LGBTQ Rights Timeline in American History
This timeline is organized in units that are typically taught in middle school and high school U.S. History classrooms and is consistent with the people and events listed in the new California History-Social Science Framework (2016). Our Family Coalition will be updating the timeline over time.
It is important to note that there existed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships long before these terms became commonplace. Gay and lesbian relationships existed in ancient Rome and Greece communities and are shown in a variety of art from that time. The years when common terms began to be used are listed first followed by important LGBTQ history events:
Lesbian – 1732 – the term lesbian first used by William King in his book, The Toast, published in England which meant women who loved women.
Homosexual – 1869 – Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertheny first used the term homosexual.
Bisexual – 1894/1967. 1872 – the pamphlet, “Psychopathia Sexualis” was translated from German and one of the first times the term bisexual is used. 1967: Sexual Freedom League formed in San Francisco in support of bisexual people.
Gay – 1955 – the term gay was used throughout Europe earlier, but this is the year most agree that gay came to mean same-sex relationships between men.
Transgender – 1965 – John Oliven, in his book, Sexual Hygiene and Pathology, used the term transgender to mean a person who identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.
Colonial Life and Founding of the Nation (1607-1770)
1607 – Founding of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America.
1619 – Approximately 20 Africans sold into slavery in Jamestown, Virginia.
1620 – Colonial Plymouth established with Puritan norms. Mayflower contract signed by the men in the group “…for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith…” Established gender norms that determined the nuclear family unit was the basis for all other institutions such as government or church. Men held leadership positions, while women’s purpose was submissive and to “please your husband and make him happy.”
1624 – Richard Cornish of the Virginia Colony is tried and hanged for sodomy.
1630 – Massachusetts Bay Colony was established believing they had made a “covenant with God to build an ideal Christian community.”
1631 – Massachusetts Bay General Court, in accordance with Puritan religious and moral beliefs, declared that the following were considered sex crimes and were punishable by whipping, banishment or execution: fornication, adultery, rape, and sodomy.
1637, 1638 – Trials of Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts colony for holding religious meetings in her home since she was not allowed to hold these types of meetings in the male-dominated churches. She was banned from the community.
1649 – Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon are charged with “lewd behavior” in Plymouth, Massachusetts, believed to be the first conviction for lesbian behavior in the new world.
1687 – New England Primer published and used in colonial schools (90 pages). Some consider this as the first school-based textbook. Content included letters and words, as well as religious-based prayers and instruction such as, “God created man, male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.”
1691 – Virginia passes the first anti-miscegenation law, forbidding marriage between whites and blacks or whites and Native Americans (overturned in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia).
1714 – Sodomy laws in place in the early colonies and in the colonial militia. These laws remained in place until challenged in 1925.
American Revolution, Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution (1770-1787)
1775 – Slave population in the colonies is nearly 500,000 people.
1776 – Declaration of Independence.
1778 – Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin of the Continental Army becomes the first documented service member to be dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality. Read more at U.S. History Naval Institute Blog / Timeline of Military Gay History.
1779 – Thomas Jefferson proposes Virginia law to make sodomy punishable by mutilation rather than death. It was rejected by the Virginia legislature
The New Republic / Divergent Paths of the American People (1787-1850)
1788 – U.S. Constitution adopted. Includes a three-fifths clause that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation and tax apportionment.
1789 – Olauda Equiano, a former slave, publishes the narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. It was one of the first widely read narratives of slave life at the time. In it, he describes same-sex relationships he had with other men and the existence of same-sex relationships within the slave culture since slaves were not allowed to marry.
1839 – Margaret Fuller begins hosting conversations about the “great questions” regarding their role and gender around Boston.
1845 – Margaret Fuller published the book, “The Great Lawsuit”, which asked women to claim themselves to be self-dependent.
1848 – Seneca Falls Convention held in Seneca, NY. First women’s rights convention of 300 men and women. Many signed the “Declaration of Sentiments” which listed the variety of ways women had been disenfranchised from American society.
1848 – The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed between the U.S. and Mexico that ended the Mexican-American War and added land which is today California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.
1848 – Gold discovered in California, which begins the gold rush. The non-native population in California grew from 1000 to 100,000 by 1849 and was mostly men. The population of San Francisco grew from 850 in 1848 to 25,000 in 1850.
