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Gay and Lesbian Activism of the 1960s and 1970s

Updated on November 12, 2017



By the last quarter of 2000, the gay and lesbian community (as well as the bi-sexual and transgender) were starting to see some positive changes. These included laws that were meant to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the public sector, which meant that it was also illegal to discriminate against these groups in such areas as education and employment among others. From this point on, it can be argued that the lesbians, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community (LGBT) would continue to see more positive changes with regards to how they were perceived and treated in society. These changes can be attributed to the struggle of the LGBT community in the 1960s and 70s that sought to not only educate people about sexual orientation, but also ensure that the rights of these groups. Here, I will discuss the long-term outcomes of the LGBT movement in the 1960s and 70s with regards to the rights of the groups in the movement (gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual).

According to a study that was published by Herek and Capitanio in 1996, a good majority of adults in America felt that homosexual behavior were wrong because they were not natural 1. However, attitudes in the late 1990s were also found to be more positive compared to the mid 1960s where 75 percent of Americans held that homosexual was not only wrong, but harmful to the society 2. In 1996, 56 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS) held that homosexual behavior to be wrong. These figures are important in that they demonstrate the outcome of the gay and lesbian struggles in the 1960s and 70s.

The 1960s were the years of post-World War II. The 1960s was heavily characterized by post-materialist societal ethos with a rise of a number of movements that sought to ensure various human rights. A good example of this is with the civil rights movement that was led by the like of Martin Luther King in the 50s and 60s. For the gay and lesbian community, the 1960s would also become one of the most important decades in their history particularly due to the Stonewall riots of 1969. During the 1960s, police raid of homosexual bars was common given that the society still had negative attitudes towards homosexuality in general. However, on the 27th of June 1969, the patrons of these bars decided to resist and fight back rather than simply accepting mistreatment or arrests. This resulted in riots that would last overnight, ultimately sparking what most perceived to be the gay liberation movement 3. While the Stonewall riots and demonstration may not have been the first for members of the gay and lesbian community, the events of the Stonewall Inn became more significant that prior events.
By resisting police raids, members of the gay communities as well as others associated with the community were making a stand that they would no longer accept discrimination. According to Marc Stein, a historian, one activists, referring to the Stonewall events stated that "No event in history, with perhaps the exception of the French Revolution, deserves more "than the Stonewall riots" to be considered a watershed" 4. Here, it is important to understand some of the events of the previous decade in order to appreciate the Stonewall events. In the 1950s, the Mattachine Society had been created for homosexual men and as an organization that would take in members. In 1955, another organization known as the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was also created as an alternative to the gay bars and clubs. In 1956, the two came together to advocate for the growth of the movement by trying to create more awareness. However, by the end of the 1950s, membership in these organization had started dropping to about 300 in 1960 from an estimated 5000 in the mid 1950s 5. By this time, many more individuals of the homosexual orientation were also moving to New York, which was thought to be a more liberal compared to other towns and cities. However, according to Will (2013) the gay population still experienced harassment given that homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association 5.

Following police raids at Stonewall Inn on the 17th of June 1969, tension between the police, patrons at the bar and other members of the homosexual community intensified. This resulted in riots as news about the riots spread to others in the gay community across New York.

This resulted in the group of protesters growing with such chants as "Gay Power" and "Equality for Homosexuals". According to Carter (2004), through the riots, the homosexual community had taken a stand against harassment and discrimination. The events of the riots and the aftermath of the same riots resulted in the formation of a number of organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) while at the same time increasing the significance and popularity of previous groups like the Mattachine Society. These groups arranged meetings and planned matches to protest against oppression and harassment. The GLF called for other homosexuals, particularly students to come out to their peers while at the same time calling for an end to rules that prohibited sax sex from touching. At the same time, GLF worked with another organization referred to as Homophile Youth Movement (HYMN) to end Mafia involvement in gay clubs and bars. In November of 1969, GAA together with GLF continued protesting for gay rights in public areas by staging kiss-ins in public areas and demonstrating in the streets while also leading protests in University campuses where they called for an end to anti-gay rules that had been put in place in these institutions. About a year after the riots, the organizations went on to organize a one year anniversary Gay Pride mach as a commemoration. Today, the events of Stonewall are remembered and are marked by the gay pride parade, which is itself an international commemorative ritual 6.

In 1999, in recognition of the efforts of various Gay and Homosexual organizations in 1969, Bill Clinton went on to declare June as the Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, which was something that had not been done by any president before him. Here, it is possible to see that the events of Stonewall in 1969 had a lot of significance to the gay community in the United States of America in that they had influenced significant changes observed in years to come.

In the 1970s, Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan played a significant role in gay activism. Early on, students from various faculties had played an important role in various demonstrations and in the early 1970; they struggled towards the recognition and inclusion of lesbians and gays in to the University. This is largely attributed to the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front, which had been recognized as a student organization. Two years after the creation of the organization, the group went on to organize the very first gay dance in Michigan, which was followed by the establishment of Sexuality Advocates office. This was an institutional student services office that was dedicated to both gay and lesbians.

In the next few years, the Gay Liberation Front of New York (GLF/NY) influenced the establishment of other gay liberation organizations across cities in the United States including Philadelphia and San Francisco among others 7. Through all this, according to Toy (2007) the University of Michigan had become an important point for radical students while Ann Arbor became a home for a majority of students and such activist groups as the Human Right Party 8. Whereas the University of Michigan had become the first University to have an office that addressed gay and lesbian concerns of students, Ann Arbor Lesbians was organized by Gayle Rubin to form the Radical lesbians in the University.

These served to protect gay and lesbian students. Between the 60s and 70s, the University had become an important institution for the study of gay liberation together with other movements of the same decades.

Through these organizations, gay and lesbians were finally getting an opportunity to voice their concerns to the society in general. According to Herek and Capitanio (1996) as many as two thirds of Americans (as per a survey conducted in the General Social Survey) in the 1970s and 80s considered homosexual behavior to be wrong. For these respondents, homosexuality was termed as "Always Wrong". However, in another survey that was conducted in the 1990s, it was only 56 percent of respondents who regarded homosexual behavior as always wrong. Looking at the figures, it becomes evident that there was a significant change with regards to how society perceived homosexual behavior. Following the events of the 60s and 70s (gay activism) it becomes evident that the society was becoming more accepting and understanding of homosexuality. Although this is not to that homosexuals do not have challenges today, the events of the 1960s and 70s were successful in changing the views of some people in society. A good example of this is with regards to the University of Michigan that became the first University to have an office to handle concerns of the gay and lesbian community, paving the way for other such public institutions to be open minded. In the last quarter of 2000, some of the goals of the gay and lesbian organizations from the 60s and 70s were starting to be realized with such politicians as the former Governor of the State of Iowa (Tom Vilsack) rescinding an executive order that would ban any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the public sector In the same month (December) of 2000, Thomas Carper, the then Governor of Delaware would issue an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Public sector. This meant that it was against the law to discriminate against homosexuals in educational institutions, employment or any other public sector 9. These were some of the goals that the gay and lesbian activists in the 1960s and 70s homes to achieve. Today, the LGBT community has experienced many more rights including the right to get married in most States across the United States. This shows that the events of the 1960s and 70s were able to have long lasting impacts on the lives of gay and lesbian individuals in the United States.


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