Every October, this country celebrates LGBTQ+ History Month. While most festivities are held in June during Pride to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, October was set aside to reflect on the vast history of a vibrant and resilient community. While there has been significant progress recently, we must understand the path we’ve come through to fully prepare ourselves for a brighter future.
In this piece, we’ll walk through four of the most momentous events the community has faced, why they are so important, and what you can do to help further the movement.
Fifty-two years ago, a series of violent confrontations between gay rights activists and police outside of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village helped set the stage for the gay rights movement in the US. At the time, homosexual acts were illegal and any restaurant or bar could get shut down if they had gay employees or served gay patrons. This occurred often since police raids in gay bars were quite common. However, on June 28th, 1969 just after midnight, the LGBTQ+ community had had enough and fought back.
After being manhandled by the police who arrested her, lesbian activist Stormé DeLarverie exclaimed to the crowd to do something, causing violence to break out. Led by trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera as well as countless street kids (queer teens who were homeless), the crowds began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at police while hurling insults at them. Awaiting backup, the original NYPD raiding party barricaded themselves in the Stonewall Inn. However, even when backup arrived, the police were still outnumbered and eventually had to retreat.
Surprisingly, no one was killed or severely injured from the first night of rioting. But the tension remained for several days between the NYPD and the LGBTQ+ community, resulting in a few more riots and skirmishes. That last weekend of June in 1969 might not have been the start of the gay rights movement, but it was the tipping point to a more radical approach to liberation and equality. The decision to act by those brave street kids would ignite gay rights movements across the country and the world.
In 1981, a “rare cancer” first seen in a group of gay men eventually became a widespread epidemic now known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). When the AIDS plague arrived, it surged through communities that the straight world preferred not to see.
After the Stonewall Riots, many LGBTQ+ activists were making advances in securing some civil protections against discrimination. However, during this time, they faced opposition from homophobic, Christian leaders who believed that awarding rights to gay people would ire the wrath of God upon the country. With the election of a conservative president like Ronald Reagan, the cries for equality were ignored as anti-gay rhetoric, and attitude gained steam across the country. President Reagan and his administration leaned into this stance, while routinely ignoring and ridiculing the plague. It wasn’t until 1984, four years into his presidency that Reagan finally acknowledged it, uttering the word “AIDS,” after over 12,000 Americans had already died from the disease.
In the face of government silence and with no vaccine in sight, many folks began to organize in an effort to provide care to those who were sick and dying. By 1987, after years of frustration at the government’s inaction and seeing those around them die, activists founded the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, in New York City. Their actions were instrumental in speeding up the response to the AIDS crisis, allowing for quicker testing, treatment of lifesaving experimental drugs, and drawing attention to the deadly impact of homophobic public health policies.
By 1995, AIDS was the single greatest killer of men ages 25-44 in America. That year, the government also approved the first protease inhibitors, a type of antiretroviral drug that proved effective enough to halt and reverse the progression of the disease. Unfortunately, this life-saving medicine was available only for those who could afford it. It wasn’t until 2003, after President Bush created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that any person around the world was able to receive treatment for AIDS, bringing the epidemic to a true end.
In recent years, there have been strides made to combat the stigma surrounding an HIV/AIDS diagnosis as well as newfound treatments. In 2008, scientists in Switzerland announced that HIV+ people who take effective drugs to suppress their viral loads are incapable of transmitting the virus to HIV- people. In other words, undetectable = untransmittable. This completely shifted the care HIV+ people received from healthcare workers as well as helped destigmatize a positive diagnosis. Then in 2012, scientists announced that HIV- people taking a Truvada pill (known today as PrEP) daily would significantly lower their chances of contracting HIV through sex by 99%, which has also helped drop HIV+ rates.
According to UNAIDS, as of 2017, the AIDS epidemic has infected an estimated 77 million people globally and killed 35 million. Today, there is an estimate of 35 million people around the world living with HIV. Emphasis on living.
Same-sex marriage in America has been a hotly contested legal affair since the early 1970s. After lawsuits brought up the question of whether it was unconstitutional to restrict same-sex couples from getting married, in 1996, the federal government signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). With DOMA, the government defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and gave states the power to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages.