1849 – Lifelong partners Jason Chamberlain and John Chaffee sail from Boston to California to seek their fortunes in the California gold rush. They lived together in Groveland, Ca until Chamberlain died in 1903.
1850 – California becomes a state.
1852 – Writer J.D. Bothwick reports his attendance at a “miner’s ball” – a men’s only dance held in Angels’ Camp in California.
Civil War and Civil Rights (1850-1870)
1857-1861 – James Buchanan elected president. A lifelong bachelor, Buchanan had a long-term relationship with William Rufus King, who served as vice president under Franklin Pierce. The two men lived together from 1840-1853 until King’s death. Some historians suggest Buchanan, by today’s terms, was gay.
1861 – Sarah Emma Edmonds changed her identity to a man named Franklin Thompson and joined the Union army. She was one of 400 documented cases of women who dressed as men as part of the war effort. She changed back to her female identity after being wounded in the war. She eventually married a man and raised three children.
1862 – Jennie Hodgers, disguised as a man named Albert Cashier, enlisted in the Union army in Illinois and fought for three years until the end of the war. She continued living as a man after the war.
1861 – 1865 – Civil War.Read more at U.S. History Naval Institute Blog / Timeline of Military Gay History
1868 – Fourteenth Amendment Ratified. This is the most cited amendment in Supreme Court civil rights cases and has been the basis for landmark civil rights cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges. Gay rights advocates cite this amendment in support of equality for future court cases.
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law, which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
1868 – Two-Spirit, We’wha, a Zuni Native American, meets with President Grover Cleveland.
Industrialization, Westward Expansion, Immigration and Religion (1870-1890)
1870 – Nearly 500,000 Americans had crossed the continental U.S. to the western territories since 1840. Just 10% of these travelers were women.
1879 – Death of Charley Parkhurst, well-known stagecoach driver in Central California who was born a woman, but lived as a man. Buried in Watsonville, Ca.
1886 – Henry James writes the book, The Bostonians, about a long term relationship between two women and the term “Boston Marriages” develops to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man.
1889 – Jane Addams, along with other women, open Hull House in Chicago that provided daycare, libraries, classes and an employment bureau for women.
1890 – The term, Lesbian, first used in a medical dictionary.
1890 – Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and other women opens in Chicago, IL with funding from her partner, Mary Rozet Smith.
1890 – Birth of Alan Hart who pioneered the use of the X-Ray for tuberculosis diagnosis and one of the first transgender men in history.
U.S. Rise as a World Power, World War 1, Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression (1890 – 1939)
1892 – The pamphlet, “Psychopathia Sexualis” is translated from German and one of the first times the term bisexual is used. Written by Richard van Kraft-Ebbing. Translated by Charles Gilbert Chaddock.
1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson (Supreme Court Decision)
By a vote of 7-1 declares racial segregation legal and is not an infringement on the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
1898 – U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (Supreme Court Decision)
By a vote of 6-2 declares that people born in the U.S. are citizens of the U.S. even if parents are citizens of another country based on the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
1895 – Trial of Oscar Wilde (writer and novelist) in London, England and convicted for gross indecency (relationships with other men) and served two years in jail.
1896 – Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish German physician and sexologist issued a pamphlet, Sappho and Socrates, on homosexual love (under the pseudonym Th. Ramien).
1907 – Gertrude Stein meets Alice B. Toklas, sparking a legendary romance. In Paris, the two women set up a salon that connects many great writers and artists, including gays. Stein publicly declares her love for Toklas in print in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, published in 1933.
1907 – Hirschfeld, a Jewish German physician and sexologist, testified at a trial in Germany about a gay relationship and stated, “homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation just like normal love.”
1914 – 1918 – World War I
1917-1935 – The Harlem Renaissance. Historians have stated that the renaissance was “as gay as it was black.” Some of the lesbian, gay or bisexual people of this movement included writers and poets such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston; Professor Alain Locke; music critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten, and entertainers Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Gladys Bentley.
1919 – Hirschfeld, a Jewish German physician and sexologist, established the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, Germany. During his lifetime, he was an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights
1924 – The Society for Human Rights, the first gay rights organization, was founded by Henry Gerber in Chicago who had emigrated from Germany. The organization ceased to exist after most of its members were arrested.
