Court will order federal recognition of the same-sex marriages that exist now, striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act that surfaced as a backlash to the Hawaii lawsuit.

"We've had that feeling like DOMA is our responsibility — it was a bad thing that happened in part because of what we'd done," Baehr said. "To see it made right, two decades later, is going to be very sweet."

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