History of gay men in the United States
This article is about the history of gay men in the United States. For lesbians, please see History of lesbianism in the United States.
Prior to 1950
Two-spirit is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans for Gender variant individuals in their communities. The presence of male two-spirits existed before European contact, and "was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples." According to Will Roscoe, male and female two-spirits have been "documented in over 130 North America tribes, in every region of the continent." Two-spirits might have relationships with people of either sex. According to Lang, female assigned at birth two-spirits usually have sexual relations or marriages with only females. However, in most tribes a relationship between a two-spirit and non-two-spirit was seen for the most part as neither heterosexual nor homosexual (in modern day terms) but more hetero-normative; European colonists, however, saw such relationships as homosexual. Partners of two-spirits have not historically viewed themselves as homosexual, and moreover drew a sharp conceptual line between themselves and two-spirits.
There were few openly gay European men in America at this time, due to legal consequences as well as social ostracism. Anal sex was specifically prohibited by a statute passed in 1563 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and the English colonies in America were subject to this law. Since 1814 crime against nature has been used as a legal term in published cases in the United States, normally defined as a form of sexual behavior that is not considered natural and is seen as a punishable offense in dozens of countries and several U.S. states; this often included homosexual sex. Other sexual practices that have historically been considered to be crimes against nature include anal sex, as well as fellatio, bestiality, incest, miscegenation and necrophilia. The term is sometimes also seen as a synonym for sodomy or buggery.[note 1] Legal punishments for sodomy often included lengthy prison sentences, fines, and hard labor. The first recorded police raid in American history on a gay bathhouse took place in New York on February 21, 1903, when New York police raided the Ariston Hotel Baths. 26 men were arrested and 12 brought to trial on sodomy charges; 7 men received sentences ranging from 4 to 20 years in prison. After all, police raids on gay hangouts and other examples of formal and/or informal harassment were common practice prior during the first half of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, there were some gay men who had an important impact on American history at this time, particularly literature. Walt Whitman, a prominent and influential American poet, is widely believed to have been gay or bisexual. In 1860 he published Calamus, a series of homoerotic poems, for which he was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior, though he quickly obtained a similar job in the Attorney General’s office. Another important homoerotic book was published in 1870 by the America author Bayard Taylor, titled Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania. This book has been deemed the 'first gay novel' in America. It has also been noted for its enigmatic treatment of homosexuality. Roger Austen notes "In the nineteenth century Bayard Taylor had written that the reader who did not feel 'cryptic forces' at play in Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania would hardly be interested in the external movement of his novel." Another such work is Imre: A Memorandum, written in Europe by the expatriate American-born author, Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson, who originally published it under the pseudonym of Xavier Mayne in a limited-edition imprint of 500 copies in Naples, Italy, in 1906. Imre: A Memorandum is the first American gay novel with a happy ending.
The first recognized gay rights organization in America, the Society for Human Rights, was founded by Henry Gerber in Chicago in 1924. It only existed for a few months before disbanding due to the arrests of several of the Society's members. Still, it was officially recognized due to having received a charter from the state of Illinois, and produced the first American publication for gays, Friendship and Freedom.
The book states, among other things, that 37% of the male subjects surveyed had at least one homosexual experience, and that 10% of American males surveyed were "more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55".
In 1950, gay activist Harry Hay and several other men founded the Mattachine Society, the first enduring LGBT rights organization in the United States. The Mattachine Society was involved in two landmark gay rights cases in the 1950s. In the spring of 1952, William Dale Jennings, one of the cofounders of the Mattachine Society, was arrested in Los Angeles for allegedly soliciting a police officer in a bathroom in Westlake Park, now known as MacArthur Park. His trial drew national attention to the Mattachine Society, and membership increased dramatically after Jennings contested the charges, resulting in a hung jury. In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of ONE, Inc., a spinoff of the Mattachine Society, which had published "ONE: The Homosexual Magazine" beginning in 1953. After a campaign of harassment from the U.S. Post Office Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Postmaster of Los Angeles declared the October, 1954 issue obscene and therefore unmailable under the Comstock laws. The magazine sued. The Supreme Court reversed the Postmaster's decision, marking the first time the Supreme Court had explicitly ruled on free press rights around homosexuality. The case is known as One, Inc. v. Olesen.
However, because the psychiatric community regarded homosexuality as a mental illness during the 1950s, gay people were considered susceptible to blackmail, thus constituting a security risk. U.S. government officials assumed that communists would blackmail gay employees of the federal government who would provide them classified information rather than risk exposure. In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 gays to resign. McCarthy hired Roy Cohn — who some allege was a closeted gay man — as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee, which among other things investigated homosexuality in government employees. Together, McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men from government employment, and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality. On April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which banned gay men and lesbians from working for any agency of the federal government. It was not until 1973 that a federal judge ruled that a person’s sexual orientation alone could not be the sole reason for termination from federal employment, and not until 1975 that the United States Civil Service Commission announced that they would consider applications by gays and lesbians on a case by case basis. The fear and persecution of gay people in the 1950s in the United States is known as the Lavender Scare.
