There was a time when homosexuality was deemed a mental disorder by the nation’s psychiatric authorities, and gay sex was a crime in every state but Illinois. Federal workers could be fired for the mere fact of being gay.
That time wasn’t long ago — just 50 years.
Today, gays serve openly in the military, work as TV news anchors and federal judges, win elections as big-city mayors and members of Congress. Several hugely popular TV shows have gay protagonists.
And now the gay-rights movement may be on the cusp of momentous legal breakthroughs. Later this month, a Supreme Court ruling could lead to legalization of same-sex marriage in California, the most populous state, and there’s a good chance the court will require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in all U.S. jurisdictions where they are legal — as of now, 12 states and Washington, D.C.
The transition over the last five decades has been far from smooth — replete with bitter protests, anti-gay violence, backlashes that inflicted many political setbacks. In contrast to the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, the campaign for gay rights unfolded without household-name leaders.
Progress came about largely due to the individual choices of countless gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and get engaged.
These were people like a Chicago graduate student who, early on, was willing to confront a high-profile critic of gay relationships. A young community organizer plunging into advocacy work for victims of AIDS. Three gay couples in Hawaii suing for the right to marry at a time when that seemed far-fetched even to many activists.
‘‘It is pretty mind-blowing how quickly it’s moved,’’ said David Eisenbach, who teaches political history at Columbia University and has written about the gay-rights movement.
Eisenbach contrasted the attitudes of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when even many political liberals viewed homosexuality as pernicious, to what he sees today.
‘‘There are kids coming out in high school now, being accepted by their classmates,’’ he said. ‘‘Parents, relatives, friends are seeing the people they love come out. It’s very hard to discriminate against someone you love.’’
As the Supreme Court rulings approach, here is a look back at three of the gay-rights movement’s pivotal phases and some of the people who chose to get involved.
INTO THE STREETS
Dr. David Reuben had legions of fans after publishing his best-selling ‘‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex’’ in 1969. Murray Edelman wasn’t among them.
Edelman, then a University of Chicago graduate student, was part of a tiny band of activists who launched a gay liberation movement in the city starting late in 1969 and continuing through the early ‘70s
When Reuben — who depicted gay men’s relationships as bleakly impersonal and short-lived — was booked to appear on a TV talk show in Chicago in January 1971, Edelman and some fellow activists decided to attend.
Irked at being denied a chance to ask questions, Edelman rose from his seat and headed to the stage toward the end of the session, seeking to confront Reuben face-to-face. He was hauled out of the studio, but the incident received TV and newspaper coverage.
‘‘It was the first time they really acknowledged there were gay activists in the city,’’ Edelman said.
It was an era abounding with firsts for the gay-rights movement.
Historians can trace its roots back to individuals and incidents many decades earlier, and some pioneering national gay-rights organizations were formed in the 1950s — notably the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
But the pace picked up in the 1960s. Frank Kameny, who sued after being fired from his job as a government astronomer for being gay, took his anti-discrimination case to the Supreme Court in 1961 (the justices declined to hear his appeal), and helped stage the first gay-rights protest in front of the White House in 1965. The U.S. Court of Appeals, in a separate case, ruled in 1969 that federal civil servants could no longer be fired solely because they were gay.
Gay activists formed organizations in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Amid the ferment of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement, there was a surge of interest in gay liberation — gays and lesbians publicly revealing their sexuality and evoking it as a source of pride rather than shame.
Edelman, during an hour-long interview, recalled being herded into a police paddy wagon in Washington, D.C., in 1965 after he and other gay men were arrested at a party. He began singing, ‘‘We Shall Overcome’’ under his breath, and the other men in the vehicle joined him.Continued...