Martin Luther King, Jr., famously observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards Justice.” The American civil rights movement has made slow progress since May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal doctrine” in Brown vs. Board of Education. Nonetheless, few anticipated the rapidity of acceptance of same-sex marriage.
The American civil rights era began on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white man. As the African-American civil rights campaign began to produce results, it was joined by the women’s liberation movement, the campaign for Hispanic-American civil rights, and the gay pride movement.
The first many of us heard of what came to be termed the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) rights movement was the Stonewall Inn riots that began on June 28, 1969. There were similar incidents in isolated parts of the US, but for most progressives the LGBT concerns seemed a tiny part of the total civil-rights movement. We thought we didn’t know homosexuals.
In 1971 I was attending a service at the San Francisco Unitarian church when the minister invited a LGBT advocate to discuss their concerns. He made three points: Gays were coming out of the closet. They were our friends and family members. And they demanded to be treated as equals, to have rights equal to straights.
Within several years, I realized that I knew gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Some I had suspected but many came as a surprise. Having them come out didn’t change our relationship but it did make me aware of their concerns and the barriers they encountered that didn’t impact me, a straight white man.
The larger community slowly began to change. On December 15, 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. On November 8, 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. (One year late he was assassinated.)
In 1980 the Democratic Party declared that it would not discriminate against homosexuals and worked LGBT rights into the Democratic platform. In 1981 famous tennis player, Billy Jean King, came out as a lesbian. In 1982 Americans became aware that many of our friends were suffering from HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). In 1983 movie star Rock Hudson died of AIDS. In 1986 a lesbian couple was allowed to adopt a child. In 1987 Congressman Barney Frank came out as gay.
In 1992 the World Health Organization declared that homosexuality was not an illness –the AMA agreed in 1994. In 1993 musician Melissa Etheridge came out as a lesbian. In 1998 Tammy Baldwin became the first open lesbian elected to the House of Representatives. In 1999 California passed a civil union/registered partner law.
By 2003 most states had passed laws banning LGBT discrimination. In 2003 the Supreme Court struck down Sodomy laws (Lawrence vs. Texas). In 2004 the battleground became same-sex marriage when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome permitted same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses. However these marriages were annulled. In 2008, The California Supreme Court again granted same-sex couples the right to marry. My wife and I held a reception to celebrate the weddings of several of our lesbian friends. Nonetheless, in November of 2008 Californians narrowly approved a ballot initiative – Proposition 8 – that once again banned same-sex marriage. The battle moved into the court system.
In 2011 the US Military ended the ban on openly LGBT service personnel. In 2012 President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage and Tammy Baldwin became the first open lesbian elected to the US Senate. On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled against the “Defense of Marriage Act” and let California’s Proposition 8 be struck down. (13 states have legalized same-sex marriage.)
Looking back on the 44 years since the Stonewall Inn riots, it’s clear enormous progress has been made affirming LGBT rights. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Americans have come out of the closet and in many places been allowed to live normal lives. It’s a tribute to the leadership of the LGBT movement that so much has been accomplished in such a (relatively) short amount of time.
Nonetheless, there is much work to be done. 35 states have banned same-sex marriage and many of these treat LGBT individuals as pariahs.
Indeed, the civil rights movement in general has more work to do. The same Supreme Court session that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act also eviscerated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And it’s clear that many of the states that continue to discriminate against LGBT individuals also look down upon women, African and Hispanic-Americans.
Each of the “identity” groups has their unique challenges: for women it’s access to comprehensive healthcare; for the LGBT caucus it’s marriage equality; for Hispanics it’s immigration; and for blacks it’s access to the ballot box. But, as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes, what cuts across all these groups is economic inequality. The United States is now more accepting of the LGBT community than it was 44 years ago, and more accepting of women, blacks, and Hispanics. But we are less accepting of the poor. In that sense the arc of the moral universe has not bent towards justice.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org