The term LGBT refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The LGBT movement is based on the idea that homosexuality should be celebrated and promoted as an expression of human diversity.
During the second half of the 20th century, LGBT people built communities and challenged the religious beliefs that stigmatized same-sex relationships, medico-legal discourses that deemed their sexuality as diseases and conservative political ideologies that prioritized heterosexual marriage.
The Stonewall Riots
Before the Stonewall Riots, gay men and women lived lives as secretive as their sexuality. In fact, through the 1960s, almost everything LGBTQ people did — whether attending an openly gay dance, buying a copy of One: The Homosexual Magazine or simply enjoying a beer at a bar — was illegal. They were barred from serving alcoholic beverages, banned from holding public office and, in some cases, even threatened with violence or blackmail.
But Stonewall changed all that. When police stormed the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on a trumped-up liquor-license charge, patrons fought back. The scene erupted into a full-scale riot. And from there, the LGBT movement truly took off.
The riot was far from the first LGBT protest or riot, but it became the catalyst for a new wave of activism. Prior to Stonewall, the most visible gay rights activists were a small group of activists in San Francisco who picketed the White House and the Pentagon, seeking legal gains. The group, the Mattachine Society, also led an annual demonstration at Independence Hall on the Fourth of July to highlight state treatment of homosexuals — soberly dressed, respectful protesters carrying carefully worded signs.
After Stonewall, however, national gay political activists began planning a series of commemorative events — a parade and a rally — to mark Christopher Street Liberation Day, as they named it. The event received widespread media coverage — something that no other gay rights action had accomplished before — and it helped energize a larger community to push for its civil liberties.
The AIDS Epidemic
The AIDS epidemic, which started in 1981, caused a new wave of political activism. It brought LGBTQ people together who were not only fighting against systemic discrimination but also dealing with the devastating effects of a deadly microbe.
The movement gained momentum as tens of thousands came out, refusing to hide their sexual orientation in the face of hatred and death. Gay-themed alternative newspapers popped up all over North America, and gay people gathered in spiritual communities that were not tied to any particular religious denomination.
A number of organizations were formed to deal with the AIDS crisis, including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In 1985, the Task Force’s executive director, Jeff Levi, took the organization to Washington D.C. where he focused on lobbying for effective government policies and funding.
Levi worked to expand the definition of LGBT to include lesbian and bisexual women as well as men. Prior to this, the term was usually restricted to gay men. The inclusion of women and transgender individuals expanded the scope of activism as those groups were often left out of and underrepresented in many research studies and health initiatives.
The stigma surrounding AIDS was powerful, as it created early and lasting associations between homosexuality and the disease. Pink triangles were used during World War II to identify homosexuals in concentration camps, and English author Radclyffe Hall stirred controversy in 1928 with her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
The Gay Liberation Front
The Stonewall riots were far from the first instance of LGBTQ people fighting back against police harassment. In 1966, the Tenderloin’s Compton’s Cafeteria was raided by police after a few of its customers — drag queens, sex workers and gay men — challenged the cops’ authority. The incident marked the beginning of organised resistance to policing.
But the Mattachine Society of New York remained in charge of the movement, and its older members had little tolerance for a more radical approach. The organisation pressed for LGBT activists to tone down their demands and focus on working within the system to achieve reform. But this strategy would do little to change the broader culture that still held gay and lesbian people in low regard.
Young gays and lesbians were increasingly disillusioned with Mattachine. They wanted to be seen as fully fledged citizens, and they believed that tackling homophobia was the first step towards that goal. They also saw themselves as part of a larger anti-capitalist, national liberation and international antiwar movement.
So, in 1969, a group of students formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which adopted a manifesto that urged homosexuals to come out as proud and visible members of their communities. This was the beginning of a period in which “coming out” became an important organising principle for the movement.
The Rainbow Flag
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, wanted to create a flag for the LGBT movement. He approached his friend Gilbert Baker, a drag performer who made many of his own outfits, about the idea. Baker had been thinking about a flag for the community for a few years, and he was well-versed in sewing.
Baker decided to use a rainbow as the symbol for gay rights, because it was a natural choice that evoked hope and strength. The colors represented hot pink for sexuality, red for love and life, orange for the sun and the healing power of nature, yellow for happiness, green for nature and the outdoors, turquoise for art and magic, and indigo for serenity and spirit. Baker also made sure to include a purple stripe, which symbolizes the fluidity of gender identity.
Soon, the Rainbow Flag was flying at pride parades and other events throughout the country. After the assassination of Milk in 1978, the demand for the flag increased even more. Baker didn’t trademark the flag, so it could be used freely.
Today, the rainbow flag is still widely seen worldwide as a positive symbol for the LGBT community. It’s a reminder of the struggle that has been endured to achieve equality, and it’s a testament to the determination of those who continue to fight for justice.