The Gay Rights Movement in the U.S. of the 20th Century


The ‘queer people’ is a phrase that has been used for over a hundred years now to describe gay men, bisexuals, lesbians and other sexual minorities. These groups of people have undergone massive marginalization and discrimination, something that has fuelled their fight for gay rights. The Gay Rights Movement in the U.S. has its roots in Europe though the United States has been more receptive. However, this does not mean that this movement has been widely accepted since many people still live with homophobia and discriminate upon the “queer ones” (Pitas 1).

On the other hand, Women Rights and Civil Movements have been in existence since 1848 and they have been fighting for civil rights and freedoms that include women’s suffrage, equality, as well as legal adult status among others. These movements have been more successful as compared to their gay rights movements counter parts since they have gained more recognition and support which has led to the realization of their initial objectives over time according to the study by Women Movements (1, 2). This paper looks at why the Gay Rights Movement failed during the second half of the 20th century, an era that was characterized by the emergence of conservative movements that were hostile towards such liberal factions.

The Gay Rights Movement during the second half of the 20th Century: its successes and failures

The gay rights movement has a forty-year history clearly marked by the Stonewall Riots that took place in a gay bar in the West Village of Manhattan. Police who kept a close eye on the gay community had raided the Stonewall Inn and this time round they faced a stand off. A landmark gay riot took place to protest the raid and “Gay Power” chants were heard all over Manhattan. The protesters overpowered the police and the riots continued for several days and this birthed the gay rights movement. This movement became stronger as more gay people joined in to fight the discrimination. To date, the Stonewall bar is a popular landmark in New York City representing the gay community and this is one of the successes that the movement achieved (Skillings 1-11).

The Christian Voice has supported heterosexual marriages fully and the year 2008 saw the passing of proposition 8 in California. This Proposition was passed to emphasize that the only recognized marriages were those between a man and a woman. The gay community was outraged yet again protesting this proposition since they yearned to be granted the right to engage in legal unions. The Mormon temple was the venue for these demonstrations and the gay community fought strongly to reverse a law that had worked to their advantage a few months back as California had just allowed same sex marriages. They felt that the church was overstepping by seeking to challenge what the government had given a green light. This battle between homosexuals and the church spread to Michigan and other parts of America but they could not win the fight against the church (Christian Voice 1-23).

Anita Bryant was a key figure in the gay rights movement battle. She took an anti-gay fight to the media with support from her friends who had the same sentiments against the gay community. This move was phenomenally successful and the anti-gay editorials that graced the covers of many local dailies proved this. Television shows and local radio stations broadcast various messages against the gay rights movement. Anita Bryant had embarked on an educative move that highlighted the evils of legalizing homosexuality, a move that was applauded and supported by many.

This was a huge setback for the gay community though they continued fighting for their rights relentlessly through the formation of activism organizations. Bryant went ahead and initiated a “Save our children” campaign and the gay community took this chance to bask in her glory. They counter attacked to use the publicity she got to their advantage and joined the “save our children” campaign but in a different angle. They argued that all they wanted was save the future generations from irrational, ignorant, and unjust criticism posed by Bryant against the gay community (Fetner 33-39).

The gay rights movement had many twists and turns and Harvey Milk added his voice to the events that were taking place and this contributed to the gay rights movement temporary success. Harvey was anti – Bryant and felt that her fight against the gay community was irrational. He urged the gay community to press on for their rights and freedoms. In a speech to them, he said that they had to voice their issues since they would not win the fight by staying in their closets. He made a call to them to come out and fight the distortions, lies, and myths that surrounded their sexual orientation. In addition, Harvey advised them to start the fight at home and disclose their status to their families and friends (Jones 1-5).

The Christian Right Movement contributed to the failure of the gay rights movement in that it took an anti-gay stand and fought it at both social and political levels. This movement dedicated itself to fighting homosexuality right from the grassroots and it received great support from the Christians. In 1977 and 1978, this movement had succeeded in passing six antigay referenda, something that made the gay rights movement fail both locally and internationally. Courtesy of the Christian Right movement, gay rights ordinances received a permanent ban and future prohibitions were made to ensure that they did not succeed. In addition to this, antigay statutes were enacted and the Christian Right movement earned itself a name in the US history as the most hostile organization against homosexuality. This movement got huge support from other bodies such as the Traditional Values Coalition, Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America who compared homosexuality to Satanism and an evil practice that would destroy the lives of many generations (Rimmerman et al 138-140).

Republican presidents differed with democrats when it came to the issue of gay rights and this further pushed the gay rights movement into failure. They believe in heterosexual marriages and this is why a republican president would never rule in the favor of the gay community. They discouraged the issue of gay rights from the beginning and this was another blow to the homosexuals. A republican nomination win takes opposing civil unions and gay marriages and this is why many presidential aspirants on a republican ticket would never support homosexuality (Cline 2-3).

The Democratic Party in the US is well known for its liberal values as it supports gay marriages and can thus be counted as one of the few successes of the movement. There have been debates ever since the World War II to legalize homosexuality, a move that would give them same rights as those enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. However, some democrats do not favor such unions and discard them on ideological or religious grounds. This was thus a 50 / 50 success and failure for the gay rights movement in the second half of the World War II and this made them an unpopular minority (Rimmerman et al 194).

