Skip to Main Content

LGBTQIA+

The goal of this guide is to provide a brief overview of LGBTQ+ history and culture as well as point towards resources for further reading.

Some People of Note

Christine Jorgensen (May 30, 1926 - May 3, 1989)

Christine Jorgensen was a transgender woman who became a celebrity in the United States after undergoing sex reassignment surgery. Born George William Jorgensen, Jr., Christine began transitioning after serving in the U.S. military during World War II. After obtaining special permission, she underwent surgery in Copenhagen, Denmark before returning to the U.S. Her newfound fame allowed her to establish a successful theatrical act, but she also used her renown to tour the U.S. advocating for transgender people.

Sylvia Rivera (July 2, 1951 - February 19, 2002)

Sylvia Rivera was a Latin American transgender activist and demonstrator in New York. She joined the Gay Activist Alliance at the age of 18 and fought for the rights of the gay community, especially the marginalized elements of the community including drag queens, homeless youth, transgender individuals, and gender non-conformists. With her friend and fellow activist, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which focused on helping homeless queer youth.

Marsha P. Johnson  (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992)

Marsha P. Johnson was a self-identified drag queen and gay liberation activist. Johnson was one of the central figures of the Stonewall riots in 1969. Along with her close friend, Sylvia Rivera, Johnson also co-founded STAR to help homeless and marginalized queer youth. Often called "the mayor of Christopher Street", Marsha P. Johnson was a well known figure in the New York City art and gay scenes.

Barbara Gittings (July 31, 1932 – February 18, 2007)

Barbara Gittings was a prominent activist who fought for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. She organized the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian activist organization and edited their publication, The Ladder, from 1963-1966. She worked closely with libraries all her life to encourage them to promote positive literature about homosexuality. It is with her help that the movement for the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality as a mental illness was successful. Barbara Gittings was given a lifetime membership to the American Library Association, had the ALA award for best gay or lesbian novel named after her, and had a GLAAD award for activism named after her.

Harvey Milk (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987)

"The Mayor of Castro Street" was the first openly gay elected official in California. Milk actually was not active in politics until he  began to campaign to be a member fo the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the age of 40. However his energy and talent for grassroots organization led to him being elected to the board in 1978, Despite only getting to hold office for only months, Milk sponsored and managed to pass a bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was one of the most stringent non discrimination bills regarding sexual orientation at that time. 

Bayard Rustin (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978)

Bayard Rustin was a leader in civil rights, nonviolent protests, and gay rights. A close advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., he coined the phrase "to speak truth to power." Rustin pushed for the end to racial discrimination in employment and organized the Freedom Riders. After civil rights legislation was passed in the mid 1960's, Rustin went on to become the head of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute which sought to integrate previously all white labor unions and promote the unionization of people of color. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2013.

Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992)

Audre Lorde was a lesbian feminist poet, activist, and librarian. She used her writing to address racism, sexism, homophobia and other social injustices. She made major contributions to feminist thought, including critiquing underlying racism in feminist practices which created controversy in feminist circles. Her poetry was as much a tool to express her thoughts as her prose, and she is celebrated for the emotional force and technical skill of her poetry.

Highlights - 20th Century to Now

 1924 - Society for Human Rights

Founded by Henry Gerber, the Society for Human Rights was the first gay rights organization to be recognized in the U.S. It was established in Chicago in 1924, receiving a charter from the state of Illinois. The society even produced the first homophile magazine: Friendship and Freedom.

1950 - The Mattachine Society

The Mattachine Society was a gay activist organization founded in Los Angeles by Harry Hay, a communist and labor activist. It was named for a French secret society active during the Renaissance whose members attended festivals and dances in masks, using their anonymity to criticize the oppression of the lower classes. In the next few years, the society gained traction as an activist organization and chapters opened up across the U.S.

1952 - People v. Jennings

This court case involved Mattachine Society founding member, Dale Jennings. Jennings was charged with "Lewd-Vagrancy" which was disproportionately used against homosexuals, often through police entrapment. Instead of simply paying the fine, Jennings, with the backing of the Mattachine Society, fought the charge and was acquitted, which was a great victory against the practices of entrapment that targeted the LGBTQ+ community. Even though none of the newspapers at the time reported, the Mattachine Society spread the word, and this helped their organization grow.

