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Civil Rights in the United States

LGBTQ Rights in the United States

Discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the United States dates to the early years of the republic, but changes beginning in the 1970s and picking up speed in the early 21st century have given members of the LGBTQ community more rights, including the right to marry.

Discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation in the United States dates from the 18th century. Many state and local laws made homosexuality illegal. Some laws even made it illegal for a person to appear in public dressed as the opposite gender. Members of the military were given a dishonorable discharge if found to be homosexuals. Until 1975 homosexuality was acceptable grounds for discrimination in hiring for the federal civil service as well.

After World War II, the first organizations dedicated to advancing the rights of gays and lesbians were founded. Gay and lesbian organizations became more assertive in their demands for rights in subsequent decades. In 1969 New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar with a gay, lesbian, and transgender patronage that lacked a liquor license. While police arrested several employees and patrons, a crowd gathered outside the bar, and a riot erupted. Days of clashes between police officers and patrons followed. The Stonewall Riots became a symbol of resistance to oppression for organizations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or LGBTQ, Americans. The work of activists helped promote a growing acceptance of the rights of LGBTQ Americans, which spread among the population at large in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Other factors contributing to these changing attitudes were a broader understanding of equal rights, increased sympathy for members of these communities after the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and changing scientific perspectives on sexual orientation. At the same time, some people found these changes conflicted with their religious beliefs, which created some issues regarding compliance with new court rulings regarding same-sex marriage.

In 1986, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law that banned anal and oral sex, whether between homosexual or heterosexual couples. The legal challenge was based on the argument that there is a constitutional right to privacy. While five justices formed the majority upholding the law, the other four based their dissent on the grounds of a constitutional right to privacy.

Concerns that some states might legalize same-sex marriage prompted Congress to act. Im 1996 it passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that defined marriage as the legal union between one man and one woman. In 2000 Vermont made it legal for a same-sex couple to enter into a civil union, the state's term for what was essentially same-sex marriage. Because of DOMA, however, other states could not be forced to recognize same-sex marriages despite Article 4 of the Constitution. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

Military policy on homosexuality also evolved. When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he wanted to end the military's policy of discharging gays and lesbians, but he was met with resistance. Instead, he put in place a new approach. Don't Ask, Don't Tell was the policy under which members of the military were prohibited from asking other service members about their sexual orientation or telling others of their sexual orientation. In 2011 President Barack Obama signed a law that repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell and allowed homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

In 2003 the Supreme Court heard a challenge to a Texas law that made homosexual conduct between consenting adults illegal. In Lawrence v. Texas, the majority of judges declared the law unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision, which stated, "The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual." In 2015 Justice Kennedy also wrote a majority opinion that required states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and required states to recognize such marriage licenses issued by another state.

U.S. Supreme Court Rulings on LGBTQ Rights

Case (Year) Decision
Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) In a 5–4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that consensual sexual activity was protected by a constitutional right to privacy.
Lawrence v. Texas (2003) In a 6–3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a state law banning homosexual activity unconstitutional because it violated a right to privacy.
United States v. Windsor (2013) In a 5–4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as a state that can only exist between one man and one women, unconstitutional.
Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) In a 5–4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment require states to allow same-sex marriage, thus giving same-sex couples the right to marry in every state.

Discrimination in employment is another issue facing LGBTQ people. Federal law does not prohibit private employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Nor does federal law prohibit discrimination in housing or services. Thus, the rights of LGBTQ people vary by state. In fact, local laws may protect LGBTQ persons from discrimination in some locations in a state but not in others. The conflicting language of different state laws and absence of federal legislation makes the status of LGBTQ individuals uncertain, and because of this, the status can change with changes of administrations. This was demonstrated in the 2010s by two issues affecting transgender individuals. In the first example, the Obama administration in 2015 lifted the ban on transgender individuals in the military, but that action was reversed by President Donald Trump after he took office. Similarly, the Obama administration ruled that public schools must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their gender identity and not their birth gender. That ruling was also reversed by the Trump administration.