Gay Rights Movement: Timeline & Activism

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will be given a brief introduction to the gay rights movement, including highlights of important events from the last 50 years. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with a quiz.

What is the Gay Rights Movement?

In the context of American history, there are certain eras in which culture and society have experienced profound change. During the 1960s, the nation underwent an unprecedented transformation, due in part to the wide variety of civil rights movements that demanded equality for minority populations. Although African Americans' and feminists' civil rights movements tend to be focused on heavily during explorations of this era, the gay rights movement is equally significant and influential on the shaping of American values.

Like other movements for social equality in the United States, the gay rights movement was largely a product of the progressive politics and counter-culture activism of the mid-to-late 1960s. Similar to other movements for equal treatment and opportunity, the gay rights movement advocates, among other things, for social equality, cultural tolerance or acceptance of gays and lesbians, and equal protection under the law.

As with any large and influential social movement, it is impossible to provide a thorough history in so few words. Given that, this lesson will provide you with a brief introduction to the gay rights movement, and highlight some of the more important events from the last fifty years.

The Stonewall Riots: 1969

While other civil rights movements had begun to take shape towards the end of the 1950s or early 1960s, the gay rights movement didn't really become an established presence until the summer of 1969. Few bars or restaurants catered to openly homosexual patrons during the 1960s; there were, however, a handful scattered throughout major urban areas that did, and they were frequent targets of police as a result. In New York City, one such establishment was the Stonewall Inn, where patrons had become accustomed to the frequent raids, harassment, and violence from law enforcement.

The Stonewall Inn, 1969

On the night of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, as they had many times before, but rather than line up to be led out of the bar and arrested, patrons refused to go with police. As a crowd gathered outside of the bar, the scene escalated quickly after a police officer was seen throwing a woman into the police car. Infuriated by the brutality of the police, patrons and bystanders began to throw rocks, bottles, and handfuls of change at the police.

After several hours of escalating chaos and violence, what was supposed to be a fairly routine police raid on a New York gay bar had developed into what is known as the Stonewall riot. Extending into the following day, the riot attracted hundreds of individuals who were frustrated by the abuses of the gay community, and inspired gay men and women to advocate for themselves alongside other members of the LGBT rights movement.

The AIDS Crisis: 1980s

In the late 1960s, the Stonewall riot encouraged many gay men and lesbians to openly protest the maltreatment and intolerance that they faced on a daily basis, but the next major event in the movement's history was far less encouraging.

In 1981, after the Centers for Disease Control published a report of a rare lung disease in several gay men from Los Angeles, the story was picked up by the press and quickly reported in newspapers across the country. Soon after, other cases of similar diseases were reported in other states, and by the end of that year, more than 250 cases of 'gay cancer' had been reported across the country; these people had AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

Infuriated by what they perceived to be the government's lack of interest in the emerging crisis, a small number of gay activists in New York City formed the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which was the first AIDS organization in the world.

ACT UP poster encouraging AIDS activism
act up

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