History of Lesbian, Gay, & Bisexual Social Movements

Bonnie J. Morris, PhD
George Washington University
Washington, DC

This essay was written as an appendix for a lesson plan for high school psychology teachers called The Psychology of Sexual Orientation: a modular lesson plan/teaching resource for high school psychology teachers (login required). The full lesson plan is part of a series of 19 unit lesson plans developed as a benefit for APA members, which are available in the members-only section of the APA website.

I. History of lesbian, gay, and bisexual social movements

Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture.

A. European history

There was little formal study of homosexuality before the 19th century, however. Early efforts to understand the range of human sexual behavior came from European doctors and scientists, including Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfield. Their writings were sympathetic to the concept of a homosexual or bisexual orientation occurring naturally in an identifiable segment of humankind, and Freud himself did not consider homosexuality an illness or a crime. Hirschfield founded Berlin's Institute for Sexual Science, Europe's best library archive of materials on gay cultural history. These efforts contrasted with the backlash, in England, against gay and lesbian writers such as Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. With the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, however, the former tolerance demonstrated by Germany's Scientific Humanitarian Committee vanished. Hirschfield's great library was destroyed and the books burnt by Nazis on May 10, 1933.

B. United States history

In the United States, few attempts were made to create advocacy groups supporting gay and lesbian relationships until after World War II, although prewar gay life flourished in urban centers such as Greenwich Village and Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The disruptions of World War II allowed formerly isolated gay men and women to meet as soldiers, war workers, and other volunteers uprooted from small towns and posted worldwide. Greater awareness, coupled with Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigation of homosexuals holding government jobs during the early 1950s, led to the first American-based political demands for fair treatment in mental health, public policy, and employment.

1. Advances in the 1950s and 1960s

The primary organization acknowledging gay men as an oppressed cultural minority was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland. Other important homophile organizations on the West Coast included One, Inc., founded in 1952, and the first lesbian support network, Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955 by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Through meetings and publications, these groups offered information and outreach to thousands. These first organizations soon found support from prominent sociologists and psychologists. In 1951, Donald Webster Cory published The Homosexual in America (Cory, 1951), asserting that gay men and lesbians were a legitimate minority group, and in 1953, Dr. Evelyn Hooker won a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study gay men. Her groundbreaking paper, presented in 1956, demonstrated that gay men were as well adjusted as heterosexual men, often more so. But it would not be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as an "illness" classification in its diagnostic manuals. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, gay men and lesbians continued to be at risk for psychiatric lockup and jail and for losing jobs or child custody when courts and clinics defi ned gay love as sick, criminal, or immoral.

2. The civil rights movement

In 1965, as the civil rights movement won new legislation outlawing racial discrimination, the first gay rights demonstrations took place in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, led by longtime activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The turning point for gay liberation came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the popular Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village fought back against ongoing police raids of their neighborhood bar. Stonewall is still considered a watershed moment of gay pride and has been commemorated since the 1970s with "pride marches" held every June across the United States. Recent scholarship has called for better acknowledgement of the roles that drag performers, minorities, and transgender patrons played in the Stonewall Riots.

3. The gay liberation movement

The gay liberation movement of the 1970s saw myriad political organizations spring up, often at odds with one another. Frustrated with the male leadership of most gay liberation groups, lesbians formed their own collectives, record labels, music festivals, newspapers, bookstores, and publishing houses and called for lesbian rights in mainstream feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Expanding religious acceptance for gay men and women of faith, the first out gay minister was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1972. Other gay and lesbian church and synagogue congregations soon followed. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), formed in 1972, offered family members greater support roles in the gay rights movement. And political action exploded through the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the election of openly gay and lesbian representatives like Elaine Noble and Barney Frank, and, in 1979, the first march on Washington for gay rights.

4. 1980s through today

Through the 1980s, as the gay male community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic, demands for compassion and medical funding led to renewed coalitions between men and women as well as angry street theatre by groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Queer Nation. Enormous marches on Washington drew as many as 1 million gay rights supporters in 1987 and again in 1993. A different wing of the political rights movement called for an end to military expulsion of gay and lesbian soldiers, with the high-profile case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer publicized through a made-for-television movie, "Serving in Silence." The patriotism and service of gay men and lesbians in uniform eventually resulted in the uncomfortable compromise "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as an alternative to decades of military witch hunts and dishonorable discharges. Finally, in the last decade of the 20th century, millions of Americans watched as actress Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television in April 1997, heralding a new era of gay celebrity power and media visibility. Celebrity performers, both gay and heterosexual, have been among the most vocal activists, calling for tolerance and equal rights. As a result of hard work by countless organizations and individuals, helped by Internet and direct-mail campaign networking, the 21st century heralded new legal gains for gay and lesbian couples. Same-sex civil unions were recognized under Vermont law in 2000, and Massachusetts became the first state to perform same-sex marriages in 2003. With the end of state sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), gay Americans were finally free from criminal classification. Gay marriage is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Canada, although the recognition of gay marriage by church and state continues to divide opinion worldwide.


Cory, D. W. (1951). The homosexual in America: A subjective approach. New York: Greenberg.