1955 - Daughters of Bilitis

The Daughters of Bilitis was the first U.S. lesbian organization. Founded in San Francisco, the organization began as a social alternative to bars which were prone to police raids. The organization expanded nationwide and eventually had its own publication, The Ladder,  which was the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in America.

1958 - One, Inc. v. Olesen

One, Inc., a spinoff organization from the Mattachine Society, published ONE, a pro-gay magazine. It was challenged as obscene under the Comstock Laws for pro-homosexual writing. The case made it to the Supreme Court which overturned the lower court decision, ultimately ruling that pro-homosexual writing was not obscene. This was the first ruling regarding homosexuality and free speech, marking a great victory for the LGBTQ+ population.

1959 - Cooper Do-Nuts Riot

One of the first LGBTQ+ uprisings in the U.S. took place at Cooper Do-Nuts cafe in Los Angeles. The cafe was a popular hang out for transgender people, lesbians, gays, and drag queens. At that time, if your gender expression did not match the gender on your ID, you could be arrested. That night, when police attempted to arrest several of the patrons, the others started a riot, throwing coffee cops, donuts, napkins, etc. until the officers were forced to leave without the arrested individuals.

1966 - Compton Cafeteria Riot

The Compton Cafeteria Riot occurred in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco in response to continual police harassment of transgender people who were often arrested for "female impersonation". The riot began when a transgender woman threw her coffee in the face of an officer attempting to arrest her. This sparked the other queer people who gathered at Compton's to start rioting in protest, spilling from the cafeteria onto the street. The event was one of the first LGBTQ+ protests, preempting the better-known Stonewall Riots.

1969 - Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall RIots were two nights of spontaneous violent protests that occurred after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. This even is one of the most well-known LGBTQ+ protests in U.S. history not just for it's visibility, but also because it kicked off a more active and visible movement for gay rights. Prior to this, most gay activist organizations practiced an assimilationist approach to gay rights. The riots shifted the focus to more aggressive liberation activism.

1973 - UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack

The UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar located on the upper floors of a French Quarter building in New Orleans, Louisiana. The cause of the fire is listed as undetermined, but it is suspected that a gay man, Roger Nunez, started the fire after being thrown out of the bar. The attack killed 32 people, the largest loss of life in an attack on a gay club until the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016.

1970 - ALA's Task Force on Gay Liberation

The American Library Association created the Task Force on Gay Liberation (now known as the Rainbow Round Table) which met at the ALA conference in Detroit, Michigan of that year. Barbara Gittings provided a list of 37 queer-positive books, articles, and other writings in what would be known as "A Gay Bibliography". The ALA's task force was the first time a professional organization supported gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

1973 - Homosexuality is removed from the DSM

LGBTQ+ activists long protested the use of electroshock therapy on queer patients by doctors attempting to eliminate same sex desires. In 1972, queer activists were invited to speak at the American Psychiatric Association annual conference for the first time. They brought in a gay psychiatrist, John Fryer, to speak. Afraid of losing his position if he were identified, Dr. Fryer wore a baggy suit, mask, and wig during his address. The following year, homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which psychiatrists used to diagnose mental illness. Removing homosexuality from the manual as a "mental disorder" was in important step towards destigmatizing homosexuality in the public eye.

1978 - Rainbow Flag

The iconic rainbow flag is designed by Gilbert Baker, becoming a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. He originally designed it with 8 colors: hot pink, yellow, orange, red, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet, with each color symbolizing a different concept. Over time, and due to the difficulty if getting certain colors of fabric, it became the rainbow flag we recognize today. Read more about the history of this iconic queer symbol here.

1980 - Gender Identity Disorder Recognized

Transgender people are recognized as having "Gender Identity Disorder" and it is added to the DSM. Adding Gender Identity Disorder to the DSM made it easier for transgender individuals to receive appropriate medical care, such as hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery, if they chose.

1986 - Bowers v. Hardwick

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia sodomy law as constitutional. This ruling would later be overturned by Lawrence v. Harding 17 years later.

