Although the gay liberation movement dates back to the early 1950s, its public galvanization is usually traced to what is known as the Stonewall Riots.
In June 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village in Manhattan frequented by homosexuals. The police attempted to arrest the patrons, but the patrons fought back. Over the next few days, the protest grew as activity spread to surrounding streets in a public show of disapproval of the actions of the police. Gay rights became a rallying theme, and the movement spread from Christopher Street throughout the world.
Like so many moments in history, recollections and impressions of the events that have come to be referred to simply as Stonewall vary significantly. But it is widely accepted that this event five decades ago was a turning point in the gay rights movement.
Today, Stonewall symbolizes different things to different people. For example, several of the articles on the coming pages mention the Stonewall Riots - each one with its own particular description - and use Stonewall as a starting point to talk about different aspects of LGBT history and the LGBT experience.
For me, it is electrifying to recognize the gains that have been made in just 50 years. When I was admitted to practice law in 1977, intimate relations between two adults of the same gender were a crime in New York. That didn't remain for long and in 1980 the New York Court of Appeals decriminalized sexual relations between two people of the same gender (People v. Onofre1) and the United States Supreme Court followed suit with Lawrence v. Texas2 in 2003. Most other countries have also done so, although a few holdouts remain.
Family law and personal privacy were revolutionized by a series of decisions written by now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, which culminated in a decision requiring all states to recognize same-sex marriage,3 and the movement has expanded to include many categories of sexual minorities and gender non-conforming individuals.
Despite being a world-wide social movement, the evolution of what are now generally referred to as LGBT rights has also been intensely personal. Behind the headlines, the struggle has been a determination of individuals to achieve acceptance from their family, in their workplace, in their social setting.
For some of us, discrimination on the personal level prompted the call to action so that we could live free and open lives. For others, acceptance from family, friends and colleagues caused us to seek the same for those not so fortunate. In either event we, as lawyers, have led the call to action, to challenge existing discriminatory laws in the courts and to lobby our legislators for changes.
The New York State Bar Association has been a major driving force in this evolution. Understanding that the LGBT rights movement draws many parallels with the earlier civil rights movement for racial minorities, NYSBA established a Special Committee on LGBT People and the Law, which is now a permanent committee of the association. The Committee has drafted policy positions that have been adopted by NYSBA, prepared amici briefs for cases of import, and offered CLE programs to educate our legal community on all aspects of the law and litigation strategies.
When the New York State Legislature was debating the Marriage Equality Act in 2011, NYSBA was a major supporter of the bill and helped ensure its passage. When the legislature adopted the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) earlier this year, NYSBA already had an official memorandum supporting the legislation and was able to speak with authority as the bill moved very rapidly to adoption.
The struggle is by no means over. Especially in areas of personal liberty, changes in the law tend to recognize already established changes in society. It is possible that in the area of LGBT rights, the law has moved society along, although there is still resistance in some areas and many legal issues have yet to be resolved.
Some argue that the LGBT rights movement is on a collision course with the First Amendment rights of free religion and free speech. Transgender individuals and other sexual minorities are still fighting for basic rights and freedoms, sometimes against fierce resistance.
Rights gained are not uniform from state to state and nation to nation. Only 21 American states have laws banning discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and many of those statutes do not include protections for transgendered people. In parts of the world being gay is still considered a capital offense, as recently evidenced in the kingdom of Brunei.
Just as the civil rights movement has yet to achieve complete equality for all Americans regardless of the color of their skin, the LGBT rights movement has much hard work to do in the coming years and decades.
What will the LGBT movement look like over the next 50 years? It's impossible to predict the future, of course, but in the coming years there will surely be both wins and losses in the fight for LGBT rights, just as there have been throughout the past decades.
We expect more hard work and more progress as transgendered people continue to fight for equal rights and recognition in society. Around the world, as some countries continue to expand LGBT rights, others may step up persecution of LGBT citizens. Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue of whether discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is a form of sex discrimination and therefore banned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision in this matter will give Americans an indication of how the Court's new conservative majority will approach LGBT rights in the coming years.
There is one thing we can predict with confidence: In the future just as in the past, this revolution will be led by lawyers and members of the New York State Bar Association, and we will continue our efforts to ensure individual liberties and social equality for all.