As of 1960, every state had an anti-sodomy law. In 1961, the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code advocated repealing sodomy laws as they applied to private, adult, consensual behavior.[note 2] A few years later the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took its first major case in opposition to these laws, Enslin v. Walford, which was denied certiorari by the Supreme Court.
Another significant case came in 1961, when astronomer Frank Kameny protested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission due to his homosexuality, arguing this case to the United States Supreme Court. Although the court denied his petition, it is notable as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation. Kameny and fellow gay activist Jack Nichols also launched some of the earliest public protests by gays and lesbians with a picket line at the White House on April 17, 1965. In coalition with New York's Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, the picketing expanded to target the United Nations, the Pentagon, the United States Civil Service Commission, and to Philadelphia's Independence Hall for what became known as the Annual Reminder for gay rights.
In 1965 the case Scott v. Macy, about how Bruce Scott was denied a Defense Department job because of “immoral conduct", was decided. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the charge was too vague, thus granting the first major court victory for gay employment rights. The case was argued December 17, 1964 and decided June 16, 1965.
Craig Rodwell, who had conceived of the Annual Reminder (which was led by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings) went on to begin the pro-gay group Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) in 1967. He also published its periodical, HYMNAL. On November 24, 1967, he founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York, the first bookstore devoted to gay and lesbian authors. Considering this and his work as the prime mover for the creation of the original pride parade (see below), Rodwell is considered by some to be quite possibly the leading gay rights activist in the early homophile movement of the 1960s.
Another important gay rights activist of the 1960s was Troy Perry. In 1968, after a suicide attempt following a failed love affair and witnessing a close friend being arrested by the police at the Black Cat Tavern (see below), Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church. He put an advertisement in The Advocate, announcing a worship service designed for gays in Los Angeles. Twelve people turned up on October 6, 1968 for the first service, and "Nine were my friends who came to console me and to laugh, and three came as a result of the ad." After six weeks of services in his living room, the congregation shifted to a woman's club, an auditorium, a church, and finally to a theater that could hold 600 within several months. In 1971, the Metropolitan Community Church's own building was dedicated with over a thousand members in attendance.
There were also several protests of legal restrictions on gay bars in the 1960s. In 1966 the Mattachine Society staged a "Sip-In" at Julius Bar in New York City challenging a New York State Liquor Authority prohibition on serving alcohol to gays. The bartender initially started preparing the men a drink but then put his hand over the glass, which was photographed. The New York Times ran a headline the next day saying "3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars." The Mattachines then challenged the liquor rule in court and the courts ruled that gays had a right to peacefully assemble, which undercut the previous state liquor authority contention that the presence of gay clientele automatically was grounds for charges of operating a "disorderly" premises. With this right a new era of licensed, legally operating gay bars began. Julius Bar now holds a monthly party called Mattachine in remembrance of the protest. On January 1, 1967, there was a police raid on the Los Angeles gay bar Black Cat Tavern which led to months of protests and demonstrations. Inspired by this, The Advocate was first published in September of that year as a local newsletter alerting gay men to police raids in Los Angeles gay bars. The Advocate, which is still published, is the oldest and largest LGBT publication in the United States.
The modern LGBT civil rights movement began on Saturday, June 28, 1969 with the Stonewall Riots, when police raided a New York gay bar called the Stonewall Inn and the patrons fought back. Lesbian Martha Shelley was in Greenwich Village the night of the Stonewall Riot; she proposed a protest march and as a result the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis sponsored a demonstration. Later that year, on November 2, 1969, Craig Rodwell, his partner Fred Sargeant, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes proposed the first gay pride parade to be held in New York City by way of a resolution at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) meeting in Philadelphia.
"That the Annual Reminder, in order to be more relevant, reach a greater number of people, and encompass the ideas and ideals of the larger struggle in which we are engaged-that of our fundamental human rights-be moved both in time and location.
We propose that a demonstration be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street and this demonstration be called CHRISTOPHER STREET LIBERATION DAY. No dress or age regulations shall be made for this demonstration.
We also propose that we contact Homophile organizations throughout the country and suggest that they hold parallel demonstrations on that day. We propose a nationwide show of support.
All attendees to the ERCHO meeting in Philadelphia voted for the march except for Mattachine Society of New York City, which abstained. Members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) attended the meeting and were seated as guests of Rodwell's group, Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN).
Meetings to organize the march began in early January at Rodwell's apartment in 350 Bleecker Street. At first there was difficulty getting some of the major New York organizations like Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) to send representatives. Craig Rodwell and his partner Fred Sargeant, Michael Brown, Marty Nixon, Foster Gunnison of Mattachine, and Ellen Broidy made up the core group of the CSLD Umbrella Committee (CSLDUC). For initial funding, Gunnison served as treasurer and sought donations from the national homophile organizations and sponsors, while Sargeant solicited donations via the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop customer mailing list and Nixon worked to gain financial support from GLF in his position as treasurer for that organization. Other mainstays of the organizing committee were Jack Waluska, Steve Gerrie, Judy Miller, and Brenda Howard of GLF. Believing that more people would turn out for the march on a Sunday, and so as to mark the date of the start of the Stonewall uprising, the CSLDUC scheduled the date for the first march for Sunday, June 28, 1970.
