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‘Out of the closets, into the streets’

In 50 years, huge strides made in gay-rights movement

There was a time when homosexuality was deemed a mental disorder by the nation’s psychiatric authorities, and gay sex was a crime in every state but Illinois. Federal workers could be fired for the mere fact of being gay.

That time wasn’t long ago – just 50 years.

Today, gays serve openly in the military, work as TV news anchors and federal judges, win elections as big-city mayors and members of Congress. Several hugely popular TV shows have gay protagonists.And now the gay-rights movement may be on the cusp of momentous legal breakthroughs. Later this month, a Supreme Court ruling could lead to legalization of same-sex marriage in California, the most populous state, and there’s a good chance the court will require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in all U.S. jurisdictions where they are legal – as of now, 12 states and Washington, D.C. The transition over the last five decades has been far from smooth – replete with bitter protests, anti-gay violence, backlashes that inflicted many political setbacks. In contrast to the civil-rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, the campaign for gay rights unfolded without household-name leaders.

Progress came about largely due to the individual choices of countless gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and get engaged.These were people like a Chicago graduate student who, early on, was willing to confront a high-profile critic of gay relationships. A young community organizer plunging into advocacy work for victims of AIDS. Three gay couples in Hawaii suing for the right to marry at a time when that seemed far-fetched even to many activists.“It is pretty mind-blowing how quickly it’s moved,” said David Eisenbach, who teaches political history at Columbia University and has written about the gay-rights movement.

Eisenbach contrasted the attitudes of the 1950s and ’60s, when even many political liberals viewed homosexuality as pernicious, to what he sees today.

“There are kids coming out in high school now, being accepted by their classmates,” he said. “Parents, relatives, friends are seeing the people they love come out. It’s very hard to discriminate against someone you love.”

As the Supreme Court rulings approach, here is a look back at three of the gay-rights movement’s pivotal phases and some of the people who chose to get involved.

Into the streets

Dr. David Reuben had legions of fans after publishing his best-selling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex in 1969. Murray Edelman wasn’t among them.Edelman, then a University of Chicago graduate student, was part of a tiny band of activists who launched a gay liberation movement in the city starting late in 1969 and continuing through the early ’70s.When Reuben – who depicted gay men’s relationships as bleakly impersonal and short-lived – was booked to appear on a TV talk show in Chicago in January 1971, Edelman and some fellow activists decided to afttend.

Irked at being denied a chance to ask questions, Edelman rose from his seat and headed to the stage toward the end of the session, seeking to confront Reuben face-to-face. He was hauled out of the studio, but the incident received TV and newspaper coverage.

“It was the first time they really acknowledged there were gay activists in the city,” Edelman said.

It was an era abounding with firsts for the gay-rights movement.

Historians can trace its roots back to individuals and incidents many decades earlier, and some pioneering national gay-rights organizations were formed in the 1950s – notably the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.

But the pace picked up in the 1960s. Frank Kameny, who sued after being fired from his job as a government astronomer 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 in front of the White House in 1965. The U.S. Court of Appeals, in a separate case, ruled in 1969 that federal civil servants could no longer be fired solely because they were gay.

Gay activists formed organizations in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Amid the ferment of the anti-war movement and civil-rights movement, there was a surge of interest in gay liberation – gays and lesbians publicly revealing their sexuality and evoking it as a source of pride rather than shame.Edelman, during an hourlong interview, recalled being herded into a police paddy wagon in Washington, D.C., in 1965 after he and other gay men were arrested at a party. He began singing “We Shall Overcome” under his breath, and the other men in the vehicle joined him.“When I look back, I realize I’d made that connection with civil rights even before I came out,” he said. “That was like a turning point ... To me it felt right. I didn’t feel ashamed.”

Much of the activity in the ’60s unfolded out of the national spotlight. But the movement broadened – and public awareness grew – after police harassment of patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, sparked three days of riots in June 1969.