1993 - Murder of Brandon Teena

Brandon Teena was a transgender man assaulted and murdered in Nebraska. His life became the subject of the award winning film Boys Don't Cry and the documentary, The Brandon Teena Story. Both of these films document the events leading to Brandon's murder including the discrimination and prejudice he encountered throughout his life. Brandon's murder in conjunction with the murder of Matthew Shepard was used to lobby for hate crime legislation in the U.S.

1994 - Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The U.S. military instituted Don't Ask, Don't Tell as their official policy regarding LGBTQ+ service members. It prohibited the military from inquiring into the sexual orientation of service members. As long as they remained closeted, they could serve. Openly queer people were banned from serving in the military.

1996 - Romer v. Evans

Colorado attempted to pass a state constitutional amendment that would prevent passing legislation recognizing homosexuals and bisexuals as a protected class. In a 6-4 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, stating that it did not serve any legitimate governmental purpose. It was the first Supreme Court case to address gay rights since Bowers v. Hardwick and paved the way for Lawrence v. Texas.

1998 - Matthew Shepard, Rita Hester

Matthew Shepard - A gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days after the discovery of his body, never regaining consciousness. The attack made international headlines and candlelight vigils were held all over the world while he was on life support. The perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, claimed they had intended to only rob him, but had turned to violence after Shepard put his hand on McKinney's knee. This violence motivated by Shepard's orientation, along with the murder of Brandon Teena, was used by activists to lobby for the necessity of hate crime laws.

Rita Hester - A transgender African American woman who was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts.  A candlelight vigil was held the following Friday with 250 people in attendance.  Her death inspired the Remembering Our Dead web project and the establishment of the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

1999 - Transgender Flag and Day of Remembrance

The Transgender Pride Flag was created by Monica Helms, a transgender woman and activist. Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender woman, created the Transgender Day of Remembrance. What started as a web project grew into an international day of action. Held annually on November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance serves to memorialize transgender individuals who have died to transphobia and raise awareness of violence perpetrated against the transgender community.

2003 - Lawrence v. Texas

In a landmark decision overturning Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law in a 6-3 decision. Their decision also voided the sodomy laws of 13 other states, legalizing same-sex sexual activity throughout the U.S. 

2008 - Angie Zapata

Angie Zapata was a transgender woman murdered in Greely, Colorado. In 2009, her killer, Allen Andrade, was convicted of first-degree murder and a hate crime since he killed her after learning she was transgender. This was the first conviction in the nation for a hate crime against a transgender person in the U.S.

2009 - The Matthew Shepard Act

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (a.k.a The Matthew Shepard Act) was an Act of Congress passed and signed into law in 2009. It expanded the hate crime law passed in 1969 to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. One of the items required by the act is for the FBI to track statistics of hate crimes based on gender identity among as it does with other hate crimes.

2011 - Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy that barred  openly queer people from serving in the military was repealed on September 20, 2011. Those who were in the military were free to identify their sexuality without being discharged, and those who had been discharged under DADT were allowed to reenlist if they so chose.

2013 - United States v. Windsor, Gender Dysphoria

United States v. Windsor - This court case was an important victory for same-sex marriage. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were a same-sex couple whose marriage was recognized by New York. Upon the death of her partner, Edith sought the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, but was denied due to section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Windsor filed suit and the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional.

Gender Dysphoria - The American Psychiatric Association published the DSM-5 which no longer included "gender identity disorder".  The term "disorder" was considered stigmatizing. It was changed to "gender dysphoria" with the focus on the distress caused to an individual by the mismatch of their gender identity with their sex assigned at birth.

2015 - Obergefell v. Hodges

A landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. They ruled that this right was guaranteed by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result, all fifty states are required to recognize and perform same-sex marriages with recognition of all the rights and responsibilities granted to opposite-sex marriages.

2016 - Pulse Night Club Shooting

In what was the deadliest attack against LGBTQ+ people in U.S. History, a shooter killed 49 people and injured 53 in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Until the Las Vegas Strip shooting in 2017, it was the deadliest mass shooting carried out by a single person in U.S. history. The perpetrator, Omar Mateen, was shot and killed in a standoff with police.  In the aftermath of the shooting, over 7 million dollars were raised to help victims and their families.

2018 - Transgender People in the Military

Openly transgender individuals are permitted to join the military.