President Bill Clinton declared June 1999 to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, the first time an American President publicly commemorated the contributions of LGBT people to American history, culture, and society. President Barack Obama continued this tradition through his eight years in office (2009-2017), designating June as LGBT Pride Month. After decades of litigation, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the United States Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage in 2015. The following year, Stonewall National Monument in New York City became the first site in the National Park Service to highlight LGBT history.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were the nation’s “invisible minority” for much of American history. Prevented from pursuing identity and relationships of their choice by local and state “sodomy laws,” most gay men and women hid their sexual orientation. Lesbian relationships were stigmatized as “sapphism” within the confines of sexist social structures that kept women subordinate. Many LGBT people reluctantly embraced heterosexual marriage to gain social acceptance. Living “in the closet” often seemed preferable to a life of humiliation, rejection, and abuse.
The medical community considered homosexuality a form of mental illness and “treated” it with isolation, medication, and electroshock “conversion” therapy. The American Psychiatric Association did not remove it from their catalog of “disorders” until 1973. Homosexual attraction was routinely condemned as “unnatural” and “sinful” by religious leaders. Gay people were shamed and ostracized by their families, their employers, and their communities. Many fled their home towns or went into hiding out of fear for their physical safety. Untold numbers of them became homeless or the victims of hate crimes.
Large numbers of LGBT men and women served honorably in World War II and Korea, despite the risk of dishonorable discharge if their sexual orientation was discovered. Like other American minorities, they returned home with raised expectations about the exercise of their civil rights. Instead, they were met with the homophobic paranoia of the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. Thousands of LGBT government employees were fired as “moral deviants” and “security risks,” accused of being especially vulnerable to Communist propaganda and blackmail. Many in Hollywood were hounded and blacklisted.
Throughout the 1960s, stiff fines and prison terms awaited anyone caught in public acts of same-sex affection. Openly gay poets and artists such as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) attracted devoted fans of all backgrounds, but the hateful sodomy laws remained in place. Mainstream hostility toward gay culture was reinforced by negative news coverage, erroneous academic scholarship, and homophobic clergy and politicians. Police raids on gay bars, long the gathering place for the community, increased dramatically.
The situation came to a head on the sweltering night of June 28, 1969 during a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. For the first time, angry LGBT patrons fought back in large numbers, driving police officers back and damaging property. Within a year, the first Gay Pride parades were organized in major American cities. LGBT neighborhoods such as the Castro District in San Francisco, West Hollywood, Hillcrest in San Diego, and Provincetown on Cape Cod grew in strength and numbers. Gay and lesbian Americans began speaking out publicly and defending their rights.
In 1977 Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, the first openly gay public official to gain national prominence. His assassination a year later and the moderate sentence given to his killer led to riots and outrage. Throughout the 1980s, the LGBT community continued to organize and agitate for equal rights and treatment, surviving the trauma of the AIDS crisis and the indifference of the Reagan administration. Many gay voters saw a potential champion in Bill Clinton in 1992, but his subsequent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on LGBT military personnel and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) came as bitter disappointments.
Clinton began to come around as an ally of gay rights toward the end of his presidency, and more than a decade later President Barack Obama publicly acknowledged the struggle for LGBT civil rights in his 2013 inaugural address. Federal hate crime laws were strengthened and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally dismantled. Spectacular legal victories struck down discrimination against domestic partnerships and eventually all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage. Gay candidates began winning local and state elections.
Helping your students understand the tremendous contributions of LGBT Americans is an important step forward in presenting a balanced view of United States history. From President James Buchanan, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century to the numerous television, film, music, and sports stars of the 20th and 21st, LGBT artists, leaders and celebrities have shaped the fabric of the nation’s course and character. The songs of Cole Porter and literary works of Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Armistead Maupin are among many resources for cross-disciplinary activities.
According to some estimates, LGBT Americans constitute up to 10% of the U.S. population. They come from every state and cultural background and are numbered in every profession. Politicians of all parties have finally accepted the power of the gay voting bloc. You will have LGBT students in your class as well as many others who have gay friends and relatives. Bullying in school and online has led to alarming rates of depression, alcohol and drug use, and suicide among LGBT teens. As their history teacher, you have an important role as advocate and ally. Telling the whole story of American history, including the part played by the LGBT community, is a good place to start.
With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots approaching, this is a banner year for highlighting LGBT history. New York is hosting a massive commemorative celebration called Stonewall50 which will attract thousands from around the world. Pride parades across the country are expected to be the largest ever. In the four decades since Harvey Milk, 46 of the 50 states have elected LGBT local or state officials. Three have served as state governors and ten now sit in the U.S. Congress. On April 14 of this year, South Bend, Indiana Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg entered the 2020 race as the first openly gay candidate for President of the United States in American history.
Take advantage of the many online resources available at your fingertips. Have your students research openly LGBT candidates for public office. Explore the history and development of federal hate crime legislation. Analyze the background and findings of the 1950s Kinsey Reports. Study the history of early civil rights groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Create an art activity on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Assign a project on the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder case or the recent Supreme Court decisions. Have them write a news story on a local Pride Parade.
Whatever you decide to do, remember to include this important segment of American life in your curriculum. The political debates on gender identification, public accommodations, equal employment and housing opportunities, and rights to privacy and freedom of expression have only intensified in the last several years and show no signs of quick and easy resolution. Adding your voice and those of your students to this public discourse will enrich the quality of your students’ learning experience. The story of LGBT America must continue to be told, and as a teacher you are in a unique position to tell it. Your students of all orientations and the society at large will be empowered by your efforts.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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