Exploring the Origins of Pride Month and Taking Stock of LGBTQ+ Rights

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[co-author: Yahaira Liriano]

Across the country each June, communities come together to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month. This month of events honors the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan while also showcasing the contributions that LGBTQ individuals have made to society and memorializing those we’ve lost to violence or HIV/AIDS.

Below, Pamela Goldsmith, Justina Rivera and Yahaira Liriano of our New York City office explain the significance of what happened at the Stonewall Inn and highlight significant Supreme Court decisions advancing LGTBQ equality.

Pamela, Justina and Yahaira are members of our Council on Inclusion and Diversity and initially drafted this article for Harris Beach employees.

The Stonewall Inn Uprising

June 28, 1969.....discrimination, harassment, assault, spontaneity, chaos, protests, energy, perseverance, strength, civil rights. This was the start of the Stonewall uprising and this year marks the 50th anniversary of that event, which would galvanize the gay civil rights movement and LGBTQ political activism.

During Pride Month, we wanted to share a bit about what happened 50 years ago, what has happened since and where you can go to celebrate and express support.

In the 1950s and 1960s, gay Americans were marginalized and subject to an anti-gay legal system. The FBI and many police departments maintained lists of known homosexuals, their favored establishments and friends; the U.S. Post Office kept track of addresses where material pertaining to homosexuality was mailed; bars and establishments catering to lesbians and gays were shut down; and many towns and cities took steps to expel gay people from public places. Homosexuality was even considered a mental disorder.

Greenwich Village and Harlem contained a sizeable gay population after World War I. Prohibition ended up benefiting gay establishments as drinking alcohol, another immoral activity, was pushed underground.

Although NYC had passed laws against homosexuality in public and private businesses, the pop-up drinking establishments during prohibition were too many for the police to crack down on. In the early 1960s, there was a full effort to close down all gay bars in NYC the liquor licenses of these establishments were revoked and the police focused on entrapping as many gay men as possible. Interestingly, the bars frequented by gays and lesbians were not owned by gays and lesbians; they were largely owned by organized crime.

About the raid

The Stonewall Inn, located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street, was owned by the Genovese crime family, who had purchased it in 1966. Police raids at bars continued, including at the Stonewall Inn. But the proprietors were typically tipped-off about the raid; they were early in the evening and the bar could continue its business operation for the night. There was even a raid at Stonewall the night before the uprising began – reportedly an effort to close the inn, due to the police not getting sufficient kickbacks.

On June 28, 1969, at 1:20 a.m., four plainclothes police and two patrol officers, a detective and the deputy inspector entered Stonewall and announced they were taking the bar. They planned to take all patrons dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex and would arrest all men who dressed as women. Those dressed as women refused to go to the bathroom and men refused to produce their identification. The police then decided to take everyone to the police station and to transport the alcohol in patrol wagons. However, the patrol wagons were not on-site and the patrons were required to stand in line for 15 minutes.

Those not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not scatter or retreat, as they would typically do in the past. Instead, they hung around and a crowd began to grow. As the officers began to place people in the wagons, there was some shoving, fighting back and things began to get out of hand.

Catalyst for action

The crowd tried to overturn the police wagons and some of the police left. More people learned what was happening and the crowd grew, greatly outnumbering the police. There was no organization, no pre-planning; it just happened. The crowd jeered the police, threw bottles and debris and the police barricaded themselves, with some of patrons in handcuffs, inside the Inn. The barricade was breached and the Stonewall Inn was set on fire. Backup police eventually arrived, doused the fire and the crowd eventually dispersed. However, the riots continued for the next five days.

There was early activism, resistance and riots for gay rights, but it was Stonewall which jettisoned it to the next level. Stonewall became a symbol of resistance to social and political discrimination, inspired solidarity among gay and lesbian groups for decades and was a catalyst for a new way of political activism.

The Stonewall buildings are both part of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Greenwich Village Historic District. The buildings were the first LGBTQ-associated properties listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and first LGBTQ National Historic Landmarks. In 2016, the Stonewall National Monument was named the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to the LGBTQ-rights movement.

If you’re in NYC and find your way to Greenwich Village, leave some time to visit the Stonewall Inn.

The Supreme Court and LGBTQ+ Rights

There has been significant progress in the LGBTQ movement since Stonewall. Laws prohibiting homosexual activity have been struck down; lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are now allowed to serve openly in the military; same-sex couples can now legally get married in all 50 states; and hate crime legislation has been enacted that adds federal protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.