Coping with crisis

The 1970s brought a rush of milestones as gays came out of the closet and started demanding equal rights – the first openly gay people elected to public office and ordained as ministers, the first municipal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the first national gay-rights march in Washington. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.With those winds of change at his back, 27-year-old Tim Sweeney moved to New York in the fall of 1981 to become executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay legal advocacy group.

A few months earlier, The New York Times had published an article under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” Sweeney worried this mysterious illness would give the public another excuse to denigrate and discriminate against gay people at a time when he and his colleagues were feeling hopeful.

“Once we sort of got the government out of our lives and shed some of the stigma of criminalization and mental illness, we were allowed, because we had the safety to do it, to dream about the world we wanted for ourselves,” he said.

He couldn’t have conceived of the pain, losses and political challenges that lay ahead.

It would be a year before the cluster of strange ailments afflicting not only gay men, but intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and some women would have a name – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS – and another year after that before the virus that caused it, HIV, was isolated.Sweeney had come to Lambda Legal planning to oversee challenges to state laws that criminalized gay sexual activity, to fight police harassment, to represent people fired from or denied jobs because they were gay. That work continued in the earliest years of the epidemic while volunteers and community clinics performed the day-to-day task of caring for the growing numbers of terminally ill.Soon, though, the scourge became all-encompassing.In 1983, Lambda took on the case of a doctor being evicted from his rented Manhattan office because he treated people with AIDS. A court blocked the eviction, ruling that it violated state laws protecting the disabled; the decision provided a template for securing insurance coverage and other basic rights for the afflicted. As panic and prejudice spread in the general population, gay lawyers also sought to protect the confidentiality of patients who were being tested or treated for the disease.The epidemic not only made gay people more visible than ever, but also spotlighted the absence of legal protections for their relationships. Survivors who cared for longtime partners found themselves barred from hospital rooms, frozen out of funerals and stripped of shared possessions. Without marriage as an option, couples prepared wills and even tried to adopt one another so their relationships would be respected in the event of death.

And death loomed terrifyingly. By the end of 1985, 15,527 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States and 12,529 deaths attributed to the disease.

Then comes marriageThe three gay couples didn’t even have an attorney, let alone an inkling of the weighty consequences, when they arrived at Hawaii’s Health Department on Dec. 17, 1990, to apply for marriage licenses.

Indeed, one couple, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, had met only six months earlier. They’d fallen in love; Dancel had already bought Baehr a ring.

The couples’ applications were rejected – unsurprising given that same-sex marriage was legal in no state or nation – and their plan to file a lawsuit foundered when major gay-rights groups turned down the case.

Eventually, a lawyer in private practice, Dan Foley, took the case, which dragged on for five years while a backlash materialized. Hawaii lawmakers voted in 1994 to limit marriage to unions between a man and woman, and in September 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages and said no state could be forced to recognize such marriages that might become legal in another state.

In December 1996, the three couples and their legal team – reinforced by New York-based gay-rights lawyer Evan Wolfson – won the first-ever judgment ordering a state to legalize same-sex marriage. Circuit Judge Kevin Chang said Hawaii failed to provide sound reasons for banning such marriages, and rejected the claim that same-sex couples are less fit to raise children than heterosexuals.

The victory was short-lived. Chang suspended his ruling the next day to allow an appeal, and in 1998, it was rendered moot when Hawaii voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment giving state legislators the power to limit marriage to heterosexual unions. Over the next two decades, 30 other states passed amendments banning gay marriage – including California with a ballot measure that’s been challenged in one of the cases now before the Supreme Court.

Despite all the setbacks, the campaign for marriage equality grew inexorably from a quixotic cause to a broad mass movement now supported, according to many polls, by a majority of Americans.

Under a court order, same-sex marriage began in Massachusetts in 2004. Soon legislators and voters in other states were legalizing it without court pressure. With the addition of Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota in May, there are now 12 gay-marriage states.

David Crary, based in New York, and Lisa Leff, based in San Francisco, have been covering gay-rights issues for the AP for more than decade.

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