February 12, 2018

“Policy is not made once and for all; it is made and remade endlessly. Policy-making is a process of successive approximation to some desired objectives in which what is desired itself continues to change under reconsideration” – Charles E. Lindblom

In the formative days of our country, the notion of same-sex marriage would have been as obscure as that of women or people of color having the right to vote. The establishment of sodomy laws emerged in a pattern of criminalizing behavior that was viewed as lewd and objectionable, with no consideration given to “rights” for these individuals. This legislated persecution continued into the 20th century.

Through the McCarthy era, homosexuality was oft regarded to be as “anti-American” as communism (see the Lavender Scare). Underground LGBT enclaves began to appear in cities like New York and San Francisco. Later, emboldened by the Civil Rights revolutions of the 1960s, they grew more vocal in demanding equal protection under the law. The conversation began to shift, with Lindblom’s “desired objectives” becoming the attainment of everyday civil rights, such as the right to marry.

A select timeline of successive change:

1778 – Continental Army Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin is dishonorably discharged for “attempting to commit sodomy”; George Washington approves of the verdict “with abhorrence and detestation of such infamous crimes.”

1779 – Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson drafts a law that would prescribe castration as the maximum punishment for men engaging in sodomy. This was rejected by the legislature in favor of preserving the existing penalty of death.

1892 – Congress passes a Washington DC law protecting property from “vagrants” including anyone viewed as leading a “notoriously lewd or lascivious course of life.”

1917 – Congress overrides Woodrow Wilson’s veto, enacting the Immigration Act with language barring “mentally defective” individuals or those with a “constitutional psychopathic inferiority” from entering the country (same-sex attraction was considered a mental disorder at the time).

1919 – Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, directs a sting operation to uncover instances of “vice and depravity”, resulting in 17 sailors being jailed and court-martialed on suspicion of homosexuality.

1962 – Illinois becomes the first state to decriminalize sodomy.

1969 – Riots begin after police raid the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, sparking the symbolic beginning of the gay civil rights movement.

1977 – Harvey Milk elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first non-incumbent openly gay man elected to public office in the US.

2003 – US Supreme Court reverses Lawrence v. Texas, invalidating state sodomy laws. Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples is in violation of the state constitution, becoming the first state to license same-sex marriages.

2011 – The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, implemented by President Clinton which barred openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals from military service, is repealed by President Obama.

2013 – SCOTUS rules in United States v. Windsor that a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional.

2015 – Ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges holds that any ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and that such marriages should be legalized and recognized in all states.

2017 – Danica Roem wins a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates becoming the first openly transgender state legislator to be elected. Palms Springs, California City Council becomes the first in the country comprised of all LGBT members.

In what direction will the objectives of both LGBT rights advocates and those opposed to LGBT rights shift next?


  • Richard D Johnson says:

    Don’t forget NC HB2 which required individuals to use restrooms or locker rooms based on the sex listed on their birth certificates. It was passed in March of 2016 and by that fall had over a 600 billion dollar negative impact on NC’s economy. The NBA moved the Allstar game and the ACC moved the football championship out of the state. One writer referred to HB2 and the bathroom bill that ate NC

  • Will Morin says:

    You mention women and people of color having the right to vote, unfortunately there is still no federal right to vote. The US Constitution only says the states cannot discriminate against women and people of color, but does not guarantee the right to vote for any citizen. This does indeed need to change.

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