With Dick Leitsch's replacement as president of Mattachine NY by "Michael Kotis" in April, 1970, opposition to the first gay pride march by Mattachine ended. America's first pride parade was held in June 1970 in New York. There was nothing planned for the rally in Central Park, since the group could not rely on making it the entire way. Yet as the original marchers left Christopher Street to walk uptown, hundreds, and then thousands, of supporters joined in. The crowd marched from Greenwich Village into uptown Manhattan and Central Park, holding gay pride signs and banners, chanting "Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud." 
One day earlier, on Saturday, 27 June 1970, Chicago Gay Liberation organized a march  from Washington Square Park ("Bughouse Square") to the Water Tower at the intersection of Michigan and Chicago avenues, which was the route originally planned, and then many of the participants extemporaneously marched on to the Civic Center (now Richard J. Daley) Plaza. The date was chosen because the Stonewall events began on the last Saturday of June and because organizers wanted to reach the maximum number of Michigan Avenue shoppers. Subsequent Chicago parades have been held on the last Sunday of June, coinciding with the date of many similar parades elsewhere.
On May 18, 1970, two University of Minnesota gay student activists, Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell, applied for a marriage license in Minneapolis. The clerk of the Hennepin County District Court, Gerald Nelson, denied the request on the sole ground that the two were of the same sex. The couple filed suit in district court to force Nelson to issue the license. The couple first contended that Minnesota's marriage statutes contained no explicit requirement that applicants be of different sexes. If the court were to construe the statutes to require different-sex couples, however, Baker claimed such a reading would violate several provisions of the U.S. Constitution:
- First Amendment (freedom of speech and of association),
- Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment),
- Ninth Amendment (unenumerated right to privacy), and
- Fourteenth Amendment (fundamental right to marry under the Due Process Clause and sex discrimination contrary to the Equal Protection Clause).
The trial court dismissed the couple's claims and ordered the clerk not to issue the license. Eventually this case reached the Minnesota Supreme Court in Baker v. Nelson, 291 Minn. 310, 191 N.W.2d 185 (1971), in which the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a state law limiting marriage to persons of the opposite sex did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Baker appealed, and on October 10, 1972, the United States Supreme Court dismissed the appeal "for want of a substantial federal question." Because the case came to the Supreme Court through mandatory appellate review (not certiorari), the dismissal constituted a decision on the merits and established Baker v. Nelson as precedent, though the extent of its precedential effect has been subject to debate. In May 2013, Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage and it took effect on August 1, 2013.
The Rev. William R. Johnson was an important gay religious figure in the 1970s. In 1972 the United Church of Christ ordained him at the Community United Church of Christ in San Carlos, California, making him the first openly gay person to be ordained as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination. He founded the United Church of Christ Gay Caucus in 1972 (it is now the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns, aka "The Coalition"). He served as national coordinator for The Coalition from 1972-77.
The American Psychiatric Association held an annual meeting in 1972 titled "Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to Homosexuals? A Dialogue". The panel included, among others, "Dr. H. Anonymous," a gay psychiatrist who appeared in disguise to conceal his identity. He was later revealed to be John E. Fryer. The outcome of that panel was that in 1973 the APA removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The UpStairs Lounge arson attack took place on June 24, 1973 at a gay bar located on the second floor of the three-story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Thirty-two people died as a result of fire or smoke inhalation. The official cause is still listed as "undetermined origin. The most likely suspect, a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the day, was never charged. It was the deadliest arson attack in New Orleans and the deadliest attack on LGBT people in United States history. The reaction by the city and media following the attack was indifferent. Those seeking burial services for the dead were turned away by many churches, and several families refused to come forward to claim victims' bodies out of shame. While most news outlets ignored the story, mentions of the incident in editorials and talk radio made light of the tragedy, mocking the victims because of their sexual orientation.
A significant action of the gay rights movement in the 1970s was the creation of the Gay Pride flag by gay activist Gilbert Baker. Thirty volunteers had helped Baker hand-dye and stitch the first two flags for the parade. When Gilbert Baker raised the first Gay Pride flag at San Francisco Pride on June 25, 1978, it had eight colors, each with a symbolic meaning:
- Hot Pink: sexuality
- Red: life
- Orange: healing
- Yellow: sunlight
- Green: nature
- Turquoise: magic/art
- Blue: serenity/harmony
- Violet: spirit
The National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, a large political rally that took place in Washington, D.C. occurred on October 14, 1979. The first such march on Washington, it drew around 100,000 gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people and straight allies to demand equal civil rights and urge the passage of protective civil rights legislation.
Judiciary and public offices are berth of legal and social control in general. People who are appointed in these areas are of great significance, public and formal support and are in power to start the things going. In 1978 Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, and the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to public office in California, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk served almost 11 months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city. However, on November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor who had recently resigned but wanted his job back. In 1979 Stephen Lachs became the first openly gay judge appointed in the United States. He is also thought but not proved to be the first openly gay judge appointed anywhere in the world. He served as a judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court from 1979 to 1999.
John Ward founded GLAD in 1978 and filed its first case, Doe v. McNiff, that same year. GLAD is a non-profit legal rights organization in the United States. The organization works to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression. An early victory came in Fricke v. Lynch (1980), in which GLAD represented Aaron Fricke, an 18-year-old student at Cumberland High School in Rhode Island, who won the right to bring a same-sex date to a high school dance. GLAD is based in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves the New England area of the United States. Services it provides include litigation, advocacy, and educational work in all areas of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) civil rights and the rights of people living with HIV. The organization also operates a telephone hotline and website.
At first the disease was unidentified. In the early eighties reports began surfacing in San Francisco and New York City that a rare form of cancer called Kaposi's Sarcoma was affecting young gay men. In the general press, the term "GRID", which stood for gay-related immune deficiency, was used to refer to the disease. However, after determining that AIDS was not isolated to the gay community, it was realized that the term GRID was misleading and the term AIDS was introduced at a meeting in July 1982. By September 1982 the CDC started referring to the disease as AIDS. After the Centers for Disease Control declared the new disease an epidemic, Gay Men's Health Crisis was created in 1982 when 80 men gathered in New York gay activist Larry Kramer's apartment to discuss the issue and to raise money for research. The founders were Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Lawrence D. Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport and Edmund White. At the time it was the largest volunteer AIDS organization in the world. Paul Popham was elected as the first president.
GLAAD(formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is a U.S. non-governmental media monitoring organization which promotes the image of LGBT people in the media. Before March 2013, the name "GLAAD" had been an acronym for "Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation," but became the primary name due to its inclusiveness of bisexual and transgender issues. Its stated mission, in part, is to "[amplify] the voice of the LGBT community by empowering real people to share their stories, holding the media accountable for the words and images they present, and helping grassroots organizations communicate effectively." Formed in New York City in 1985 to protest against what it saw as the New York Post's defamatory and sensationalized AIDS coverage, GLAAD put pressure on media organizations to end what it saw as homophobic reporting. Initial meetings were held in the homes of several New York City activists as well as after-hours at the New York State Council on the Arts. The founding group included film scholar Vito Russo; Gregory Kolovakos, then on the staff of the NYS Arts Council and who later became the first executive director; Darryl Yates Rist; Allen Barnett; and Jewelle Gomez, the organization's first treasurer. Some members of GLAAD went on to become the early members of ACT UP. In 1987, after a meeting with GLAAD, The New York Times changed its editorial policy to use the word gay instead of harsher terms referring to homosexuality. GLAAD advocated that the Associated Press and other television and print news sources follow. GLAAD's influence soon spread to Los Angeles, where organizers began working with the entertainment industry to change the way LGBT people were portrayed on screen. Entertainment Weekly has named GLAAD as one of Hollywood's most powerful entities, and the Los Angeles Times described GLAAD as "possibly one of the most successful organizations lobbying the media for inclusion."
In 1985 Cleve Jones, a gay activist and Harvey Milk's former lover, conceived the idea of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at a candlelight memorial for Harvey Milk. In 1987 he created the first quilt panel in honor of his friend Marvin Feldman. The AIDS Memorial Quilt has grown to become the world’s largest community arts project, memorializing the lives of over 85,000 Americans killed by AIDS.
Also in 1985, closeted gay actor Rock Hudson became the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness. He revealed he had AIDS shortly before his death, and his revelation had an immediate impact on visibility of AIDS, and on funding of medical research related to the disease. Shortly after his death, People reported: "Since Hudson made his announcement, more than $1.8 million in private contributions (more than double the amount collected in 1984) has been raised to support AIDS research and to care for AIDS victims (5,523 reported in 1985 alone). A few days after Hudson died, Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS." Organizers of the Hollywood AIDS benefit Commitment to Life reported after Hudson's announcement he was suffering from the disease, it was necessary to move the event to a larger venue to accommodate the increased attendance.
In 1987 Larry Kramer founded AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an international direct action advocacy group working to impact the lives of people with AIDS (PWAs) and the AIDS pandemic to bring about legislation, medical research and treatment and policies to ultimately bring an end to the disease by mitigating loss of health and lives. In March 1987 Larry Kramer was asked to speak at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York as part of a rotating speaker series, and his well-attended speech focused on action to fight AIDS. Kramer spoke out against the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC). According to Douglas Crimp, Kramer also posed a question to the audience: "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?" The answer was "a resounding yes." Approximately 300 people met two days later to form ACT UP.
In all, since its discovery in the early 1980s, AIDS has caused nearly 30 million deaths (as of 2009). As of 2010, approximately 34 million people have contracted HIV globally. AIDS is considered a pandemic—a disease outbreak which is present over a large area and is actively spreading.
