LGBTQ+ Rights: Here’s What’s Changed in the Last Decade
Progress on LGBTQ+ rights and protections in the last decade has been somewhat paradoxical.
On one hand it’s astonishing just how rapidly things have improved for the LGBTQ+ community (like gay marriage finally being legalized in all 50 states in 2015).
On the other hand, it’s equally astonishing how backwards things still are in so much of the country (like states trying to enforce outdated gay marriage bans and Trump banning transgender people from serving in the military).
Violence against LGBTQ+ folks is still a major threat, with one in five hate crimes motivated by LGBTQ bias. This makes it all the more urgent to level the playing field once and for all. Members of the LGBTQ+ community need and deserve equal rights and access to services—and to feel safe, secure, and free to be exactly who they are, wherever they are.
Keep reading for a brief history of the LGBTQ+ fight for rights and inclusion and what’s changed in the last decade.
What Is the LGBTQ+ Community and Who Is a Part of It?
Even the most well-meaning among us are sometimes confused by what the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and others) community is and who it includes.
This is especially true as we’ve grown more aware of the diverse range of experiences around sexual orientation and gender identity—from asexuality (having no sexual attraction to other people), to gender fluidity (not identifying with a single, fixed gender).
It’s up to each of us to use the resources at our disposal (i.e., trusted sources on the internet) to educate ourselves, rather than putting that burden onto LGBTQ+ folks. That said, if you feel comfortable asking someone you care about in the LGBTQ+ community about something that is puzzling you, go for it—just be sensitive.
LGBTQ+ folks have always been with us, but in the male-dominated heteronormative culture that has dominated for centuries, until very recently they were more or less forced into hiding under threats of humiliation, disownment, chastisement, and violence. Thankfully, LGBTQ+ folks and their allies have made major inroads in achieving equal rights, protections, and freedoms.
Here are some important milestones (good and bad) in the U.S. over the last century.
1924 - The first documented gay rights organization (The Society for Human Rights) is founded in Chicago.
1953 - President Eisenhower signs an executive order banning homosexuals from working for the federal government, saying they are a security risk.
1961 - Illinois becomes the first state to decriminalize homosexuality by repealing the state’s sodomy laws.
1969 - Police raid the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Protests follow, which spark the gay civil rights movement in the United States.
1970 - The first gay pride parades are held, including one in New York City where community members march through the streets to recognize the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall protests.
1973 - Lambda Legal becomes the first legal organization established to fight for the rights of gay and lesbian people.
1973 - Maryland becomes the first state to ban same-sex marriage.
1973 - The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the DSM-II Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
1978 - Harvey Milk is inaugurated as San Francisco city supervisor—the first openly gay man to be elected to a political office in California.
1979 - The first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights takes place, drawing an estimated 75,000 to 125,000 participants.
1993 - President Clinton signs “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a military service policy that barred openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people from military service while also prohibiting military personnel from discriminating against or harassing “closeted” gay or bisexual military members.
1996 - President Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act, banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage and defining marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”
1997 - Comedian Ellen DeGeneres comes out as a lesbian on the cover of Time magazine.
2004 - The first legal same-sex marriage in the United States takes place in Massachusetts.
2008 - Voters approve Proposition 8 in California, which makes same-sex marriage illegal.
2009 - The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act becomes law.
2010 - Proposition 8 is found unconstitutional by a federal judge.
2011 - “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.
2012 - Obama becomes the first sitting US president to publicly support the freedom for LGBTQ couples to marry.
2015 - Boy Scouts of America President Robert Gates announces a resolution to remove the national restriction on openly gay leaders and employees.
2015 - The U.S. Supreme Court makes same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states (Obergefell v. Hodges).
2016 - The Secretary of Defense lifts the ban on transgender people serving openly in the US military.
2017 - The District of Columbia gives people the option of choosing a gender-neutral option on their driver’s license.
2018 - The Trump administration announces a new policy that bans most transgender people from serving in the military.
2019 - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signs a law banning the use of the so-called gay and trans panic legal defense strategy.
Reading through these laws is like being on a seesaw of love versus hate. Thankfully, the proverbial seesaw tipped more in favor of love and equality during the last decade.
2010-2020: A Decade of Progress
The 2010s marked a decade of legal wins for the LGBTQ+ community, especially in terms of same-sex marriage. Which is not to say groups didn’t try their hardest to keep same-sex marriage illegal—like in 2012 when the Republican National Convention endorsed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Nevertheless, the LGBTQ+ community persisted. Here are some highlights from a remarkable decade in the fight for equal rights.
It started in 2011 with President Obama revoking “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Then, in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
In 2015 President Obama acknowledged the LGBTQ community in this State of the Union speech—the first ever to do so.
“As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened…That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they are the right thing to do, but because ultimately they will make us safer.” – President Barack Obama
In 2015 President Obama called for an end to conversion therapy. Also that year: The U.S. military added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy.
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court guarantees the right of same-sex couples to marry in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges. This effectively makes it unconstitutional for states to ban same-sex marriage.
In 2015 the military announced it would allow transgender Americans to openly serve in the military.
In 2016 the Stonewall Inn was designated a national monument. It is the first-ever U.S. National Monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights.
In 2016 the Obama administration publicly supported transgender students.
In 2018 LGBTQ candidates took the midterms by storm in a “rainbow wave.” A record number of LGBTQ candidates—more than 150—were elected into office in 2018, including Jared Polis of Colorado, who became the first openly gay man elected governor in the U.S., and Sharice Davids, the first openly LGBTQ person to represent Kansas.
In 2019 the House of Representatives passed The Equality Act, which protects LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service.
These wins are worth celebrating. But true equality isn’t just about winning rights and legal protections—it’s about representation. And we’ve seen major changes in that arena, too.
From musicians like Janelle Monáe to Miley Cyrus to Lil Nas X, to films and TV series like Dear White People, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Eastsiders, LGBTQ+ folks are more represented now than ever before.
We still have a long way to go. In many states discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity still happens—even with federal laws in place. An LGBTQ person can be fired from a job or denied employment or housing simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And though it’s hard to believe, same sex couples are occasionally still being denied marriage licenses by biased state clerks.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community must stay vigilant in the fight for equal rights. Allies can help by actively working to advance LGBTQ+ rights and by educating themselves—that means learning about the diverse range of sexualities on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, using a person’s preferred pronouns (she/he/they), listening without judgment, respecting a person’s request for confidentiality, speaking out against prejudice, and calling out misrepresentation or lack of representation in the media.