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Gay and Lesbian Rights

Criminal Prohibitions On Sexual Activity, Antidiscrimination Laws, Legal Recognition Of Gay And Lesbian Relationships, Backlash

The goal of full legal and social equality for gay men and lesbians sought by the gay movement in the United States and other Western countries.

The term gay originally derived from slang, but it has gained wide acceptance in recent years, and many people who are sexually attracted to others of the same sex prefer it to the older and more clinical term homosexual. The drive for legal and social equality represents one aspect of a broader gay and lesbian movement that, since the late 1960s, has worked to change attitudes toward homosexuality, develop gay community institutions, and improve the self-image of gay men and lesbians.

Although homosexuality has been recorded in every historical period and culture, the gay and lesbian rights movement developed only with the emergence of a self-conscious, gayidentified subculture that was willing to openly assert its demands for equality. Until the 1960s, virtually all lesbians and gay men were secretive about their sexual orientation and frequently shared the attitude of the general society that homosexuality was sick, sinful, or both. The phrase "in the closet" refers to gay men and lesbians who hide their sexual orientation.

The first national gay organizations in the United States were the Mattachine Society (1951) and the Daughters of Bilitis (1956). The emergence of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT of the 1960s energized gay and lesbian groups, and the development of the women's movement of the late 1960s made explicit the link between political activities and personal identity.

The watershed moment for gay men and lesbians occurred in 1969 when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village, forcefully resisted arrest by city police officers who had raided the bar. Stonewall became a symbol for a new set of attitudes on the part of younger gay men and lesbians who resisted discrimination and negative stereotyping. As gay men and lesbians became more open and decided to "come out of the closet," U.S. society was challenged to question assumptions about homosexuality.

Though most gay and lesbian rights activity remains local, national organizations such as the National Gay Task Force, the Lambda Defense and Education Fund, and the Human Rights Campaign have played a significant role in challenging discriminatory treatment. For example, in 1974, the National Gay Task Force successfully lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

The recognition of gay and lesbian rights has been accomplished through both court challenges and legislative action. The ability of gay and lesbian organizations to make significant financial contributions to political candidates has helped lead to more sympathetic hearings in the legislative arena.


Eskridge, William N., Jr. 1993. "A History of Same-Sex Marriage." Virginia Law Review 79.

Friedman, Lawrence M. 1993. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books.

Gearan, Anne. 2003. "Gay Rights May Be Next Big Battle, O'Connor Says." Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (May 2).

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