However, eight years later, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the landmark court decision Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. As the years progressed, more and more states and U.S. territories legalized same-sex marriages. However, there were still federal restrictions present through DOMA that barred certain rights to those in same-sex marriages. That would all change in 2013 with the Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor.
In 2008, Edith Windsor and her partner Thea Spyer had their marriage recognized by the state of New York. Unfortunately, Thea passed away a year later. When Edith sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, she was barred from doing so due to Section 3 of DOMA. Believing this to be an injustice, Edith sued the federal government and a District Judge ruled that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional. In 2012, the case found itself being argued in front of the Supreme Court and a year later, in a 5-4 decision, they upheld the initial finding that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, allowing spouses to receive full benefits regardless of their sex.
While certain restrictions were lifted with the ruling in United States v. Windsor, same-sex marriage would not be legalized for another two years after another Supreme Court case came to light - Obergefell v. Hodges. This case saw four cases, in which same-sex couples were denied rights within their marriages that heterosexual couples received, consolidated, and reviewed in front of the Justices. And in another 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment requires that all states grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.
Some 45 years after the first legal case regarding same-sex marriage was brought forth in the courts, marriage equality was finally achieved, affirming what many of us already knew - that love is love.
Transgender Rights Movement
While there has been a great deal of progress in securing equal rights under the law for many of the LGBTQ+ community, one group still faces discrimination and violence at a heightened level - the transgender community.
During the start of the gay rights movement, many activist groups and organizations were more assimilationist in their immediate goals. This attitude led the trans community to oftentimes be neglected and blatantly excluded from events and political consideration. The irony in this is that much of the gay rights movement was fronted by trans activists, like Marsha P. Johnson, Zazu Nova, and Jackie Hormona - and not by white cisgender gay men that tend to be portrayed as the face of the movement.
While there has been progress in creating a level of intersectionality within the LGBTQ+ community, it hasn’t been without pushback. In 2013, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled in favor of a six-year-old transgender girl, Coy Mathis, to use the girl’s bathroom in her
elementary school. In the wake of this ruling, many states began to put forth transphobic legislation that would require people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth. North Carolina was the only state to pass it into law with HB2 in 2016, though it was later repealed following a new gubernatorial administration.
Bathrooms aren’t the only place where transgender people faced difficulties in entering. Sports, a historically male-dominated industry, has shown resistance in allowing trans women to participate in women’s sports. The argument being that these are women who have gone through male puberty and therefore might have an unfair advantage physiologically. The Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event, introduced guidelines in 2003 that allowed trans athletes to compete, however many were still discriminatory due to invasive testing and requirements. After revising the rules in 2015, it wouldn’t be until the 2020 Summer Olympics that the first transgender people would actually compete: Laurel Hubbard in weightlifting and Quinn in women’s soccer. Quinn would go on to become the first transgender person to win an Olympic medal (gold!).
While there has been many recent highs for the transgender community, we will be remiss not to mention that though all transgender people face difficulties throughout their lives, transgender people of color, especially transgender women of color, have had it exponentially worst. According to a National Transgender Discrimination survey, transgender people of color are 6 times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police compared to cisgender White people, two-thirds of LGBT homicide victims being transgender women of color, and a startling 78% of them have attempted suicide.
In our fight for true equality, we must make sure that the focus of trans visibility and representation is not centered around white people. The stark difference in experiences for transgender people of color with health care, employment, socioeconomic status, and intersectionality must be kept at the forefront of all conversations surrounding equality.
The LGBTQ+ community has had a long and tumultuous history towards acceptance and respect in this world. A history that ought to be taught and remembered for its contributions to our society. With the greatest of highs came the lowest of lows and through it all, they have remained resilient and beautiful. Manual Labor looks forward to the future history makers and milestones along with the LGBTQ+ community.
To learn more about how you can support + uplift the LGBTQ+ community, check out the following organizations:
The Stonewall Initiative: @stonewallgives
Matthew Shepard Foundation: @mattshepardfdn
The Trevor Project: @trevorproject
It Gets Better Project: @itgetsbetter
National Center for Trans Equality: @transequalitynow
The Marsha P Johnson Institute: @mpjinstitute
amFAR, The Foundation of AIDS Research: @amfar
“It is absolutely imperative that every human being’s freedom and human rights are respected, all over the world.”– Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir