20 Years of Pride: The Evolution of LGBT Rights
By Alexandra Townsend
In the past 20 years, LGBT rights have gone from being a vaguely taboo topic to being a subject that is frequently spoken about in public with respect and nuance. For some, the most obvious change from the 1990s is that the world now talks about “LGBT rights” instead of “gay rights.” Other orientations, such as bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality, have become more widely visible. However, it is the transgender, gender queer, and agender communities that have really changed the face of LGBT politics.
“Demand is growing at a rapid pace for support around issues related to gender-identity,” said Tom Bourdon, executive director of the Greater Boston PFLAG (gbpflag.org), an LGBT support organization. “More and more young people are coming out as queer, genderqueer, gender fluid, bigender, transgender, and the list goes on. Because there is more awareness around LGBTQ issues — and possibly even acceptance of the fact that gender is more complex than simply male/female — we’re seeing lots more people ‘come out’ in terms of their gender identity. There is a lot of work to be done in this area.”
Visibility in general is an area in which the LGBT community has made great strides. Louis Mitchell, a minister and transgender father in Springfield, pointed out: “Twenty years ago, families comprised of people who would now identify as LGBTQ were more likely to be hidden, closeted, or known only to their closest family/friends. Terms like ‘trans’ and ‘queer’ weren’t in common use…they would have been ‘out of compliance’ to even speak of their medical transition outside of a medical environment. While there have always been these families, many would have needed to be non-disclosed to preserve their jobs, children, and community support.”
The most obvious legal victory for America’s LGBT population is undoubtedly the recent nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage. Yet while this legislation is a great step forward, many point out that equal access to marriage licenses is not the same thing as equally respected marriages.
“[T]here are many things that laws can’t solve,” noted Ellen Kah, Human Rights Campaign Children, Youth, and Families director (hrc.org). “For example, our families are still viewed by many as ‘less than,’ and we are not always welcome and embraced. We get ‘looks’ when we are out in public with our kids. We may be shunned at the PTA meeting or at the soccer game, or we may be verbally harassed while walking down the street with our children.”
At the same time, it is now easier than ever for LGBT couples to have children.
“Reproductively, the last 20 years have shown an increase in LGBT couples choosing to have children,” explained Beverly Prince-Sayward, assistant editor for Gay Parent magazine. “Some of this has been because of the advancements in reproductive technology, like artificial insemination, IVF, and surrogacy, while others have taken advantage of state adoption laws becoming more favorable to gay couples. Just recently, Mississippi’s ban on same-sex adoption was struck down, making it now legal in all 50 states for gay couples to adopt.”
Unfortunately, there have still been painful examples of discrimination both with new laws and through creative interpretations of existing laws. Recently, North Carolina passed a law banning transgender people from using the public bathrooms that align with their gender identities. There has also been visible discrimination from individuals and business that cite religious freedom as a valid ground to discriminate against the LGBT community.
Prince-Sayward hopes that this particular tactic will soon be in the past: “We see this in the new discrimination laws being created, whereby it is legal to refuse service to people merely because we are LGBT. This may be seen in not selling us items, refusing us housing, denying us jobs, not accepting our children in their programs, and so forth. Hopefully these laws, disguised as ‘religious freedom,’ will be stuck down soon as the civil rights violations that they are.”
Of course, these are legal and social battles that need to be fought going forward, but over the past two decades the LGBT community has also started to work on their internal progress. Traditionally gay white men have received the most attention in the world. Now LGBT activists are recognizing the fact that they are a group made up of many different kinds of people.
“Challenges [within the LGBT community] aren’t universal. If one is disabled, a veteran, of color, an elder, a youth, not a U.S. citizen, in custody, in an underground economy, utilizes government assistance — the primary challenges will be very different!” Mitchell explained. “One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is ‘trickle down’ political ethos of what has become the movement. It has largely focused on assimilationist, hetero-normative patterns to attempt to fit into the dominant culture, leaving behind the majority of the community who don’t, or don’t wish to, fit into that narrative.”
As with any social movement, there is always more work to be done. A lot of progress has been made since the 1990s, even though at the same time it can be discouraging to see how much progress still needs to be made. For activists like PFLAG’s Bourdon, one of the greatest achievements is seeing all the people who now proudly participate in LGBT culture.
“We are so much more visible, and there is a lot of pride,” he says. “Whether it’s parents with LGBTQ children or LGBTQ parents with their own children, we are everywhere, integrated into society, and it’s a beautiful thing. There is now so much more understanding that who we are or who we love might seem ‘different’ to some, but, ultimately, we are all people who share just as many similarities as we do differences, both within and outside of the LGBTQ community.”
Editor’s Note: Just before this issue went to press, 49 people were murdered in an Orlando nightclub. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history. It was also the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. We will be addressing the after-effects of this attack on LGBT youth and families in a future issue.