It Hasn’t Always Been Sunshine & Rainbows: A Look Back at Gay Rights’ Biggest Defeats

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Senator Joe McCarthy, President Bill Clinton, and Edie Windsor

In the past few years the LGBT community has seen a string of victories from the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Supreme Court case overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, to voters approving gay marriage in three states at the ballot box and a sitting president coming out in favor of marriage equality.

But sometimes we forget that it took a lot defeats to get to those victories. In this article The Mirror takes a look back at gay rights’ biggest defeats.

The Lavender Scare —1950

The Lavender Scare refers to the persecution of gays and lesbians in 1950s and is related to the anti-communist campaign known as McCarthyism, named after Senator Joe McCarty. While McCarthyism is very well known, a lesser-known element of his campaign targeted gays and lesbians, and during this time thousands of federal employees lost their jobs.

At the time the psychiatric community also regarded homosexuality as a mental illness, and because of that some believed they were considered susceptible to blackmail (especially from communists), thus constituting a security risk.

APA Lists Homosexuality as a ‘Sociopathic Personality Disturbance’ Disorder — 1952

Homosexuality was first defined as a mental illness in the 1930s but it wasn’t until 1952 that the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance in its first publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). That report included a category called sexual deviation as a subtype of sociopathic personality disturbance. The second publication of the DSM in 1968 continued to list homosexuality as a disorder and formally gave the “disease” its own code — 302.0.

Many professionals were always critical of the listing due to a lack of empirical and scientific data. In 1973 the board of the American Psychiatric Association finally voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

Gays Banned From Working For Federal Government — 1953

President Dwight Eisenhower formally signed Executive Order 10450 in 1953, banning homosexuals from working for the federal government or any of its private contractors. Here’s an excerpt: "Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion." The order was a part of the “Lavender Scare” and would be used to fire gays and lesbians for decades to come.

The policy wasn’t officially rescinded until President Bill Clinton did so in 1995 with Executive Order 12968, which included an anti-discrimination statement that reads: "The United States Government does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation in granting access to classified information."

Anita Bryant Wages Successful Campaign to Repeal Pro-Gay Rights Ordinance — 1977

Singer and spokeswoman for Florida’s orange juice industry Anita Bryant led a successful crusade called "Save Our Children" repealing a gay rights ordinance in Dade County in 1977. Bryant faced severe backlash from gay rights supporters across the U.S. and many gay bars boycotted orange juice in their establishments.

The ordinance was finally reinstated on December 1, 1998, more than 20 years after the campaign.

Supreme Court Upholds Sodomy Laws — 1986

The Supreme Court decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults when applied to homosexuals. It was a huge setback to the gay rights movement. The Supreme Court completely reversed their decision in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated a similar Texas sodomy law.

Court Rules Gays Can be Denied Security Clearance — 1990

High Tech Gays, a social organization for gays in the high tech industry, challenged, in 1984, the Department of Defense’s long standing policy of not giving security clearances to applicants who were known, or thought to be, homosexual. The group won in district court but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision citing Bowers v. Hardwick.

‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Enacted — 1993

The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was introduced as a compromise in 1993 by President Bill Clinton who campaigned in 1992 on the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. DADT prohibited military personnel from harassing or discriminating against gay and lesbian service members as long as they stayed in the closet. Before DADT all service members had to check off a box that stated they were not homosexual. With DADT that question was removed. The policy, however, turned out to be disaster with more gays and lesbians being discharged because of their sexual orientation than before DADT.

DADT was ruled unconstitutional in federal court in 2010, but that point became moot when the policy was finally repealed by congress and signed into law by the president on December 22, 2010.

Defense of Marriage Act Becomes Law — 1996

In 1996 both houses of congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act with a veto proof majority and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. The law barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage and defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. It also stated that no state can be forced to recognize a same-sex marriage from another state. The first part of that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013 with United States v. Windsor. The second part has since been ruled unconstitutional by several lower courts.

Anti-Gay Marriage Fervor Sweeps Nation — 2004

In 2004 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize same-sex marriage making it state the first in the nation to do so. And while that was a historic victory, 2004 is more known for the long string of defeats when 13 states formally banned gay marriage including Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Voters easily passed the bans across the county with the highest margin being 86 percent in Mississippi and lowest margin being 57 percent in Oregon.

California Voters Approve Prop 8 Banning Gay Marriage — 2008

California has had a complicated history in regards to same-sex marriage. In 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. The anti-gay forces though quickly rallied together getting enough signatures to put the issue up for a vote later that year. And in November the voters approved (52.24 percent) Proposition 8 making gay marriage illegal.

The loss was a blow, especially in liberal California. But when the law was challenged in federal court it was ruled unconstitutional and set the stage for a potentially historic Supreme Court decision. In the end the lower court’s decision was upheld on a technicality in 2013 making gay marriage in the state once again legal.


Greg Kabel

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