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In 50 Years, Huge Strides For Gay-Rights Movement

by David Crary and Lisa Leff
Saturday Jun 8, 2013

Go back 50 years in time.

Homosexuality was deemed a mental disorder by the nation’s psychiatric authorities, and gay sex was a crime in every state but Illinois. Federal workers could be fired merely for being gay.

Today, gays serve openly in the military, work as TV news anchors and federal judges, win elections as big-city mayors and members of Congress. Popular TV shows have gay protagonists.

And now the gay-rights movement may be on the cusp of momentous legal breakthroughs. Later this month, a Supreme Court ruling could lead to legalization of same-sex marriage in California, and there’s a good chance the court will require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in all U.S. jurisdictions where they are legal - as of now, 12 states and Washington, D.C.

The transition over five decades has been far from smooth - replete with bitter protests, anti-gay violence, backlashes that inflicted many political setbacks. Unlike the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, the campaign for gay rights unfolded without household-name leaders.

Progress came about largely due to the individual choices of countless gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and get engaged.

These were people like a Chicago graduate student willing to confront a high-profile critic of gay relationships. A young community organizer plunging into advocacy work for AIDS victims. Three gay couples in Hawaii suing for the right to marry at a time when that seemed far-fetched even to many activists.

"It is pretty mind-blowing how quickly it’s moved," said David Eisenbach, who teaches political history at Columbia University and has written about the gay-rights movement.

"There are kids coming out in high school now, being accepted by their classmates," Eisenbach said. "Parents, relatives, friends are seeing the people they love come out. It’s very hard to discriminate against someone you love."

As the Supreme Court rulings approach, here is a look back at three of the gay-rights movement’s pivotal phases and some of the people who chose to get involved.

Into the Streets

Dr. David Reuben had many fans after publishing his best-selling "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" in 1969. Murray Edelman wasn’t among them.

Edelman, then a University of Chicago graduate student, was part of a tiny band of activists who launched a gay liberation movement in the city late in 1969.

When Reuben - who depicted gay men’s relationships as bleakly impersonal and short-lived - was booked to appear on a TV talk show in Chicago in January 1971, Edelman and some fellow activists decided to attend.

Irked at being denied a chance to ask questions, Edelman headed to the stage toward the end of the session, seeking to confront Reuben. He was hauled out of the studio, but the incident received TV and newspaper coverage.

"It was the first time they really acknowledged there were gay activists in the city," Edelman said.

It was an era abounding with firsts for the gay-rights movement.

Historians can trace its roots back to individuals and incidents many decades earlier, and some pioneering national gay-rights organizations were formed in the 1950s.

But the pace picked up in the 1960s - which saw the first gay-rights protest in front of the White House and, in 1969, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that federal civil servants could no longer be fired solely because they were gay.

Gay activists formed organizations in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Amid the ferment of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement, there was a surge of interest in gay liberation - gays and lesbians publicly revealing their sexuality and evoking it as a source of pride, not shame.

The movement broadened - and public awareness grew - after police harassment of patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, sparked three days of riots in June 1969.

Emboldened by Stonewall, Edelman decided to promote gay activism at the University of Chicago. Through an ad in the student newspaper, he and friend convened a meeting to launch a gay liberation group. It started with a handful of members and grew steadily,

"We came to the conclusion that, before we could do anything else, we had to come out," Edelman said. "We decided to wear buttons - ’Out of the closets, into the streets.’"

By the summer of 1970, the activists had hosted some well-attended public dances and organized Chicago’s first gay pride parade.

Edelman, now 69, went on to work for CBS News and serve as editorial director for Voter News Service, the consortium that conducted exit polling during several presidential elections.

What did he and his colleagues accomplish four decades ago?

"It was a whole new consciousness for gays - we made it OK to be gay," he said. "We thought that we had strength in each other, that we could define ourselves differently from how society defined us."


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