The 1980s were not all bleak. They also saw openly gay men becoming more prominent in politics. In 1983 Gerry Studds became the first openly gay member of the U.S. Congress. Studds was a central figure in the 1983 Congressional page sex scandal, when he and Representative Dan Crane were each separately censured by the House of Representatives for an inappropriate relationship with a congressional page — in Studds' case, a gay relationship with a 17-year-old male. During the course of the House Ethics Committee's investigation, Studds publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, a disclosure that, according to a Washington Post article, "apparently was not news to many of his constituents." Studds stated in an address to the House, "It is not a simple task for any of us to meet adequately the obligations of either public or private life, let alone both, but these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as I am, both an elected public official and gay." He acknowledged that it had been inappropriate to engage in a relationship with a subordinate, and said his actions represented "a very serious error in judgment." He won reelection in 1984. In 1987 Barney Frank became the first U.S. congressman to come out as gay of his own volition. Frank started coming out as gay to friends before he ran for Congress and came out publicly on May 30, 1987, "prompted in part by increased media interest in his private life" and the death of Stewart McKinney, "a closeted bisexual Republican representative from Connecticut"; Frank told The Washington Post after McKinney's death there was "An unfortunate debate about 'Was he or wasn't he? Didn't he or did he?' I said to myself, I don't want that to happen to me."
An important legal victory came in 1989 with the case Braschi v. Stahl Associates Co.. In this case it was ruled that a man's life partner was legally a family member as protected by rent control law. This case marked this first time an American appellate court (in this case the New York Court of Appeals) concluded that it was legally possible for a same-sex couple (in this case two men, Miguel Braschi and Leslie Blanchard) to constitute a family.
On March 20, 1990, sixty LGBTQ people gathered at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center in New York's Greenwich Village to create a direct action organization. The goal of the unnamed organization was the elimination of homophobia, and the increase of gay, lesbian and bisexual visibility through a variety of tactics. Group's breakthrough was at New York's Gay Pride parade when militant AIDS activists passed out to the assembled crowd an inflammatory manifesto, bearing the titles I Hate Straights! and Queers Read This! Within days, in response to the brash, "in-your-face" tone of the broadside, Queer Nation chapters had sprung up in San Francisco and other major cities. The name Queer Nation had been used casually since the group’s inception, until it was officially approved at the group's general meeting on May 17, 1990.
There were several legal successes for gay men in the 1990s. Hawaii's denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples was first challenged in state court in 1991 in Baehr v. Miike (originally Baehr v. Lewin) and the plaintiffs (a gay male couple, Patrick Lagon and Joseph Melillo, as well as two lesbian couples, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, and Antoinette Pregil and Tammy Rodrigues) initially met with some success. But Hawaii voters modified the state constitution in 1998 to allow the legislature to restrict marriage to mixed-sex couples. By the time the Supreme Court of Hawaii considered the final appeal in the case in 1999, it upheld the state's ban on same-sex marriage, but same-sex marriage was legalized in Hawaii in 2013. In 1993 the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was enacted, which mandated that the military could not ask servicemembers about their sexual orientation or go on "witch hunts" to find and expel homosexual service members. However, until the policy was ended in 2011 service members were still expelled from the military if they engaged in sexual conduct with a member of the same sex, stated that they were gay, and/or married or attempted to marry someone of the same sex. In 1994, fear of persecution due to sexual orientation became grounds for asylum in the United States. In 1996, in the case Nabozny v. Podlesny, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school officials violated the rights of an openly gay teenager, Jamie Nabozny, when they allowed others to harass him for his sexual orientation. This was the first judicial opinion in American history finding that a public school could be held accountable for not stopping antigay abuse.
There was also one prominent political success for gay men in the 1990s. In 1994, President Bill Clinton considered James Hormel for the ambassadorship to Fiji, but did not put the nomination forward due to protests from Fiji officials. Gay male sexual acts were punishable with prison sentences in Fiji and Hormel's being open about his sexuality would stand in conflict with culture. Instead Hormel was named as part of the United Nations delegation from the US to the Human Rights Commission in 1995, and in 1996 became an alternate for the United Nations General Assembly. In October 1997 Clinton nominated Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg, which had removed laws prohibiting consensual same-sex acts between adults in the 1800s. This appointment was the first nomination or appointment of an openly LGBT person from the US.
The International Bear Brotherhood Flag was created in 1995. There is debate over its creator, but Craig Byrnes claims to have created it. Bear is an affectionate gay slang term for those in the bear communities, a subculture in the gay male community with its own events, codes, and culture-specific identity.
Civil unions and same-sex marriages first became legally recognized in the United States in this decade. In 2000, Vermont became the first state to recognize civil unions. Several other states have legalized civil unions since. In 2004 San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed city hall to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  However, all same-sex marriages done in 2004 in California were annulled. Later in 2008 Prop 8 illegalized same-sex marriage in California, but the marriages that occurred between the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the approval of Prop 8 illegalizing it are still considered valid. In 2004, same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of Massachusetts. In March 2004, same-sex marriage was legalized in part of Oregon, as after researching the issue and getting two legal opinions, the commissioners decided Oregon's Constitution would not allow them to discriminate against same-sex couples. The Chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners ordered the clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses. However, later that year, Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as involving one man and one woman. The same-sex marriages from 2004 were ruled void by the Oregon Supreme Court.
Same-sex marriage was legalized in Connecticut in 2008. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Iowa in 2009, and was legalized in Vermont in 2009. In 2008 the Coquille Tribe legalized same-sex marriage, with the law going into effect in May 2009.
