Since 1994, the United States has been celebrating October as LGBT History Month. The month was chosen because National Coming Out Day, a major day already established in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, is observed on Oct. 11. The first march to Washington D.C. by the LGBT community took place in 1979. The month recognizes a different gay icon a day and holds celebrations throughout.
The struggle for LGBT rights is currently raging, gaining state and nationwide approval. In Albany, Governor Patterson has placed marriage equality at the top of the state’s legislative agenda. Cory Gregory, a fifth year Electrical Engineering major and OUTspoken president (see sidebar), pointed to another bill that is currently in process called the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which would help to prohibit discrimination within New York state based on race, creed, age, religion, nationality, sex or sexual orientation in employment, housing, education, credit and public services. These bills will improve LGBT civil rights in New York State by recognizing rights that grant equality for the LGBT community. With more education, gay rights activists hope to arrive at a broader level of acceptance.
While homosexuality has been accepted in previous eras, persecution and protest did not make itself clear until the 20th century. In 1924, Henry Gerber and six other men formed the Society for Human Rights, the first organization founded to promote gay rights in the United States. It was a short-lived affair; the police raided the founders’ home and arrested the seven men a few months later. The charges against the men were dropped, but the organization quickly folded. It was over 20 years until another organization promoting gay rights was created.
In 1950, Harry Hay, a gay man loosely connected to Gerber, formed the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles. The name was derived from the French group of masked performers, which was a play on how gay people are masked in public. The group’s two main objectives were to start a grassroots movement against anti-gay discrimination and to cultivate a gay community. Lesbians and gays would meet and speak openly about their experiences. Soon, Mattachine Societies began forming in cities across the country. The New York society was founded in 1955 but became noticeably active in the 1960s when it began publicly advocating for gay rights.
New York City was the site of a tremendous riot for gay rights in 1969. Police regularly raided bars serving predominately gay crowds, as it was illegal to solicit homosexual relations in the city. On June 28, customers who were removed from the Stonewall Inn, known as the gay bar in the city, began to mock and throw things at the police officers. Chaos erupted and riots continued for five days. The Stonewall is still in Greenwich Village and is a monument for gay history in this country.
The psychiatric community became involved in the progression gay rights when it removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. It was important that homosexuality was no longer something that classified people as mentally unstable, or something cured through placement in a psychiatric unit.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, openly gay public officials began to take office for the first time. Harvey Milk, the subject of the Academy Award winning film “Milk,” was elected to serve on the board of supervisors in San Francisco. Openly gay public figures proved that gay people were equally as competent as straight people. They were also role models for people who could not openly speak out about their sexual orientation.
In 1998, a tragic event affected gay communities everywhere and encouraged more outspoken demands for tolerance for homosexuality. On Oct. 12, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was tortured and killed in a hate crime. Two men targeted Shepard, offering him a ride home from a bar. They beat and tied him to a post in the open prairie, a reminder of the brutality that remained in the American psyche. He was discovered the next day and rushed to a hospital, but later died from complications from his injuries.
The Matthew Shepard Act was lobbied for and passed, expanding on the 1969 United States federal hate crime law. It was passed to Senate on Oct. 22, 2009, and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28. It will increase funding in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa have legalized gay marriage, and New Hampshire will join that group in Jan. 2010. Many states have granted certain rights to gay people, even recognizing marriage if performed in another state or country. While surprises like California’s Proposition 8 may go against the change our country has witnessed in the past, it has not affected the determination of activists in the United States, or at RIT.
Supporting the Movement at RIT
On campus, OUTspoken is an organization dedicated to providing education and a way becomimg active in tackling LGBT issues at RIT. The organization formed about a year ago but has already held a speaker series to educate the community about various aspects of
Recently, OUTspoken partnered with ImageOut Film Festival to get films on campus — some of which were made free in order to have more students attend.
OUTspoken President Cory Gregory has worked to promote LGBT issues on campus. He believes that the gay civil rights movement in the country “is running slow, [particularly in terms] of marriage. At the end of last year there were a bunch of states passing laws [accepting same-sex marriage]. We thought New York would be with them and it was upsetting [when it was not passed].”
Gregory mentioned a few LGBT community-related or sponsored bills that are currently in the New York State Senate, and he’s hopeful for a final “push for same-sex marriage.” Diversity, in all aspects, was something he stressed when discussing a current OUTspoken and Student Government project. The two groups formed a partnership and created a banner promoting diversity on campus where people were invited to sign their names and add painted handprints to demonstrate their support.