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A Brief History of LGBTQ Rights in the United States

By Michael Givens , Nov. 29, 2018
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The history of LGBTQ rights in the United States dates back to the mid-20th century. The 1950s and 1960s were decades fraught with anti-LGBTQ sentiments across the nation. Oftentimes, those who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer were forced to hide their orientations and identities. Members of the community would regularly congregate in bars, clubs, bathhouses, and other areas where they could live openly. On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn—a mafia-owned gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood—was raided by police and its patrons were subjected to harassment and arrest. Most of the patrons were marginalized people living on the fringe of society.

Pride Flag

The raid itself boiled over into a full-out riot with many of the patrons forming groups to confront the police force over its treatment of LGBTQ community members in the city. The Stonewall riots were considered the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement in America. The act of public defiance and protest by a small group of marginalized people became a call for other activists in the community to become more vocal around the oppression they experienced. Political leaders such as Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, were inspired by the new wave of political and social engagement. Activists became fiercely engaged around a range of issues including the erasure of LGBTQ people from the media, the AIDS crisis, and the lack of federal resources devoted to LGBTQ homeless youth.

In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to allow same-sex couples the right to marry and enjoy the same legal protections as different-sex couples. Eleven years later on June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court would legalize marriage equality in all 50 states and rule that every state had to acknowledge the out-of-state marriage license of a same-sex couple.

After the historic marriage equality win in the United States, opponents of LGBTQ rights focused on other ways to oppress LGBTQ people. Some, like Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples while business owners publicly declared that they would not serve same-sex couples. While the actions of a vocal few to defy the Supreme Court decision couples dominated the media, conservative state legislators across the nation mobilized against another marginalized group of people under the LGBTQ umbrella—the transgender community.

Transgender people of all ages were attacked in several states by hateful legislation known as “bathroom bills.” These bills were aimed at dehumanizing transgender people and painting them as sexual predators unworthy of legal rights in public spaces such as coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. And most disturbingly, opponents of trans rights accused trans people of being threats to women and children in public restrooms.

In 2016, Massachusetts passed legislation amending the law to include transgender people as a protected class in public spaces. Within weeks of the bill being passed, opponents gathered enough signatures to put repealing the law on the ballot. On November 6, 2018, by a margin of more than 60 percent, the ballot question was defeated—a huge victory for the LGBTQ rights movement in Massachusetts.

While many battles have been won in the fight for LGBTQ equality, there is still a long way ahead for full equality. Several states still insist on not providing comprehensive legal protections for transgender people and there are many other issues of importance facing LGBTQ people including:

  • A lack of federal and state funding for HIV/AIDS services and programs
  • Support programs for homeless youth, particularly LGBTQ youth, who make up 40 percent of the homeless youth population
  • Adequate health insurance coverage for gender affirmation care and therapy for trans people


“Currently there are efforts all over the United States by anti-LGBTQ advocates working to take our hard-won rights away,” said Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. “We know that our opponents will continue to work, and so must we.”

As part of Eastern Bank’s Join us For Good campaign, let’s commit ourselves to leave our mark on the history of the LGBTQ community and ensuring the rights of all!

Learn more about the history of LGBTQ rights and consider donating to the ACLU.

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