In 2002, a lawsuit brought by Derek R. Henkle against the Washoe County School District (Nevada) ended in a settlement in which the district agreed to implement policies to support openly gay and lesbian students and to pay the plaintiff, a student who had complained of harassment and inaction on the part of school officials, $451,000 in damages.
Perhaps the most important court case ever for gay men was 2003's Lawrence vs Texas (539 U.S. 558). In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law in Texas and, by extension, invalidated sodomy laws in thirteen other states, making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. The Court thus overturned its previous ruling on the same issue in the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, where it had upheld a challenged Georgia statute and did not find a constitutional protection of sexual privacy.
Another important victory for gay men came when in 2009, due to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act being signed into law, the definition of federal hate crime was expanded to include those violent crimes in which the victim is selected due to their sexual orientation; previously federal hate crimes were defined as only those violent crimes where the victim is selected due to their race, color, religion, or national origin.
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The legal recognition of same-sex marriage continued to gain momentum in this decade. In 2010, same-sex marriage was legalized in the District of Columbia. That year same-sex marriage was also legalized in New Hampshire. In 2011, same-sex marriage was legalized in New York state, and by the Suquamish tribe of Washington. In 2012, Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. In 2013, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians legalized same-sex marriage, and tribal citizen Tim LaCroix, 53, wed partner Gene Barfield, 60, in the tribe's first same-sex marriage ceremony. It was also the first same sex marriage legally performed in the State of Michigan, despite Michigan's constitutional prohibition, and held legal standing because of the federally recognized status of the Tribe, which is sovereign on its own lands within the state. Their marriage was the first same sex marriage performed between two men in Indian Country within the United States, other tribes having conducted same sex marriages between three female couples previously.  Also in 2013, same-sex marriage was legalized by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in the state of Washington, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians (whose first same-sex marriage certificate went to a male couple), and the Santa Ysabel Tribe.
Also in 2013, same-sex marriage was legalized in Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Utah, and same-sex couples who had a partner facing a terminal illness were allowed to get married in Illinois starting in 2013 rather than waiting until June 2014 implementation date. Jonipher Kwong and his partner Chris Nelson were the first same-sex couple to marry in Hawaii. However, several weeks after same-sex marriage was legalized in Utah a stay stopped it. Also in 2013, in the case United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had denied federal benefits to same-sex couples who were legally married in their states. Also in 2013, in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry, which was brought by a lesbian couple (Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier) and a gay male couple (Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo), the Supreme Court said the private sponsors of Proposition 8 did not have legal standing to appeal after the ballot measure was struck down by a federal judge in San Francisco, which made same-sex marriage legal again in California.
In January 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in Oklahoma, but the ruling was stayed; in 2014, a U.S. appeals court in Denver upheld the lower court ruling that struck down Oklahoma's gay-marriage ban, but that was also stayed. In March 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in Michigan; however, later that year the overturning of Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage was indefinitely stayed. In May 2014 same-sex marriage was legalized in Arkansas; however, later that year the Arkansas Supreme Court suspended same-sex marriages. Also in May 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but later that year same-sex marriages in Wisconsin were put on hold while the ruling striking down the state's ban on such unions was appealed. That same month, Idaho's same-sex marriage ban was declared unconstitutional, but another court stayed the ruling. Also in 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in Kentucky, but that ruling was put on hold and so no same-sex marriages were performed at that time. Indiana performed same-sex marriages for three days in 2014, but then the ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Indiana was likewise put on hold. Similarly, a federal appeals court based in Denver found that states cannot ban gay marriage, but that ruling was put on hold pending an appeal; however, clerk Boulder county clerk Hillary Hall (the first clerk to do so) and clerks in Denver and Pueblo counties issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Colorado in spite of the hold. Later that year, same-sex marriage was legalized in Colorado, but the ruling was stayed. Colorado's Supreme Court ordered the Denver county clerk to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples while the state's ban against the unions was in place. While that decision did not include Boulder and Pueblo, Pueblo county agreed to stop issuing licenses at the request of the Attorney General's office, but Boulder's clerk did not. Later that year a federal judge in Denver ruled Colorado's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, but the ruling was stayed. Later that year the Colorado Supreme Court ordered Boulder County clerk Hillary Hall to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Also in 2014, Monroe County, Florida legalized same-sex marriages, but the ruling was stayed. Later that year Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel legalized same-sex marriage in Florida, but the ruling was stayed. Shortly afterward, two more judges legalized same-sex marriage in Florida, but their rulings were stayed. Toward the end of July 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas) ruled against Virginia's same-sex marriage ban, but the ruling was stayed. However, in August 2014 a state court in Kingston, Tennessee, became the first to uphold a state ban on gay marriage since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 in United States v. Windsor. Also, in September 2014 a federal judge upheld Louisiana's ban on same-sex marriages, which was the first such loss for LGBT rights in federal court since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 in United States v. Windsor. But slightly later the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals legalized same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin, although the decision did not take effect then. Also, Louisiana legalized same-sex marriage in September 2014, but the ruling did not take effect then. In October 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear the seven cases regarding same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin, which meant lower court decisions ruling in favor of same-sex marriage stood, and therefore same-sex marriage then became legal in those states. Shortly later that month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco declared same-sex marriage legal in Idaho and Nevada, but Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy temporarily blocked that ruling for Idaho. Shortly later a private group that had led the legal fight to defend the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage withdrew its pending appeal for a stay with the Supreme Court, and thus same-sex marriage became legal in Nevada. Nevada state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson and Sherwood Howard were the first same-sex couple to marry in Nevada. Also in October 2014, a federal judge legalized same-sex marriage in North Carolina; although his federal judicial district only covers the western third of the state, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said that the federal ruling applied statewide. Also that month Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced he would no longer fight a challenge to West Virginia's same-sex marriage ban, and thus same-sex marriage was legalized in West Virginia. Same-sex marriage was also legalized in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming that month.  