For most of our country’s history, LGBTQ+ people have been discriminated against both socially and legally. For instance, until very recently LGBTQ+ folks could not participate in domestic unions, same-sex marriage, adoption of a child, or share their identity openly in the military.
Also, many have been denied access to medical care, denied service at businesses, refused work, and fired from their jobs due to gender discrimination.
Until the mid-1970s the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM), used by practicing psychologists, defined homosexuality as a contagious mental disorder that produced violent sex offenders. In fact, it was not until1987, in the DSM-III, that all references to homosexuality as a psychological disorder would finally be eradicated.
Fortunately, we are moving past these outdated, superstitious beliefs and have begun to remove the stigma from being LGBTQ+ in American society. A few recent key events reveal this progress:
2003: U.S. Supreme Court voted to make homosexual sex legal.
2010: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy repealed in the military.
2015: U.S. Supreme Court rules same-sex marriage is legal in every state.
2016: Stonewall protest location becomes a national monument
2016: 55 openly LGBTQ+ athletes participated in the Olympics.
2017: Virginia voters elect the first transgender candidate as a state representative
Today, polls show that more than three in four Americans (76%) favor laws that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodation. At this juncture, all partisan groups favor nondiscrimination protections, with the Democrats leading the way at 85%, and the Republicans gaining traction at 62%.
Origins of the Modern LGBTQ+ Movement: Stonewall Riots
The earliest movements in the United States addressing sex and gender discrimination were gay and lesbian rights organizations that started in the 1950s like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. The strategy of these organizations was to keep homosexual lifestyles discreet, while working to prove to mainstream society that gays and lesbians were not promiscuous, violent, or pedophiles.
However, there was ongoing persecution happening in the major cities. For instance, men were routinely picked up in public parks on vagrancy and lewdness charges. Gay-friendly bars were commonly raided, having their liquor licenses revoked, or having the entire place of business shut down. By the end of the 1960s, gay and lesbian people were becoming fed up with the constant harassment and abuse.
On June 28th, 1969, the police were enacting a routine raid at bar known as the Stonewall Inn located in Greenwich Village. In attendance that night were young effeminate gay men, drag queens, butch and femme, and working-class gays and lesbians. This was the third time the Stonewall was raided that week, and these approximately 200 patrons decided to stand up for themselves.
When confronted by police the crowd did not disperse and gathered around to witness officers roughly manhandling patrons outside. The match that lit a wildfire of protest occurred when a butch lesbian was being handcuffed and placed in a patrol car. In defiance, she escaped out the other side of the car and was being wrestled down to the ground, when she yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you do something?”
At this point, queens and street youths began hurling projectiles like coins, bottles, and bricks at police. The crowd also set multiple fires and scrawled graffiti on businesses with messages like “Legalize Gay Bars” and “Support Gay Power.” Overwhelmed, four officers were injured, and the police decided to barricade themselves in the bar.
The riots went on for two more nights before the police relented. This action at Stonewall marks a new strategic beginning for the gay rights movement, where they began to stand up to authorities and demand public spaces to gather undisturbed.
Supporting Alternative Sexual and Gender Identities
To become educated allies to our LGBTQ+ friends, let’s familiarize ourselves with a few terms covering sex and gender designations. Sex is a category that is more complicated than simply looking at external anatomy; it also includes the components of internal anatomy, hormones, and chromosomes. So, sex categorization is largely biological.
For most of us, the male's chromosomes are xx, while the female's are xy. However, there are a few intersex classifications based on chromosomal makeup like xo, xxy, xxxy, and xyxy. In fact, 1 in 15,000 people are born intersex. That makes being born intersex common. That’s approximately the same amount of people in the world who have red hair.
Gender is a combination of the behavioral, cultural, psychological traits with which someone typically identifies.
Perhaps our earliest introduction to gender fluidity is through informal designations such as “tom boy.” This label is given to girls who like to participate in more traditionally male-oriented activities like climbing trees, playing with action heroes, and preferring to wear pants rather than dresses. This means gender categorization is based on one’s cultural performance of masculine or feminine identity.
Many American youth grow up feeing like they do not fit into neatly categorized feminine and masculine gender expectations. They feel the binary way of understanding gender performance as either rigidly male or female is too limiting for the myriad identities that they want to express. To these youth, exploration of gender along a spectrum of identities is about freedom of expression and the human right to choose how to be oneself. Here are the most general terms describing gender fluidity:
Queer: A term denoting anyone non-heteronormative, non-gender normative, or both.
Transgender: An umbrella term meaning someone whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transsexual: A transgender person who desires to undergo bodily transition so that their sex will come to match their preferred gender.
This attitude of gender fluidity has led many in the LGBTQ+ community to prefer gender-free pronouns. The most popular of these new pronouns is they/them. This is probably because we already use the pronoun “they” to indicate one person when we don’t know the gender of the person.
For example, if an unknown mail carrier dropped off a package at a residence, many people would use they as a 3d person personal pronoun saying, “Did they bring my package yet?” Consequently, there have been attempts to introduce other pronoun alternatives such as xe/xem, e/em, ze/zir, it/its, and fae/faer.
In the United States recognition of a third gender or gender non-conforming people is relatively recent. However, there are many cultures around the world that have recognized alternate gender identities for centuries. To illustrate, here are a few cultures and the names they have designated to gender non-conforming peoples:
South Indonesia: Bissu
Native American: Two Spirit
Looking at the recent history of the LGBTQ+ movement, its origins, and the new explosion of gender identity designations, we can be proud this momentum toward inclusion into American society continues. As allies to LGBTQ+ folks we should stand in solidarity, and empathetically seek to understand current social issues surrounding sex and gender.
Dr. Jeremy Holland is a sociology professor at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, Conway, SC and writes frequently for Lean to the Left.