50 years after Stonewall, LGBTQ rights are a work in progress

(Samantha Madera/City of Philadelphia)

They didn't set out to change history; they weren't the first LGBTQ Americans to mobilize against bias.

Yet the June 1969 uprising by young gays, lesbians and transgender people in New York City, clashing with police near a bar called the Stonewall Inn, was a vital catalyst in expanding LGBTQ activism nationwide and abroad. This month's anniversary provides an opportune moment to ask: How has the movement fared over the past 50 years? What unfinished business remains?

From the perspective of veteran activists, the progress has been astounding. In 1969, every state but Illinois outlawed gay sex, psychiatric experts classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and most gays stayed in the closet for fear of losing jobs and friends.

Today, same-sex marriage is the law of the land in the U.S. and at least 25 other countries. LGBTQ Americans serve as governors, big-city mayors and members of Congress, and one - Pete Buttigieg - is waging a spirited campaign for president.

Among those looking back with marvel is Stephen Rutsky, 68, a lifelong New Yorker who joined in rioting and protests sparked by a police raid targeted at gay patrons of Stonewall. He engaged in a wide variety of LGBTQ activism over the ensuing decades.

"Mobs of gays and lesbians were running around angry and confused, but we all knew that something had sparked a change in our world," Rutsky remembers. "We were demanding our freedom and there was nothing that was ever going to stop us from obtaining it."

"We've come a long way, baby," he added. "But lots more to do."


High on the to-do list is passage of federal legislation that would provide nationwide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. A bill with that goal, the Equality Act, passed the House of Representatives in May with unanimous Democratic backing but appears doomed in the Senate because of Republican opposition.

Nationally, 20 mostly Democrat-run states already have laws comparable to the Equality Act - protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and public services. The other 30 states, where Republicans hold full or partial power, have balked.

The result is a patchwork map in which a majority of states make it legal to be fired, evicted or barred from public facilities because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Internationally, the struggle for LGBTQ rights remains daunting in much of the world. Stonewall helped inspire successful activist movements in Western Europe (a major British LGBTQ-rights group is called Stonewall) and elsewhere. But gay sex is outlawed in dozens of countries, while Asia and Africa each have only one nation that has legalized same-sex marriage.

Another battlefront relates to transgender rights. In the U.S., the Trump administration has moved to revoke newly won health care protections for transgender people, restrict their presence in the military, and withdraw federal guidance that trans students should be able to use bathrooms of their choice.

Donald Trump's election "gave all sorts of mouth-breathers permission to spew ignorance, hatred, and stupidity, undoing decades of progress," said Jennifer Boylan, a transgender writer who teaches at Barnard College in New York City. "People who know nothing about trans people and our unique challenges have no qualms weighing in."

Jude Patton, a 78-year-old transgender man from Yuba City, California, marvels at the changes that have unfolded during his life.

He grew up in Alton, Illinois, knowing from childhood that he was uncomfortable being viewed as a girl. His parents were supportive, but he says some teachers at his high school were intolerant.

In his mid-20s, Patton moved to California and completed a surgical transition at a Stanford University clinic in 1973. Ever since, he has been active in advocacy, counseling and health education related to LGBTQ issues.

Now, he says his delight at LGBTQ gains is tempered by worries over the Trump administration's rollback of trans-friendly protections.

"Every day, I see some other right being taken away," he said. "Historically, the pendulum can swing back again. I hope it gets better."


Historians trace the emergence of America's gay rights movements to the 1950s, when the Mattachine Society and a lesbian group, the Daughters of Bilitis, were founded in California.

Government astronomer Frank Kameny, who sued after he was fired for being gay, took his anti-discrimination case to the Supreme Court in 1961 (the justices declined to hear his appeal), and helped stage the first gay rights protest outside the White House in 1965.

In 1966, Mattachine Society members in New York City successfully staged a "sip-in" to protest laws that banned bars from serving alcohol to gays and lesbians. The terms "gay pride" and "gay liberation" emerged.

Much of the activity unfolded out of the national spotlight. But the movement broadened after Stonewall, leading to some high-profile events in the late 1970s.

In 1977, singer Anita Bryant led a victorious campaign to repeal a local ordinance in Florida barring anti-gay discrimination. Activists retaliated with a nationwide boycott of Florida orange juice, a product for which Bryant was a brand spokeswoman.

In 1978, pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. The next year, activists organized the first national gay rights march on Washington.

