The History and Meaning of the Modern Gay Rights Movement

We’ve earned the right to enjoy the extravagant parties and be as out and loud as we want to be! However, how we earned that right is an important thing to remember, as we investigate the history and meaning of the modern Gay Rights Movement.

HomoCulture Gay Culture Brian Webb

This article was published on May 26th, 2023

With Pride month right around the corner, it’s easy to get caught up in fabulous sequin crop tops, which clubs will have the best drink specials, and who you might meet at the Pride parade. And that’s fine! We’ve earned the right to enjoy the extravagant parties and be as out and loud as we want to be! However, how we earned that right is an important thing to remember, as we investigate the history and meaning of the modern gay rights movement.

The modern gay rights movement emerged in response to the marginalization and oppression faced by the LGBTQ+ community. Although homosexuality has been a part of human history for centuries, the movement as we know it began to take shape in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots in June 1969. While this is a highly critical and pivotal moment in the history of gay rights, there are other important and notable events worth remembering! 

In fact, we can take it all the way back to 1924, when a gay German man named Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights in Chicago, Illinois. After serving in the US Army Occupation of Germany during WW1, he felt moved and inspired by the “homosexual emancipation movement” and had even subscribed to pro-gay magazines and LGBT media available at the time. When he returned to Chicago, he founded the Society for Human Rights, the first organization of its kind here in the US! After some time, unfortunately, the accompanying publication, Friendship and Freedom, as well as the organization itself, came to an end. However, Henry would continue his contributions as a correspondent and anonymous writer. He passed away at the age of 80 and lived to see the Stonewall Riots occur.  

During the 1950s, the US saw many anti-gay laws, starting with the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government”, which basically stated that homosexual people were considered “mentally unwell” and were a “security risk”. Because of this, around 4,380 gay men and women were discharged from the military. This is also when we saw the APA cite homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance”. However, in the midst of this, in 1955, we saw the formation of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization that would hold social meetings and gatherings and offer an alternative to the lesbian bars that were often raided by police forces.

The Stonewall Riots happened in 1969, and as mentioned earlier, this is where pride and the gay rights movement as we know it today really began to take shape.  This powerfully historic event, sparked by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, marked a turning point where individuals, predominantly transgender women of color, fought back against ongoing harassment and abuse. It’s important to keep in mind that this is right on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Black US citizens protested for their rights to fight against segregation and to receive equal rights and opportunities. A year following this event, thousands of LGBT people marched through New York to Central Park, and this would be seen as the first pride parade and mark an ongoing yearly tradition for gays across the world! 

From this event on, we began seeing more and more outspoken activism from the community as policies began to change, state governments began repealing their laws against sodomy, and Democrats stated that they would not, as a political party, discriminate against members of the LGBT community based on their sexuality.  

Eventually, in the 1980s, we would see the emergence of the AIDS crisis, which was an epidemic tragedy that swept the LGBT community. We would see lives being lost, pharmaceutical prices skyrocketing, and frustration with the sitting president, Ronald Reagan, as he wouldn’t address or acknowledge the HIV and AIDs crisis until after his administration ended. Proper awareness and sensitivity for this disease wouldn’t be seen until the early 90s. However, despite all of this, the community held strong. It’s important that we remember the lesbians who would volunteer their time at the hospitals, spending time with those who were sick so that they wouldn’t be alone, as many were not visited by their families. While it’s a sad story that many may not want to hear, it’s a crucial point in LGBTQ+ history.  

All of that is to say that the history of the gay rights movement as we know it today dates back further than many may assume. Even then, there are numerous accounts of activists and organizations that have helped shape the movement. The work of Harvey Milk and his untimely passing, the 1979 march for Lesbian and Gay rights, and the Mattachine Society formed in LA in 1950 by Harry Hays. The history of the gay rights movement is rich, eventful, and empowering. When you go out and celebrate this Pride month, be sure to raise a toast for all those whose work got us to where we are today! 

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