In addition, the AIDS scourge was hitting the world harder in the 1990s and the gay movements were seen as a catalyst to the high numbers of HIV infections across America. This crisis led to hostility that was directed to the various gay movements with the notion of having such practices banned in an effort to curb the spread. The military was not spared either in this call for banning of gay liberation movements. These highs and lows attributed to the failure of the gay rights movement in the second half of the World War II. The movement faced gross opposition from many political and social fronts and evidently did not have a national appeal. The various religious and political fights put up by many of the opponents as well as the republican presidents contributed to its failure.

Women rights movements have for the longest time fought for the equality of men and women and they have clearly achieved their objectives at many levels. For many centuries, women have been sidelined by their male counterparts who view them as the weaker sex. This kind of discrimination has featured strongly in economic, political, and social avenues where men take prime roles. However, this changed a lot around the second half of the 20th century when several women rights movements sprung up to salvage women from this sex-based discrimination.

In 1848, the Women Rights Movement was birthed and the women involved looked at taking active roles in building the country after the American Revolution. It was in this spirit that these women convened the Women Rights Convention, which was a first where they looked at discussing the religious, civil, and social rights of women in America. To break these down, the women came up with a Declaration of Sentiments; a document that voiced their concerns that they needed addressed urgently (Johnson 1-3).

To begin with, the law did not recognize married women and furthermore, they were not allowed to vote. In addition, women were expected to submit to laws they could not question. As if this was not enough, they had no rights to property and they were under the mercy of their husbands who subjected them to mistreatment that included domestic violence and imprisonment. The irony here is that women were subjected to property taxes despite them not owning anything legally.

In matters concerning divorce, the laws that had been established favored men more who ended up getting custody of children. Women did not have access to most occupations and ended up getting low ranked jobs that paid them poorly. Law and medicine professions were a preserve for men no matter how talented the women were. In addition, women ended up illiterate since they could not be admitted to learning institutions, as they were not allowed to enroll women.

Religious matters did not favor women either and they could thus not take part in religious affairs. As a result, women depended on men who were massively favored by the laws of the land and this led to their loss of self-respect and confidence. When compared to the gay rights movement, these forums achieved greater successes that were felt by all (Living the Legacy 1-11).

Other movements that came up included the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that supported the World Wars I and II. With its influence, the government recognized it and awarded one of its fights which wanted women to be involved in the electoral process as they did not have voting rights. In 1918, women above the age of 30 were allowed to vote and in 1928, 21 became the new voting age for women. This was one of the many landmark achievements that women rights and civil rights movements were able to accomplish.

Another achievement by women movements was the raising of awareness on attitudes and beliefs that the society had against women and this had contributed greatly to their discrimination. The sensitization efforts made by the Women’s Liberation Movement made a great change in how women were perceived. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is another movement that fought hard for women rights. This amendment has found its way into many states’ constitutions and more women now enjoy equal rights with men.

Other than these, Women Rights Movements also sought to empower the woman in issues that directly affected her directly such as reproductive health. This issue has been successful in some states though others are still debating on it. A woman thus chooses to have an abortion if for any reason she does not want to have the baby. Pro-life movements seem to be fighting a loosing a battle since many states have adopted the rights on abortion. Sexual harassment laws have also been put in place where women have a right to sue their male colleagues for any behavior deemed as sexual harassment (Rosen 1-10).

Civil rights movements also achieved highly in comparison to Gay Rights Movements. For instance, 1948 saw the equality declaration that ensured that all persons were treated equally regardless of their origin, race, religion, or color. In 1954, racial segregation in public schools came to an end and it was termed as unconstitutional. This was followed closely by an end to segregation in buses in Montgomery that had a culture of reserving seats for white people.

The civil rights movements were able to press on for their rights and in 1965, black people were allowed to vote. In addition, discrimination in housing, sales, financing and rental was prohibited and this gave more power to the black people. Black people who were discriminated upon in employment were compensated and to date, there are tough laws that guide against the violations of workers and civil rights. The gay rights movement did not come anywhere close to achieving as much as the civil rights movements did (Brunner et al 1).


As evidenced in this paper, the Gay Rights Movement was a failure during the second half of the 20th century when compared to the successes of the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights Movements. The latter achieved land mark successes, which continue to be enjoyed by many generations to date. As portrayed by the study done by Bronski (1-5), the Gay Rights Movement failed due to its chosen path that concentrated more on legal inequalities rather than basic civil rights. Religious, political, and cultural movements such as the Christian Right, the Christian Voice, the Republicans, and activists like Anita Bryant all contributed to the failure of the gay rights movement. To date, gay rights activists face huge opposition from the masses since they have failed to impress on them with their chosen lifestyle that remains culturally, religiously, and politically unappealing.

Works Cited

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“Civil Rights and Women Rights Movements in the US.” Women Movements. 2000. Web.

Cline, Austin. “Gay marriage and republican presidents.” Agnosticism and Atheism 4.1 (1998): 2-3. Print.

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