In November 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in Kansas, but Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an order temporarily blocking it. The order was lifted later that month; although Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said that a separate lawsuit he filed with the state Supreme Court should prevent gay marriage in all but the two counties that were home to cases covered in the ruling from the nation's capital (Douglas and Sedgwick counties) couples beyond Douglas and Sedgwick counties picked up marriage licenses also. Later in November 2014 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that Johnson County could issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and left it to the federal courts to determine whether a Kansas ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution. Derek Schmidt then asked the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals for an en banc hearing on the Kansas same-sex marriage ban, but the 10th Circuit refused. Also in November 2014, same-sex marriage was legalized in Montana and South Carolina, although the ruling in South Carolina was stayed until later that month. That same month, same-sex marriage was legalized in Arkansas and Mississippi, but the rulings were stayed. Also in November 2014, St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison ruled that Missourians in same sex relationships have the right to marry, and St. Louis County began complying with that ruling, as shortly after Jackson County also did. But the judge who issued the ruling striking down Missouri's same-sex marriage ban stayed its order directing Jackson County to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Also in November 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld bans on same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Michigan, marking the first time since the Supreme Court's rulings in Windsor v. U.S. and Hollingsworth v. Perry (both of which were in favor of same-sex marriage) that any federal appeals court upheld a state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
In January 2015, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee ruled that all clerks in the state were required under the Constitution to issue marriage licenses to all same-sex couples. On January 5, 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in Miami-Dade County when Judge Sarah Zabel lifted the legal stay on her July decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Florida. On January 6, 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized and began throughout Florida. Also in January 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in South Dakota, but the ruling was stayed. Also that month, same-sex marriage was legalized in two separate rulings in Alabama, but both rulings were stayed. However, in February 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized in Alabama after the Supreme Court refused Alabama's attorney general's request to keep same-sex marriages on hold until the Supreme Court ruled whether laws banning them are constitutional. But the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, wrote in his own order later that the latest ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Alabama did not apply to the state’s probate judges and directed them not to comply. The judge who issued that latest ruling (Judge Callie V. S. Granade) then ruled that the local probate judge (Judge Don Davis of Mobile County) could not refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, after which Davis began issuing licenses to same-sex couples, as did many counties in Alabama. In February 2015, a Texas probate judge ruled Tuesday that the state's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, as part of an estate battle. Later that month Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant became the first same-sex couple married in Texas, after their marriage license was issued in response to a district judge’s order in Travis County because one of the women had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. However, the clerk's office noted that “[a]ny additional licenses issued to same sex couples also must be court ordered,” and the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency stay that same afternoon they were married. Also in February 2015, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska announced its courts were authorized to allow the performance of same-sex marriages. In March 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in Nebraska, but that was stayed until the next Monday to give state officials time to appeal the ruling and ask for an extension of the stay, and then the Eighth Circuit granted the state's request, which placed same-sex marriage in Nebraska on hold until the federal appeals court ruled on Nebraska's marriage ban. Also in March 2015, the Alabama supreme court ordered Alabama's probate judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, stating that a previous federal ruling that same-sex marriage bans violate the US constitution did not preclude them from following state law, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In April 2015 Guam's attorney general directed officials to begin processing marriage license applications from same-sex couples, but the governor said he wanted to study the issue further, and the public health director said he wouldn't accept the applications. In May 2015, a federal judge ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in all Alabama counties, but placed her decision on hold until the Supreme Court issued a ruling on same-sex marriage. On June 5, 2015, a judge issued a ruling which struck down Guam's statutory ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling was issued immediately after the court hearing proceedings and went into effect on 8am Tuesday June 9. Same-sex marriages became performable and recognized in the U.S. territory from that date. Attorneys representing the government of Guam had said in a May 18 court filing that “should a court strike current Guam law, they would respect and follow such a decision”. Finally, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, legalizing it throughout the United States. The case began when a male same-sex couple from Cincinnati, Ohio, filed a lawsuit, Obergefell v. Kasich (the named defendant was John Kasich, the 69th governor of Ohio), in the U.S. Southern District of Ohio on July 19, 2013, alleging that the state discriminates against same-sex couples who have married lawfully out-of-state. Because one partner, John Arthur, was terminally ill and suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), they wanted the Ohio Registrar to identify the other partner, James Obergefell (//), as his surviving spouse on his death certificate based on their marriage in Maryland on July 11, 2013. The local Ohio Registrar agreed that discriminating against the same-sex married couple is unconstitutional, but the state Attorney General's office announced plans to defend Ohio's same-sex marriage ban.
