Gay Rights and Freedom of Speech

June 17, 2012 Posted by: Julia Clebsch, Park Ranger

"...for not one of us will ever be free until we are all free."

-Audre Lorde, October 14, 1979

Imagine a woman arrested for wearing men's clothes without obviously wearing three pieces of women's attire. Imagine being arrested for dancing too close with someone you care about. Imagine being fired because people suspected that you were lesbian or gay, or because you were "out" at work.

From the social clubs and civil rights societies of the 1950s and 1960s to the lesbian and gay rights groups of the 1970s, people have come together to raise awareness of gay and lesbian issues. These groups have struggled for civil rights by exercising their freedom of speech at places such as National Mall and Memorial Parks.

In the 1950s and 1960s, lesbian and homosexual social and civil rights societies emerged. The Mattachine Society (men) and The Daughters of Bilitis (women) both formed in the 1950s. The Daughters of Bilitis began as a social club that evolved into a political organization focused on civil rights for lesbians, particularly the right not to be persecuted by unfair laws. Mattachine was specifically formed for freedom of speech and civil rights, such as the right to be a homosexual and not be fired from a job because of one's sexual orientation. One of the Mattachine organizers had been fired from a position with the federal government for being gay.

After the Mattachine Society picketed the White House in 1965 and 1966, they created "The Annual Reminder," with the Daughters of Bilitis. "The Annual Reminder" was an annual picket of Philadelphia's Independence Hall each July 4 from 1965 to 1969. The demonstration was an annual reminder of the lack of civil rights for lesbians and homosexuals.

Then on the hot night of Friday, June 27, 1969 in New York City, a spark lit the powder keg when police attempted to raid a gay bar, enforcing state or city laws that restricted most behavior and dress for lesbians and homosexuals. On this night, the patrons of Stonewall Inn, a bar on Christopher Street, fought back for personal rights in a riot that became symbolic for civil rights. Many consider this event the beginning of the gay rights movement. It was as if the lyric from the The Who's 1969 album "Tommy" had exploded: "We're not gonna take it!" At other gay bars, patrons also began to take stands against raids.

Ten years after Stonewall, the first nationally-organized mass of lesbian and gay people took to the streets of Washington D.C., to exercise their First Amendment rights. On October 14, 1979, the parade of approximately 100,000 people passed in front of The Old Post Office Tower as they moved along Pennsylvania Avenue. Participants came in groups, such as Lesbians of Color, and gay and lesbian groups from states and cities, such as Charlotte, NC, and as individuals. There was excitement, as well as serious talk and thoughts. The event included a long list of speakers, including Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsburg, Congressman Ted Weiss, the District of Columbia, and organizations such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). The demonstrators made their presence known and spoke out for basic civil rights.

Since 1979, there have been many similar expressions of free speech around the country. Some demonstrations have been poignant with the inclusion of AIDS, such as the exhibition of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in 1996, or commemorating the tragedy of hate crimes, such as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. Some demonstrations have been celebratory, such as the development of Pride. From the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis to more recent marches and demonstrations, these demonstrations show how individuals coming together can create some change.

Now imagine: a woman in a bar wearing primarily men's clothes - who can tell they are men's clothes? In certain situations, dancing cheek to cheek - with just about whomever you want. Being "out" at work or suspected of being lesbian or gay - there are some laws to protect employees through the work of gay rights activists.

History, Demonstration, Civil Rights, Old Post Office Tower, Pennsylvania Avenue, LGBT

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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