Early Movements for LGBT Rights

After World War II gay groups became more visible. In the United States, they formed social and political organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

Sociologist Mary Bernstein explains that gay activists seek cultural goals that challenge dominant constructions of gender and the primacy of heterosexual nuclear families (heteronormativity). They also seek political goals to gain new rights.

The Stonewall Uprising

At the time of Stonewall, the lives of gay men and women were criminalized. They couldn’t openly express their sexuality, could be denied jobs or fired from them, and if they made love in public, they faced arrest.

The violence of Stonewall sparked a surge in activism that had already begun. In 1966, three years before Stonewall, members of the Mattachine Society staged a series of “sip-ins” at taverns to challenge discrimination. They demanded that staff treat them as patrons and sued establishments that refused to do so. Their demonstrations helped to reduce police raids.

By the late 1960s, a growing number of LGBTQ people were participating in social movements including the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests and the counterculture of that time. Those influences informed the work of early LGBT groups like the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis and the Janus Society, who called on their fellow citizens to demand equality for gay people.

In Philadelphia, the annual Fourth of July pickets by LGBTQ activists of Independence Hall — where their country’s Declaration and Constitution were drafted — also helped to raise consciousness about state treatment of homosexuals. These annual reminders of the events at Stonewall were a powerful precursor to the annual Pride marches that would take place later in the United States.

The AIDS Epidemic

The AIDS epidemic devastated gay communities, but it also sparked a revival of activism. Gay activists demanded that their doctors see them as whole human beings with emotional and sexual as well as biological needs and demanded rights to treatment, care and burial. They established a massive community-based care network, fought back against government apathy and organized to change public perceptions of AIDS and homosexuality.

Early AIDS groups promoted safer sex education, held demonstrations against pharmaceutical companies that profited from the disease and held fundraisers to pay for the medication that saved lives. They lobbied for equal access to health insurance, and worked to counter the notion that AIDS was exclusively a white gay disease by creating Brother to Brother, a book of black gay men’s writing and hosting events to showcase black artists who used art to address the AIDS crisis.

As AIDS progressed, it became clear that people of all races and economic backgrounds were impacted. Local AIDS groups began to target populations other than white gay men, focusing on poor and working-class areas. They developed campaigns to educate the public that HIV transmission was not limited to gay men and that AIDS could occur in women, infants, people with hemophilia and those who inject drugs. They rallied against homophobia, protested governmental inaction and made the AIDS quilt, a display of cloth squares with the names of those who had died, an iconic symbol of the movement.

Alternative Newspapers

After Stonewall and the emergence of Come Out, gay, lesbian and bisexual people began publishing their own newsletters and newspapers. Some of these, like the Black Lesbian Newsletter (later Onyx) and Philadelphia Gay News and others, were devoted to political activism. Others focused on cultural events, personal ads and community discussion.

Many of the larger alternative weekly newspapers grew out of these earlier, owner-operated, non-chain owned papers. Some of these publications have survived into the current era while others have folded. Several of the most prominent in recent times include the Boston Phoenix, San Francisco Bay Guardian and New York City Paper.

While some of these papers featured writing from a wide variety of authors, many were edited and published by members of the same activist group or community. This was particularly true for the London based Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which published the first gay liberation newspaper in the world, Come Out! The GLF also encouraged its members to become visible and to fight for a more openly queer society.

The Library has numerous collections of gay, lesbian and bisexual periodicals, newspapers and other serial publications. For example, the collection of the Black Lesbian Newsletter (later Onyx) includes poems, drawings and political perspectives alongside community news, events and personal ads. Similarly, the Philadelphia Gay News and Au Courant records document LGBT news, culture and politics. The Library also has many subject files on activist organizations and their themes as well as various collections of books, pamphlets and ephemera that document the social justice movement.

Religious Communities

A growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people joined religious communities that officially welcomed them as members. This included churches and synagogues and a broad range of other organized groups, including alternative religious movements and intentional community movements that combined expressive ideals with moralities of rules and authority.

Religious communities, along with LGBT activist organizations and political lobby groups, worked to secure the rights of LGBTQ individuals. Issues of primary concern included eradicating discrimination in employment, housing, and military service; combating HIV/AIDS through awareness campaigns, disease prevention, and funding for research; ending hate crimes legislation; and securing marriage rights for same-sex couples.

In addition, activists sought to increase the visibility of a formerly invisible minority by establishing gay-centered businesses and social gathering spaces, such as bars, restaurants, and clubs. These venues drew in large crowds of patrons, including a diverse range of individuals whose lifestyles varied from the conventional to the eccentric. For example, the “drag” community of cross-dressers and female impersonators gathered in clubs and other social spaces to reclaim public space for themselves.

Religious conservatives opposed many of these efforts. They promoted campaigns to discourage companies that supported LGBT rights and pushed for religious exemptions from laws to protect LGBT people. They also provided support and funds to anti-LGBT campaigns in developing countries, such as Uganda’s death penalty for homosexual acts by men.