10 Supreme Court Cases That Changed Everything for the LGBTQ+ Community
By Vaishali Gaur, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Bridget Molitor, J.D. | Last reviewed April 06, 2023
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LGBTQ+ rights have been debated before the Supreme Court since 1958, with several landmark decisions made just in the last decade. This article examines ten of the most important cases for the LGBTQ+ community.
The Supreme Court of the United States has played a significant role in the evolution of LGBTQ+ rights over the past 70 years. In the last decade alone, the federal constitutional right to marry has been extended to same-sex couples, and LGBTQ+ people have gained the federal constitutional right to protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, the road to gaining these freedoms has not been without its challenges. LGBTQ+ rights have been debated in the U.S. Supreme Court since 1958 and are still being debated today.
This article will take you through 10 Supreme Court cases that have changed the future for LGBTQ+ people, ranging from setbacks to breakthrough decisions.
1. SCOTUS's First LGBTQ+ Rights Case: One, Inc. v. Olesen (1958)
Decided in 1958, One, Inc. v. Olesen was the first Supreme Court case concerning homosexuality as well as free speech rights with regard to homosexuality.
In 1954, Los Angeles Postmaster Otto Olesen declared an issue of ONE: The Homosexual Magazine “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy" and therefore couldn't be mailed. After the matter was brought to court by One, Inc., the federal district court, as well as the federal appellate court, ruled that homosexuals should not be “recognized as a segment of our people and be accorded special privilege."
In 1957, the Supreme Court issued a short decision reversing the federal appellate court's decision without hearing oral arguments. In the short decision, the Supreme Court cited Roth v. United States, which created a test to determine what constituted obscene material. Roth determined that Congress could ban material considered “utterly without redeeming social importance," implying that material concerning homosexuals was of redeeming social importance.
2. SCOTUS's First Same-Sex Marriage Case: Baker v. Nelson (1972)
In 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell were the first same-sex couple in the U.S. to apply for a marriage license. They submitted their application to Gerald R. Nelson, a clerk of Hennepin County District Court in Minnesota, and were denied. The couple took their fight to the courts.
On October 15, 1971, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a statute restricting marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples was not unconstitutional. The Minnesota Supreme Court focused its decision on the notion that procreation and childrearing are essential for a marriage.
Meanwhile, Baker and McConnell reapplied for a marriage license in Blue Earth County, Minnesota, and were able to get married on September 3, 1971.
However, this victory proved to be a double-edged sword as it was also the reason the U.S. Supreme Court chose to dismiss the case. Because the couple had obtained a marriage license in the time it took the case to be heard, Hennepin County argued that the case was moot, and the Supreme Court subsequently dismissed the case due to there being no “substantial federal question."
3. SCOTUS's First Same-Sex Sex Case: Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)
In 1982, a Georgia police officer entered Michael Hardwick's home to serve an invalid warrant and found Hardwick and another man participating in consensual oral sex. The officer arrested both men under an anti-sodomy law that criminalized consensual oral and anal sex conducted in private between same-sex adults.
Hardwick sued Georgia attorney general Michael Bowers, arguing that the state's sodomy law was invalid.
After the federal district court dismissed the case, Hardwick appealed, and the federal appellate court reversed the lower court ruling and found that the anti-sodomy statute infringed on Hardwick's constitutional rights.
In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy law and ruled that the right to privacy granted under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment didn't extend to private consensual same-sex sex.
4. SCOTUS's Landmark LGB Protected Class Case: Romer v. Evans (1996)
In 1992, Colorado voters approved an amendment (via initiative) that tried to prohibit the recognition of homosexuals and bisexuals as a protected class by barring state municipalities from creating anti-discrimination laws to protect homosexual and bisexual people.
Richard G. Evans, a gay man who worked for the Denver mayor, as well as others, filed a suit against Colorado governor Roy Romer, the Colorado Attorney General, and the State of Colorado to enjoin the amendment. The State's argument focused on the idea that the amendment did “no more than deny homosexuals special rights."
The trial court issued an injunction, and the Colorado Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the fundamental right of homosexuals and bisexuals to “participate equally in the political process."
In 1996, the Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause because it targeted a specific group of people seemingly based on animosity alone. Justice Kennedy wrote that the amendment went “well beyond merely depriving [homosexuals and bisexuals] of special rights" and imposed “a broad disability" by prohibiting them from seeking “specific legal protection from injuries caused by discrimination in a wide range of public and private transactions."
5. SCOTUS's Notable Freedom of Association and Same-Sex Discrimination Case: Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000)
In 1990, the Boy Scouts of America expelled Assistant Scoutmaster and Eagle Scout James Dale after a newspaper published an interview with Dale in which he stated he was gay.
In 1992, Dale filed suit in New Jersey Superior Court, which found for Dale and held that the Boy Scouts of America violated New Jersey's anti-discrimination law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public spaces. Upon appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the decision.
However, in 2000, the Supreme Court reversed the holding and ruled that forcing the Boy Scouts of America to accept Dale back would violate their First Amendment right to freedom of association because Dale's presence would “significantly burden the organization's right to oppose or disfavor homosexual conduct."