Aside from the legalization of same-sex marriage, there were three other prominent successes for gay men in this decade. In 2011 the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was ended, allowing gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians in the U.S. military to be open about their sexuality. Also, in 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order 13672, adding both "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the categories protected against discrimination in employment and hiring on the part of federal government contractors and sub-contractors. Another important victory came in 2015, when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not allow sexual orientation discrimination in employment because it is a form of sex discrimination.
Notable American gay men
- Matt Bomer, an American film, stage and television actor, best known from his role on White Collar, which premiered in 2009. He first publicly acknowledged that he was gay in 2012 saying, "I never hid the fact that I'm gay". He thanked his partner Simon Halls and their children during an acceptance speech for his Steve Chase Humanitarian Award.
- J. P. Calderon, an American professional volleyball player, model and reality television participant. He began his professional volleyball career in 2004 and became a nationally ranked Association of Volleyball Professionals player. Calderon came out as gay on his appearance in the February 2007 issue of Instinct saying, "all of my fears, everything that I was scared of... it was the complete the opposite. [sic] It's been great. All of my friends, the volleyball world, absolutely everybody has been supportive. No one has shut me out."
- Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Inc.
- Anderson Cooper, an American journalist, author and television personality. He is the primary news anchor of the CNN news show Anderson Cooper 360°. Cooper is openly gay; according to The New York Times, he is "the most prominent openly gay journalist on American television." For years, Cooper avoided discussing his private life in interviews.
- Matt Dallas, an American actor, best known for playing the title character on the ABC Family series Kyle XY.
- Barney Frank is the former U.S. Representative for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district from 1981 until 2013. A member of the Democratic Party, he is also the former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee (2007–2011) and is considered the most prominent gay politician in the United States. In 1987 he was the first member of the U.S. Congress to come out as gay of his own volition. On July 7, 2012, Frank married his long-time partner, James Ready, becoming the first member of the U.S. Congress to marry someone of the same sex while in office.
- Darrin P. Gayles is the U.S. District Judge-Designate of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. He is the first openly gay African-American man to be confirmed as a U.S. federal judge.
- Neil Patrick Harris, an American actor, comedian and singer. He is best known for the title role in Doogie Howser, M.D. and as the womanizing Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. He also had roles on Broadway. Harris was named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2010, and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in September 2011. Harris confirmed that he is gay in November 2006 by saying "I am happy to dispel any rumors or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and feel most fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love." He was also the host of the 2015 grammys.
- Rock Hudson was an American actor widely known as a leading man in the 1950s and 1960s, often starring in romantic comedies opposite Doris Day. Hudson was voted Star of the Year, Favorite Leading Man, and similar titles by numerous film magazines. The 6 ft 5in (1.95) tall actor was one of the most popular and well-known movie stars of his time. Hudson died in 1985, becoming the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness.
- Cheyenne Jackson is an American actor and singer. He has played many prominent roles on Broadway.
- Adam Lambert is an American singer-songwriter and stage actor. His second studio album, Trespassing, made its debut in the number one spot on the Billboard 200 album chart, also topping the Billboard Digital Albums Chart and Canada's Digital Albums Chart, making him the first openly gay artist to achieve this top charting position. The Times identified Lambert as the first openly gay mainstream pop artist to launch a career on a major label in the U.S.
- Liberace was an American pianist and vocalist who had a career that spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, motion pictures, television, and endorsements. During the 1950s–1970s he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world In a 2011 interview, actress and close friend Betty White stated that Liberace was gay and that she often served as a "beard" to counter rumors of the musician's homosexuality.
- Sean Paul Lockhart, an American model, film actor and gay pornographic actor.
- Sean Maher, an American actor, best known for his role as Simon Tam in the science fiction television series Firefly and follow-up movie Serenity. He publicly came out as gay in 2011, using his role as a closeted gay man on The Playboy Club as a platform.
- Sal Mineo was an American actor and theater director famous for his Academy Award-nominated performance opposite James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause. He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for his roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus. In the late 1960s Mineo became one of the first major actors in Hollywood to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.
- Jim Parsons is an American television and film actor. He has won, among other awards, two consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series Musical or Comedy.
- Jared Polis is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the U.S. Representative for Colorado's 2nd congressional district, serving since 2009. He is the first male U.S. congressperson to be openly gay when first elected to office.
- Zachary Quinto, an American actor and producer. He grew up in Pennsylvania and was active in high school musical theater. He is mostly known for his roles as Spock in the 2009 reboot Star Trek, and its 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. Quinto publicly came out as gay in October 2011. He explained that, after the suicide of bisexual teenager Jamey Rodemeyer, he realized "that living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it is simply not enough to make any significant contribution to the immense work that lies ahead on the road to complete equality." Prior to his coming out, Quinto had long been an active supporter of gay rights and organizations, for instance the Trevor Project.
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