The 1980s proved shattering - but also galvanizing - for gay Americans, as an initially mysterious, unnamed disease morphed into the AIDS epidemic. Many thousands of gay men died, including actor Rock Hudson; his death played a major role in raising public awareness of the disease.

Longtime activist Lorri Jean, who has served more than 20 years as CEO of the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center, remembers AIDS in the 1980s as a "horrific disaster" that killed many of the men close to her.

"Yet it had an amazing silver lining," said Jean, 62. "Suddenly, the most privileged in our community were being impacted as well as the least privileged, and people couldn't hide in the closet anymore. When they got sick, people knew. That galvanized our community in a way that nothing else ever had."


By the mid-1990s, the federal government - slow to respond at the start of the epidemic - was deeply engaged in the fight against AIDS, and the number of new cases finally began to decline. Many gay rights organizations and activists shifted their focus to a long-haul campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. Massachusetts became the first state to do so in 2004; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans in 2015.

Some activists suggest that the push for marriage equality consumed too much of the LGBTQ rights movement's energy, diverting attention from violence against transgender people and the persistently high HIV infection rate among gay and bisexual black men. Others say the marriage campaign was crucial in changing policy and public attitudes.

"For the government to treat gay people with equal dignity, it had to treat gay people as equal in marriage," said lawyer Roberta Kaplan. "It was an essential, determinative step."

Kaplan is best known for winning a landmark Supreme Court case in 2013 on behalf of Edith Windsor, who was denied an inheritance tax break after the death of her wife. Kaplan and Windsor successfully challenged the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred married same-sex couples from enjoying marriage benefits conferred under federal law. That decision helped lay the legal groundwork for the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Born in 1966, Kaplan recalls being in college during the height of the AIDS epidemic, "with men dying by the thousands and a government not seeming to care."

"It's incomprehensible - the change that has been wrought during my lifetime," she said. "If you had told me, when I was in college, that one day I would grow up, get married to a woman, have a kid, be partner in a law firm, and then argue a momentous civil rights case in the Supreme Court, I would have said you were going to too many Grateful Dead concerts."


Same-sex marriage is among several reasons why, in the post-Stonewall era, the realm of religion has abounded with controversies linked to LGBTQ rights.

Many denominations - including Reformed Judaism and most mainline Protestant churches - have adopted fully inclusive policies, accepting LGBTQ people into the clergy and honoring their marriages. But some of the largest denominations - including the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - refuse to take those inclusive steps and still consider gay sex immoral.

Gene Robinson, who in 2003 became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, says there's a split on LGBTQ acceptance between many rank-and-file churchgoers and the leaders of the big, conservative denominations.

"The good news is that we have changed the minds and hearts of a majority of religious people across all religious lines," Robinson said. "The bad news is that the people in the pews - many of whom have gay relatives and friends - don't have the power to change policies in churches that are tightly controlled by the hierarchy."

Religion plays a key role in current debates over nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The Trump administration has aligned with some religious conservatives in arguing that such protections can infringe on the religious beliefs of people who oppose same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

Emilie Kao, a lawyer with the conservative Heritage Foundation, says the Equality Act "imposes sexual ideology on the nation that endangers religious freedom, freedom of speech, and parental rights by punishing those who dissent from political correctness."

These arguments irk activists such as Lorri Jean.

"My biggest concern is the very clever backlash by fundamentalist religious leaders who are trying to suggest they are the victims," Jean said. "But even if they have victories, they'll be short-lived... The vast majority of American people do not believe discrimination against LGBTQ people is OK."


In myriad ways, progress for LGBTQ Americans has become so commonplace that it attracts little notice, whether it's in local politics, the arts or sports. For example, there are no openly gay men currently competing in North America's four biggest pro sports leagues - but the situation is different at lower levels.

"I look more at college and high school sports ... where we've seen literally countless athletes come out and be totally accepted by their teams," said Cyd Zeigler of the website Outsports. He believes any athlete coming out now in the major leagues would be welcomed by teammates, coaches and fans.

Back in 1984, Ruth Clark joined a lesbian feminist chorus in Chicago called the Artemis Singers - a step she viewed at the time as "a very radical act." Over the decades, the chorus has moved toward the mainstream - performing at universities, churches, museums and a 2013 ceremony at which then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed Illinois' marriage-equality bill.

Clark says that when questions were raised recently about whether the chorus should be allowed to use a Roman Catholic school's auditorium, the group's producer assured the skeptics, "They're just like soccer moms."