6. SCOTUS's Landmark Same-Sex Sex Case: Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
In 1998, Texas police reported to the apartment of John Geddes Lawrence Jr. upon receiving a call about a weapons disturbance in the apartment. Upon arrival, police found Lawrence and Tyron Garner engaging in sexual intercourse and charged both men under Texas's anti-sodomy law. At the time, Texas's anti-sodomy law made consensual same-sex “intimate sexual conduct" a misdemeanor.
In 2000, the Texas Court of Appeals held that the anti-sodomy law was unconstitutional. However, upon an appeal asking the court to rehear the case en banc, the court reversed and upheld the anti-sodomy law. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Lawrence's request for appeal, Lawrence appealed to the Supreme Court.
In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, effectively overruling Bowers and lifting any ban on sex between people of the same sex.
Justice Kenney reaffirmed the right to privacy by writing that Texas's anti-sodomy law “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the individual's personal and private life" and that Texas “cannot demean [homosexuals'] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."
7. SCOTUS's Landmark Step Toward Federal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage: United States v. Windsor (2013)
In 2008, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a same-sex couple, moved from Canada — where they were legally married — to New York, a state that recognized their marriage. However, same-sex marriage was not recognized by the federal government at this time.
After Spyer passed away in 2009 and left her estate to Windsor, Windsor attempted to claim a federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses and was blocked by the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."
In 2010, Windsor filed suit in federal district court, where it was ruled that Section 3 was unconstitutional and violated the equal protections provided under the Fifth Amendment. The decision was appealed to the federal appellate court and was affirmed in 2012.
However, a petition was filed to have the Supreme Court review the case before the federal appellate court made its decision. The Supreme Court agreed to review.
In 2013, the Supreme Court found Section 3 to be unconstitutional and held that it violated due process and equal protection principles. Justice Kennedy wrote, “DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency." The federal government was ordered to refund Windsor's taxes.
8. SCOTUS's Landmark Same-Sex Marriage Case: Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
Obergefell v. Hodges was a product of the consolidation of six lower court cases involving over a dozen same-sex couples, including James Obergefell and John Arthur, and the right to marry. In 2014, the decisions of all six cases in federal district courts were appealed to the federal appellate court. The appeals court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage were not unconstitutional. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court the same year.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that all states are required to grant marriages to same-sex couples as well as recognize marriages of same-sex couples in different states. Effectively overruling Baker, the Supreme Court held that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry under the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Although the right for same-sex couples to marry has not been codified, the right to federal and state recognition of legally-granted same-sex marriages has been codified in the Respect for Marriage Act of 2022.
9. SCOTUS's Notable Free Exercise of Religion and Same-Sex Discrimination Case: Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. V. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018)
In 2012, Colorado baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins. Phillips based his refusal on his religious beliefs.
The couple filed a complaint against Masterpiece Cakeshop with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. That Act prohibited public accommodations from discriminating against customers on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found in favor of the couple, ruling that requiring Phillips to bake a cake for a same-sex couple would not violate his right to free speech or free exercise of religion. Masterpiece Cakeshop was ordered to:
- Provide cakes to same-sex couples,
- Change company policies and provide staff training to align with the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, and
- Provide quarterly reports for 2 years showing what steps it has taken to comply with the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
Masterpiece Cakeshop appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, where the Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision was affirmed in 2015.
In 2018, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision and held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court found that the lower courts did not show religious neutrality in their deliberation of the case and that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed “clear and impermissible hostility toward [Phillips's] sincere religious beliefs."
10. SCOTUS's Landmark Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination Case: Bostock v. Clayton County (2020)
In 2013, Gerald Bostock, an employee of Clayton County in Georgia, was fired due to alleged misspent funds. However, Bostock believed his firing was because of his sexual orientation, as Bostock had recently joined a gay softball league and advertised it at work to seek volunteers to join.
In 2016, Bostock sued Clayton County in federal district court for workplace discrimination. Upon a request for dismissal of the claim by Clayton County, the court dismissed the case by relying on Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, which held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not provide protections against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Upon appeal, the federal appellate court affirmed the federal district court's decision in 2018. This created a circuit split in the federal appellate courts due to conflicting rulings regarding the question of whether Title VII could be interpreted to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Subsequently, Bostock filed a petition with the Supreme Court, where his case was combined with one of the circuit split cases, Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. In that case, a gay employee — Donald Zarda — filed a suit against his employer — skydiving company Altitude Express — for employment discrimination.
On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court found that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a type of discrimination on the basis of sex under Title VII and is therefore prohibited. Justice Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion that “[i]t is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex."
Following Bostock, President Biden signed Executive Order 13988 on his first day in office on January 20, 2021. The Executive Order directed all federal agencies to extend protections against discrimination on the basis of sex under existing laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Getting Legal Help
If you need guidance in navigating these laws, an attorney can help. A civil rights lawyer or constitutional lawyer can explain the protections provided through these cases, along with any LGBTQ+ protections your state may provide.