The History of LGBTQ Rights in America

Part of celebrating Pride Month is understanding the history of LGBTQ rights. It’s been a long road for folks to be given the freedom to love who they want to love and be who they want to be. And we still have a long way to go. 

Part of moving forward is looking back on where we’ve come from.

A Timeline of the History of LGBTQ Rights in America:

1924 – Though there were many LGBTQ identifying folks who were speaking up before this, The Society for Human Rights founded by Henry Gerber becomes the first documented gay rights organization.

1947 – The State Department, under President Truman’s National Security Loyalty Program, starts firing those who are suspected of being homosexual. More than 1,200 men and women will lose their jobs.

1950 – Activist Harry Hay forms the Mattachine Society, which is self-described as a “homophile” organization focused on promoting tolerance and social acceptance for homosexuals.

1952 – The diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association lists homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”

1952 – Christine Jorgensen becomes the first visible transsexual in the American media when her sex reassignment surgery goes public. 

1953 – President Eisenhower issues an executive order banning homosexuals from working in the federal government. This prompts many local and state governments to do the same.

1955 – Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) is founded in San Fransisco and is the first known lesbian rights organization in the U.S.

1961 – Illinois repeals their sodomy laws and becomes the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize homosexuality.

1969 – The police raid the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Among those who resisted arrest were transgender and gender non-conforming folks. Protests and riots break out as a result. This event becomes known as the catalyst of the gay civil rights movement in the United States.

1970 – A year after the Stonewall riots, community members in NYC march through the streets recognize the anniversary of that day. This march is considered the first gay pride parade.

1973 – The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

1974 – Kathy Kozachenko wins a seat on the Ann Arbor, Michigan City Council and becomes the first openly LGBTQ American elected to any public office.

1978 – Harvey Milk becomes the San Francisco city supervisor and is the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Later that year he is murdered. His legacy inspires Gilbert Baker to develop a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ community. The symbol he designs is the rainbow flag.

1979 – More than 100,000 people participate in the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

1982 – Wisconsin becomes the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

1985 – Rock Hudson acknowledges he has AIDS, which leads to widespread public awareness about the disease.

1993 – The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military is signed by President Bill Clinton and implemented.

1996 – President Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex couples and creates an exception to the U.S. Constitution to allow states to disregard same-sex marriages performed in other states. It defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection.

1996 – Judge Chang of Hawaii rules that the state does not have the right to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, therefore making Hawaii the first state in the U.S. to recognize that homosexual couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples.

1998 – Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming, is found tied to a fence and beaten. He dies due to his injuries. The tragedy gains national media attention and sparks vigils around the world. 

2000 – Vermont becomes the first state to legally recognize civil unions between gay or lesbian couples.

2003 – The Supreme Court strikes down the “homosexual conduct” law thereby decriminalizing same-sex sexual conduct. 

2004 – The Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that barring same-sex couples from marrying violates the state constitution. The first legal same-sex marriage in the U.S. takes place in Massachusetts.

2008 – Voters in California approve Proposition 8 in California, which makes same-sex marriage illegal.

2009 – President Barack Obama posthumously awards the Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk.

2010 – A federal judge finds Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional.

2011 – “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, ending a ban on openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection.

2012 – At the Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party becomes the first major American political part to publicly support same-sex marriage.

2015 – The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalizing it in all fifty states.

2016 – President Obama announces the designation of the first national monument to LGBTQ rights. 

2016 – The Secretary of Defense announces that they are lifting the ban on transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military.

2017 – President Donald Trump announces that the U.S. Military will not allow transgender individuals to “serve in any capacity.”

2017 – Danica Roem is voted into the Virginia House of Delegates becoming the first openly transgender person ever elected into public office.

2019 – The LGBTQ Victory Institute reports that this year, 698 LGBTQ people hold elected office, the highest number in U.S. history.

Pride Month

The history of LGBTQ rights is not something you usually learn in school. This is a community that has been and continues to be marginalized. It is important that whoever we are, we embrace and fight for the freedom self-expression and love. Happy Pride Month!

Get Involved!

Pride Month is a time to celebrate the LGBTQ community, and learn about the struggles that LGBTQ girls face and how we can support them. Raise awareness about LGBTQ Teen mental health!


Elizabeth Endara is a writer, advocate, doula, educator and cat mom based in NYC. She loves Great British Bake-Off, Eastern Europe, snug coffee shops and writing about her feelings. She is the co-founder of a feminist blog called Release the Women, and she is excited to be working with liveyourdream.org helping to curate and tell stories that demonstrate the power of women!

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