1928 – Radclyffe Hall, an English author, published what many consider a groundbreaking lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. This caused the topic of homosexuality to be a topic of public conversation in both the United States and England.
World War II (1930-1945)
1933 (May 6) – In Germany, students led by Nazi Storm Troopers broke into the Institute for Sexual Science founded by Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin and confiscated its unique library. Four days later, most of this collection of over 12,000 books and 35,000 irreplaceable pictures were destroyed along with thousands of other “degenerate” works of literature in the book burning in Berlin’s city center. (Hirschfeld was out of the country at the time and lived out the rest of his life in France).
1933 – 1945 – Nearly 100,000 German homosexual men were rounded up and placed in concentration camps along with Jewish people. They were designated by a pink triangle on their clothing.
1941 – Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all U.S. citizens participated in the war effort and enlistments occurred at the rate of 14,000 per day in 1942. Gay and lesbian people joined as well – men in the military living in same-sex dorms, and women as part of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and in factories on the home front found themselves in same-sex surroundings as well. In addition, men who fought in Europe, during their leave time, found same-sex relationships more relaxed than in the U.S.
1944-1945 – As the war came to an end, U.S., British and Soviet forces liberated people held in Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
1945 – German Homosexual men, designated by a pink triangle on their clothing, were the last group to be released from the Nazi concentration camps after liberation by the Allied forces because Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code stated that homosexual relations between males to be illegal.
Social Transformation and Foreign Policy Post WW2 / Lavender Scare (1945-1960)
1948 – Alfred Kinsey, an American biologist and sexologist at Indiana University issues the first report, Sexual Behavior of the Human Male, was published and discussed male homosexuality (Also known as the Kinsey report).
1950 – U.S. Congress issues the report entitled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” is distributed to members of Congress after the federal government had covertly investigated employees’ sexual orientation. The report states that since homosexuality is a mental illness, homosexuals “constitute security risks” to the nation.
1950 – The Mattachine Society formed in Los Angeles, California by activist Harry Hay and is one of the first sustained gay rights groups in the United States. The Society focused on social acceptance and other support for homosexuals. Various branches formed in other cities. The organization continues today with different objectives.
1952 – Christine Jorgensen became one of the most famous transgender people when she underwent a sex change operation and went on to a successful career in show business.
1952 – The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual lists homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance that could be treated.
1952 – U.S. Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Immigration Act that barred “aliens afflicted with a psychopathic personality, epilepsy or mental defect.” Congress made clear that this was meant to exclude “homosexuals and sex perverts.”
1953 – Kinsey Report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was published and discussed female homosexuality.
1953 (April 27) – Executive Order 10450 issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower banning homosexuals from working for the federal government stating they are a security risk. This order stays in place until 1993 when President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress enact the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.
1954 – Hernandez v. Texas (Supreme Court Decision)
Unanimous decision declared that Mexican-Americans and other nationalities had equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Up to this time, non-White people were systematically excluded from serving on court juries.
1954 – Brown v. Board of Education (Supreme Court Decision)
Unanimous decision that determined that separate was not equal in schools and violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Overturned previous decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that had declared that separate was equal.
1955 – Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization is founded in San Francisco, California by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. They hosted private social functions, fearing police raids, threats of violence and discrimination in bars and clubs. The organization lasted until 1969.
1957 – Frank Kameny, an astronomer for the U.S. Army Map Service, was released from government service because of his homosexuality, an outgrowth of Executive Order 10450. He had earned his doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University and was a professor of astronomy at Georgetown University before taking a government position. Kameny appealed the decision to the Supreme Court but was rejected.
1958 – One v. Olesen (Supreme Court Decision)
Without oral arguments, the Supreme Court issued a decision stating that first amendment free speech rights protected the publishing of “One Magazine”. Up to this point in time the U.S. Postal Service had the power to open any magazine or mail they determined to be “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious.” They also had the power to keep lists of people who received such publications; and had lists of homosexual men who received the publication, “One Magazine.” The publication was a gay man’s publication associated with the Mattachine Society.
