Stonewall at 45
A Brief History of Gay Rights
When Arizona nearly passed a law in 2014 granting businesses the right to refuse gay customers, the Jim Crow–style legislation was roundly condemned. But antigay laws have long existed in the U.S. and abroad. That’s why Gay Pride celebrations each June mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when the LGBT community stood up to legalized persecution. The belief in equality for all continues to trump moralizing arguments relegating gays to second-class status.
Most narratives of the modern gay rights movement begin in the early hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a dive for drag queens, transsexuals, butch lesbians and effeminate gay men in New York’s Greenwich Village. Police raids on gay establishments were common in the 1960s, but that night, as the vice squad corralled offenders into a police truck, the crowd fought back, blockading the cars. The three-day riot marked a turning point: Gay men and women emerged from the shadows to assert their right to live openly, without social, legal and pseudoscientific stigma.
Stonewall was a spontaneous assertion of gay identity in defiance of the state, not unlike Oscar Wilde’s stirring 1895 courtroom speech during his trial for “gross indecency” (homosexual acts). Wilde was accustomed to deflecting criticism with his legendary wit, but when asked to explain “the love that dare not speak its name,” mentioned in a poem by his younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he defended homosexual love directly and eloquently. “It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection,” he said of the bond between a mentor and his male protégé. “There is nothing unnatural about it.”
Before it was completely repealed in 2003, Section 11 of England’s Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was used to persecute more than 75,000 men accused of “gross indecency with another male person.” But the fateful phrase that ruined so many lives was almost an afterthought. The CLAA’s primary objectives were to crack down on female prostitution and raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. Self-appointed moral crusader Henry Labouchère hastily appended the “gross indecency” clause after only four minutes of parliamentary debate late in the evening. The logic behind Labouchère’s insistence remains unclear, but sociologist Jeffrey Weeks points out that female prostitution and sex between men were likely seen as “part of the continuum of undifferentiated male lust, products of men’s sexual selfishness.”
England’s “Buggery Act” of 1533 proscribed anal sex for anyone, but the CLAA targeted sex between men. The Labouchère Amendment’s two most famous victims were the late-Victorian playwright, poet and nonpareil aesthete Oscar Wilde (convicted in 1895) and the father of computer science, Alan Turing (1952). Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor, precipitating his death at age 46, and Turing underwent chemical castration, which many believe motivated his suicide at 41.
The Supreme Court’s landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision struck down all remaining U.S. laws that banned same-sex intimacy. The case grew out of a 1998 incident during which police believed they were responding to a burglary in a Texas home but wound up arresting its resident, John Lawrence, and his guest Tyron Garner for violating the state’s “Homosexual Conduct” law. Such pernicious laws reached well beyond the bedrooms of gays and lesbians. In 1970, Connecticut resident David E. Follett was denied a driver’s license solely because he was an “admitted homosexual.”
A break-in also led to British polymath Alan Turing’s arrest. Turing’s residence was burgled in 1952, and during the investigation he freely admitted to having a male lover. Turing, whom King George VI had awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1945 for his wartime service, consequently lost his security clearance and eventually committed suicide. The U.S. and U.K. now protect gay people’s privacy, and Queen Elizabeth II posthumously pardoned Turing in 2013, but LGBT people in other parts of the world continue to struggle for basic human rights. In Uganda, heterosexuals can be prosecuted for knowing homosexuals but failing to denounce them to authorities.
In 1960s New York City, cross-dressing men, as well as women who didn’t wear at least three articles of female clothing, were lawbreakers subject to arrest. But on June 28, 1969, during a run-of-the-mill police crackdown at the Stonewall Inn, colorful Greenwich Village drag queens and those who loved them retaliated against police after a handcuffed woman exhorted the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The widely reported Stonewall rebellion captured the public imagination: Its notion that the LGBT community must not tolerate its oppression led quickly to other gay rights initiatives. The newly formed Gay Liberation Front joined the efforts of Dr. Franklin E. Kameny and other medical professionals to delist homosexuality as a mental illness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1974 the APA conceded.
Activists have continued to uncover institutionalized homophobia that pathologizes homosexuality or insists upon its immorality. The 1986 Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick stipulated, in a 5–4 vote, that homosexuals have no “fundamental right…to engage in sodomy.” Seventeen years later, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court famously departed from precedent and overruled Bowers, striking down the absurd laws that stigmatized gay intimacy.
Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart is as much a polemic as it is a play: A vociferous gay rights activist, Kramer seethed with frustration at the way the media and the government ignored and trivialized early signs of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, even as the disease decimated an entire generation of gay men. The play shames New York City mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan for their callous inaction, but fellow activists accused Kramer of alienating people they needed as political allies.
Today Kramer is remembered as a hero, but he once thought he might be forgotten. In The Normal Heart, the volatile Ned Weeks (Kramer’s barely concealed avatar) compares himself to Alan Turing, the openly gay tech genius and English war hero who cracked the Germans’ Enigma code and altered the course of World War II: “When the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay. Why don’t they teach any of this in the schools? If they did, maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself and maybe you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are.… That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war.”
Plays have served a crucial role in promoting visibility of gay issues. Moisés Kaufman’s Laramie Project, which dramatizes the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s savage beating and murder in Laramie, Wyoming, has inspired many to work for hate-crime legislation to protect minorities. Larry Kramer used The Normal Heart as a megaphone to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic as it ravaged the gay community.
HBO has made a venerable cottage industry of adapting this literature into TV movies. It began with Randy Shilts’s nonfiction book And the Band Played On (1987; film, 1993) and expanded with The Laramie Project (2000; film, 2002), Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1993; miniseries, 2003) and The Normal Heart (1985; film, 2014). These acclaimed adaptations attracted starry ensemble casts, including Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.
In a scene from Laramie, a gay man watches a homecoming parade that includes a small group marching behind a Matthew Shepard banner. Within 10 minutes, so many people join the procession that its size quintuples. “I thought, ‘Thank God that I got to see this in my lifetime,’” he says. “And my second thought was, ‘Thank you, Matthew.’”
As signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the Defense of Marriage Act barred recognition of same-sex marriages under federal law. DOMA arose in response to waves of moral panic when the Supreme Court of Hawaii’s 1993 Baehr v. Miike decision ordered the state to demonstrate a compelling interest in banning same-sex marriage. By 2012, 30 states had enacted such bans.
In 2010, Edith Windsor (pictured) sued the U.S. government because it had taxed her $363,053 after she inherited her deceased wife’s estate. Under DOMA, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman, Windsor was denied the federal estate tax exemption granted to surviving spouses. In the 2013 case United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the pertinent section of DOMA and ordered the government to refund Windsor’s money, plus interest.
Ironically, Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas—the case legalizing same-sex intimacy—enabled Windsor’s victory. If society’s moral objections weren’t sufficient reason to outlaw homosexual intimacy, he feared, then there could be no legal justification for banning same-sex marriage. Pro-gay judges have since agreed: Aside from moralistic disapproval, there is no reason to deny gay people the right to marry.
Antigay laws have had real emotional and physical consequences for the LGBT community, particularly teens, but that didn’t stop President Bill Clinton from signing several in the 1990s. Key among this legislation was the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which made the discovery of an armed services member’s homosexuality grounds for dishonorable discharge, and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Both laws are indelible scars on Clinton’s record, though his compromises arguably avoided harsher legislation. An environment so hostile to LGBT people has produced chilling statistics: LGBT teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other young people and five times as likely to miss school because they feel unsafe (one study reported 28 percent drop out altogether).
Two years after DOMA became law, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was brutally murdered. President Barack Obama, who has done more than all past presidents combined to advance gay rights, encouraged the elimination of DADT and DOMA. He also supported passage of 2009’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extended federal hate-crime laws to cover, among other things, a victim’s sexual orientation.
During his 1999 trial for Matthew Shepard’s murder, Aaron McKinney used the gay panic defense: He claimed he robbed Shepard, pistol-whipped him and fractured his skull, before leaving him tied to a fence in near-freezing temperatures, all because Shepard had allegedly made sexual advances toward him.
Observers compared this paltry rationale to the “Twinkie defense” used in Dan White’s 1979 trial for the murders of gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. White’s attorney successfully argued to reduce White’s sentence by claiming his Twinkie-heavy diet was a symptom of depression, which triggered his violence. Fortunately, the panic defense—which also failed in high-profile trials involving transgender murder victims Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo—did not pass muster.
The notion that LGBT people are responsible for others’ discomfort reappears among pundits who believe homosexuals shouldn’t participate openly in the military or professional sports. But Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, is hopeful. “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003,” he has said. “The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go.” Collins wears jersey number 98 in tribute to Shepard, who died in 1998.