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An Overview of LGBTQ Legal Rights on the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots


Of course, you’re aware that June is Pride Month. But if you’ve wondered why it seems like the symbols of the LBGTQ community have been just a little bit more prevalent this Just (especially amongst entities that maybe don’t have a ton to do with the LGBTQ community), there are a few reasons.

Namely, this year — today, in fact — marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. At those riots, LGBTQ patrons and staff of the Stonewall Inn in New York City, mostly people of color, fought back against police who had raided the gay bar to arrest numerous patrons. Fed up by police force’s repeated targeting and harassment, the Stonewall patrons and staff resisted, and four days of riots ensued. There’s a Roland Emmerich movie on this subject, which should be your first source if you want more of the details (we kid, we kid — read a book instead).

The Stonewall Riots were a pivotal moment for what we now call the LGBTQ movement. Whereas earlier protest movements, like the Mattachine Society, were typically designed to be unthreatening and unassuming, the protests following Stonewall would eventually become louder, bolder, and without dress codes. The first Pride march was held a year later, designed specifically to be a unmistakable political protest. 50 years and a whole lot of progress later, New York will host WorldPride this weekend, billed as the largest Pride celebration in the world.

So that’s a big reason you’re seeing the increased prominence of Pride paraphernalia. The other, much less inspiring reason, is that Corporate America, still mostly controlled by non-LGBTQ folks, is celebrating LGBTQ progress the only way it knows how — by awkwardly inserting itself into the conversation, attempting to profit off the work of the community, and, to its credit, at least occasionally donating part of the proceeds to good causes.

We’d love to talk about the party and people that will presumably having the times of their lives … but since we’re a law school-themed blog, I guess we should instead celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots by looking at the legal rights the LGBTQ community has secured since those riots took place. So then, how has the tireless protesting and advocacy advanced the legal rights and privileges afforded to the LGBT since Stonewall?

The short answer — in a lot of ways! You’re probably aware of many the big moments of progress, such as the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which held that states could not forbid private, consensual sexual relations between same-sex people. Or the slow trickle of states — Hawai’i, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, California (again), and then many more — to either allow same-sex marriage or give same-sex couples the same rights and protections as everyone else. Or the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibited gay and lesbian Americans from serving openly in the military. The signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, which made it a federal crime to assault anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Or the landmark decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, making so the federal government couldn’t prevent married lesbian and gay couples from enjoying the same federal benefits and protections as other couples. Or the other landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Or the Pentagon announcing the end of the ban on transgender folks from serving in U.S. armed forces.

First very slowly and incrementally, and then very suddenly, many members of the LGBTQ community earned legal rights that were historically denied to them. But anyone in the fight to advance these legal rights would agree that there are still major fights ahead.

Even aside from the nakedly transphobic laws and regulations that continue to be proposed, there are many seemingly basic rights for the wider LGBTQ community — with respect to employment, housing, and public accommodations — that are still not explicitly protected on the federal or state level. While federal employees are protected from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, those regulations were passed by executive order, which makes it easy for subsequent presidents to weaken or rescind. Further, while twenty-one states have statutes that prohibit public and private workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many states have either not extended these protections to cover gender identity, or have not extended these protections to cover the private sector, or only cover these protections through executive order, or have no protections in place whatsoever. This is one of many reasons why LGBTQ advocates have been watching the Equality Act, which recently passed in House, carefully. That law would extend federal protections to LGBTQ folks in their employment, housing, access to public accommodations, and other areas that are still not explicitly covered by law.

Even landmark decisions, like Obergefell v. Hodges, rest on shakier legal ground than you may realize. Many criticized Justice Kennedy’s reasoning in that case. Rather than reason that prohibitions on same-sex marriage constituted discriminations based on sex, or reason that LGBTQ people are members of a protected class under the 14th Amendment and Equal Protection Clause — both of which would subject laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity to a heightened level of judicial review that all but dooms such laws — Kennedy based his reasoning on the idea that marriage is a “fundamental right.” This reasoning could theoretically make it more difficult for courts to extend protections in other areas that are not considered “fundamental,” especially when SCOTUS, you know, acts the way it currently does.

Even with these fights still ahead, today’s anniversary of Stonewall marks 50 years of progress to secure legal rights for a historically marginalized community. The tireless fight is major accomplishment that should make anyone feel … well … pride, and ready for the fights ahead.