Civil Rights, Space Race, Vietnam and Protests (1960-1975)
1961 – Frank Kameny, an astronomer dismissed from government service, forms the Washington D.C. branch of the Mattachine Society (The society was originally founded in Los Angeles in 1950).
1962 – Illinois becomes the first state to decriminalize homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private.
1963 – Bayard Rustin, an associate of Martin Luther King, and a gay African American man helped organize the March on Washington that culminated with King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
1966 – Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, San Francisco. Transgender and drag queens in San Francisco reacted to ongoing harassment by the police force. After several days, the protests stopped. One of the outgrowths was the establishment of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit (NTCU) in support of transgender people.
1967 – The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop opened in New York City by Craig Rodwell. The bookshop was the first of its kind in the U.S. that was devoted to gay history and gay rights.
1967 – Loving v. Virginia (Supreme Court Decision)
Unanimous decision overturned state laws that prohibited inter-racial marriage or miscegenation laws. Agreed that anti-miscegenation laws violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. First miscegenation law was passed in 1691.
1969 (June 27-29) – The Stonewall Riots, New York City. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York City. In response to an unprovoked police raid on an early Saturday morning, over 400 people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight people protested their treatment and pushed the police away from the area. Some level of rioting continued over the next six nights, which closed the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Riots became a pivotal, defining moment for gay rights. Key people at the riots who went on to tell their stories were: Sylvia Rivera, Martha P. Johnson, Dick Leitsch, Seymore Pine and Craig Rodwell.
1969 – Gay Liberation Front organization formed in New York following the Stonewall Riots to advocate for sexual liberation for all people.
1969 – The Gay Activist Alliance formed in New York by a group who were not satisfied with the direction of the Gay Liberation Front. Their purpose was more political and they wanted to “secure basic human rights, dignity and freedom for all gay people.”
1970 – The first gay pride marches were held in multiple cities across the United States on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, including San Francisco and Los Angeles / West Hollywood.
1971 – The “Body Politic” Magazine began publishing in Toronto, Canada. Became one of the most widely read publication regarding LGBT rights.
1972 – The National Bisexual Liberation Group formed in New York.
1972 – The play, “Coming Out!” written by Jonathan Ned Katz, is performed for the first time in New York and provides a historical perspective of gay life from the colonial period to the present.
1973 – Roe v. Wade (Supreme Court Decision)
By a vote of 7-2 determined that women have a right to privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and choice regarding abortion.
1973 – The American Psychiatric Association, after considerable advocacy by Frank Kameny and members of the Mattachine Society, changed the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. It was not until 1987 that homosexuality was completely removed from the APA list of mental disorders. The APA found that “the latest and best scientific evidence shows that sexual orientation and expressions of gender identity occur naturally…and that in short, there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation, be it heterosexual, homosexual or otherwise, is a freewill choice.”
1974 – Elaine Noble becomes the first openly gay person to be elected as a state legislator; she served in the Massachusetts State House of Representatives for two terms.
The Conservative Resurgence (1975-2000)
1977 – Anita Bryant, former American singer and Miss America Pageant winner formed a group called “Save Our Children” to protest against a Dade County, Florida ordinance preventing discrimination against homosexuals. Her campaign was successful and the law was repealed. Gay and lesbian activists and organizations, including Harvey Milk, condemned the action and in response, boycotted Florida Citrus Commission products, for which Bryant was a spokesperson. In 1980, Bryant was fired as the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission and in 1998, a new gay and lesbian rights ordinance was passed. This was one of the first times the LGBT community realized the political power they possessed.
1978 – The Briggs Initiative, a statewide proposition in California, was defeated by 58% of the voters. The initiative would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools.
1975 – The Bisexual Forum founded in New York City and the Gay American Indians Organization founded in San Francisco.
1976 – The book, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., is written by Jonathan Ned Katz based on his play of 1972. This was the first book that documented gay history in the U.S.
1977 – Harvey Milk elected county supervisor in San Francisco and becomes the third “out” elected public official in the United States. Quebec, Canada passed laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in both the private and public sectors.
1978 (June 25) – In San Francisco, the Rainbow Flag is first flown during the Gay Freedom Parade; the flag becomes a symbol of gay and lesbian pride.