However, there remains significant discrimination that exists in employment (universal workplace anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ Americans is lacking); commerce, where business can refuse service to the LGBTQ community (so-called “religious liberty” state laws allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ individuals); housing; and transgender rights (the ban on service in military was reinstated in March 2018; “bathroom laws” preventing transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their sex at birth).

LGBTQ persons are subject to harassment, assault, hate crimes and death. The numbers remain staggering. Thus, although the United States has made great strides towards equality for LGBTQ individuals, there is so much more to do; so much more to learn; and so much more to change for full equality and acceptance.

Current Term

In April 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to hear three cases based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination based on sex, and whether it applies to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Most federal appeals courts have interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to exclude sexual orientation discrimination. But two of them, in New York and Chicago, recently issued decisions ruling that discrimination against gay men and lesbians is a form of sex discrimination.

In the consolidated Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, a skydiving instructor and a child welfare services coordinator, respectively, said they were fired for being gay.

And in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a funeral home employee said she was fired because she came out as transgender.

Other significant decisions by the Court:

Romer v. Evans (1996)

Colorado voters adopted Amendment 2 to their State Constitution precluding any judicial, legislative, or executive action designed to protect persons from discrimination based on their “homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships.” Following a legal challenge, the state trial court entered a permanent injunction enjoining Amendment 2's enforcement. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed on appeal. In a 6-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that Amendment 2 of the Colorado State Constitution violated the equal protection clause. Amendment 2 singled out homosexual and bisexual persons, imposing on them a broad disability by denying them the right to seek and receive specific legal protection from discrimination.

Lawrence v. Texas (2003)

In 1998, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested in Lawrence’s Houston home and jailed overnight after officers responding to a false report found the men having sex. The two men were convicted of violating Texas’ “Homosexual Conduct” law, which made it a crime for two people of the same sex to have oral or anal sex, even though those sex acts were legal in Texas for people to engage in with persons of a different sex.

In a 6-3 opinion delivered by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, overturning its 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, the Supreme Court held that the Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct violates the Due Process Clause.

United States v. Windsor (2013)

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), enacted in 1996, states that, for the purposes of federal law, the words “marriage” and “spouse” refer to legal unions between one man and one woman. Since that time, some states have authorized same-sex marriage. In other cases regarding the DOMA, federal courts have ruled it unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment, but the courts disagreed on the rationale.

Edith Windsor was the widow and sole executor of the estate of her late spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, who died in 2009. The two were married in Toronto, Canada, in 2007, and their marriage was recognized by New York state law. Thea Spyer left her estate to her spouse, and because their marriage was not recognized by federal law, the government imposed $363,000 in taxes.

Had their marriage been recognized, the estate would have qualified for a marital exemption, and no taxes would have been imposed. On November 9, 2010 Windsor filed suit in district court seeking a declaration that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. At the time the suit was filed, the government's position was that DOMA must be defended. On February 23, 2011, the President and the Attorney General announced that they would not defend DOMA.

Congress acts

On April 18, 2011, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives filed a petition to intervene in defense of DOMA and motioned to dismiss the case. The district court denied the motion, and later held that DOMA was unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. In a 5-4 majority decision the Supreme Court held that the United States Government, despite the executive branch's agreement regarding DOMA's unconstitutionality, retains a significant enough stake in the issue to support the Supreme Court's jurisdiction.

Because the judgment in question orders the U.S. Treasury to refund tax money, the Government stands to suffer a real economic injury and therefore maintains standing in the case. The Court also held that states have the authority to define marital relationships and that DOMA goes against legislative and historical precedent by undermining that authority. The result is that DOMA denies same-sex couples the rights that come from federal recognition of marriage, which are available to other couples with legal marriages under state law. The Court held that the purpose and effect of DOMA is to impose a “disadvantage, a separate status, and also a stigma” on same-sex couples in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)

Groups of same-sex couples sued their relevant state agencies in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee to challenge the constitutionality of those states’ bans on same-sex marriage or refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages that occurred in jurisdictions that provided for such marriages. The plaintiffs in each case argued that the state statutes violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and one group of plaintiffs also brought claims under the Civil Rights Act. In all the cases, the trial court found in favor of the plaintiffs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and held that the bans on same-sex marriage and refusal to recognize marriages performed in other states did not violate the couples' Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of marriage equality stated that under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause the states must provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples and must recognize marriages that were legally licensed and performed in other states.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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