1978 (Nov. 27) – San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk is assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone. Supervisor Dan White is convicted of voluntary manslaughter and is sentenced to seven years in prison.
1979 – National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Over 100,000 people gathered in support of gay and lesbian rights.
1979 – Chapters of the national organization of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) are founded across the United States.
1981 (June 5) – AIDS Epidemic begins. The U.S. Center for Disease Control reported the first cases of a rare lung disease, which would be named AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) the following year. There were a total of 583, 298 U.S. men women and children who would die from AIDS through 2007.
1983 – San Francisco AIDS Foundation co-founded by Cleve Jones, Marcus Conant, Frank Jacobson and Richard Keller.
1983 – Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Watkins v. United States Army. The New York Times published an article in 1991 detailing Perry Watkins’ settlement with the U.S. Army following his win in the courts.
1985 – Rock Hudson dies. He was a leading actor in many movies in the 1950s and 1960s. He died of complications related to AIDS. After his death, it was revealed that he was gay and had several male relationships.
1985 – The AIDS Quilt concept was conceived and implemented by Cleve Jones, an LGBT activist in San Francisco.
1986 – Bowers v. Hardwick (Supreme Court Decision)
By a vote of 5-4 that a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults was legal and that there were no constitutional protections for acts of sodomy. (Was overruled in 2003: See Lawrence v. Texas).
1987 – The organization, ACT UP formed in New York. The purpose of ACT UP was to impact the lives of people living with AIDS, to advocate for legislation, medical research and treatment, and to bring an end to the disease. The organization is still active today.
1988 (Dec. 1) – The World Health Organization (WHO) declared December 1 as the first World AIDS Day.
1993 – The U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” that allowed gay and lesbian people to serve in the military. They would not be asked their sexual orientation during enlistment screening.
1994 – Greg Louganis, four-time Olympic gold medalist and considered one of the greatest divers in history, publicly came out as gay as part of the Gay Games in New York City. He subsequently wrote a book entitled Breaking the Surface that was published in 1996. In it he revealed his Olympic experiences, coming out journey, and that he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988.
1997 – Ellen DeGeneres, a comedian, TV actor and television host was one of the first popular entertainers who publicly came out as a lesbian during an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show and then became the first openly gay character on the TV show, “Ellen.” She was then highlighted on the cover of Time Magazine and other news organizations.
1998 – Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyo. and left to die because he was gay. He died from his wounds several days later. This was one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in America and resulted in a federal law passed 10 years later in 2009 called the “Hate Crimes Prevention Act”, a federal law against bias crimes directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.
The 21st Century Transformation (2000-Present)
2003 – Lawrence v. Texas (Supreme Court Decision)
Ruled by a vote of 6-3 that a Kansas law criminalizing gay or lesbian sex was unconstitutional declaring the importance of constitutional liberty and privacy consistent with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Also overturned the court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) stating that the court had made the wrong decision.
2008 (November) – Proposition 8 passes with a 52% yes vote in California declaring that marriage is between a man and a woman.
2010 – The U.S. Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” so that gay and lesbian people could serve openly in the military. One person present at the signing ceremony in the White House was Frank Kameny who had been released from military service in 1958 because of discriminatory policies against gay and lesbian people.
Read more at U.S. History Naval Institute Blog / Timeline of Military Gay History
2013 – Hollingsworth v. Perry / California Proposition 8 (Supreme Court Decision)
By a vote of 5-4 agreed that the Supreme Court could not overrule the decision of the California Supreme Court and that the petitioners were not legally able to file this claim. In addition, it ruled that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit the state of California from defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Proponents of Proposition 8 in California appealed a lower court decision that ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court would not hear the case, which meant that Proposition 8 was held unconstitutional and that same-sex couples could legally be married in California.
2013 – U.S. v. Windsor / Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act – DOMA (Supreme Court Decision)
By a vote of 5-4 ruled that defining marriage as just between a man and a woman is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996 and stated that marriage or legal unions are between one man and one woman. This decision ruled the congressional law as unconstitutional and that states have the authority to define marital relationships. This decision was rendered the same day as the decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry.
2015 – Obergefell v. Hodges (Supreme Court Decision)
The Court voted 5-4 that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This decision mandated that states must allow same-sex couples to legally marry.