LGBTQ+ Older Adult Experience: A Timeline
LGBTQ+ OA came of age at a time when discrimination against LGBTQ+ people was deeply rooted in virtually every aspect of American life. They persistently survived intense homophobia and transphobia fueled by fear and misinformation about same-sex attraction and gender variance. This fear was deeply embedded in major institutions including (but not limited to) law and medicine.
The timeline below highlights major events that directly impacted the lives of LGBTQ+ people between 1930 and the present day.
1930s – 1950s
The oldest living LGBTQ+ people grew up during the Great Depression. As young adults, many enlisted in the military or otherwise supported America's WWII efforts despite repressive Department of Defense policies banning LGBTQ+ people from service. After the war, many LGBTQ+ people migrated to major cities where increased anonymity allowed LGBTQ+ communities to form secretly. Many bars and other meeting spots were subject to sudden police raids.
The law treated same-sex intimacy and gender variance as deviant and unlawful. In 1948, Congress passed a law "for the treatment of sexual psychopaths" for the District of Columbia and the majority of states followed suit. Even individuals engaging in same-sex intimacy in the privacy of their homes were subject to criminal penalties. These laws not only enabled the arrest and criminal prosecution of LGBTQ+ people but also branded them as mentally ill.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Pathologized
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially classified “homosexuality" as a mental disorder in 1952, using the term “sociopathic personality disturbance," to describe same-sex attraction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The term “transvestism" classified transgender and gender non-conforming people as “sexual deviants." Extreme medical interventions included involuntary hospitalization, electroshock therapy, aversion conditioning, and lobotomy.
The Lavender Scare
In the early days of The Cold War, the Truman Administration endorsed unsubstantiated rumors that “moral perverts" had infiltrated the U.S. State Department and posed a threat to national security.
In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10540, banning LGBTQ+ people from federal employment. In what became known as The Lavender Scare, thousands of federal workers endured bullying, public humiliation, interrogations, and forced resignations based on known or suspected “homosexual conduct."
A Brewing Liberation Movement
During this repressive period, LGBTQ+ Silent Gens formed underground community organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, whose members published ONE Magazine, dedicated to sharing “information on homosexuality and the furtherance of homosexual rights." In One, Inc. v. Oleson (1958), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) extended free speech protections to the magazine and its content.
1960s – 1970s
Although the Stonewall Uprising (1969) is the most well-known LGBTQ+ civil rights demonstration, it was by no means the first uprising against police brutality targeted at LGBTQ+ communities. Other notable protests include:
- Cooper Do-nuts (1959)
- Black Nite Brawl (1961)
- Compton's Cafeteria Raid (1966)
- Black Cat Raids (1967)
While Stonewall spurred some Silent Gens and Boomers to openly participate in the growing LGBTQ+ rights movement, many individuals remained closeted due to fear of rejection from family, rampant discrimination in the workplace and public life, and the ever-present threat of violence.
The first same-sex marriage case reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1972. In Baker v. Nelson, a County Clerk denied a marriage license to a gay couple based on a Minnesota law restricting marriage licenses to heterosexual couples. The appeal eventually reached SCOTUS, which dismissed the case due to lack of a “substantial federal question."
In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly LGBTQ+ person ever elected to a U.S. public office. She served on the City Council in Ann Arbor, Michigan for two years. Elaine Noble, the first openly LGBTQ+ person elected to a statewide office, served in the Massachusetts General Assembly from 1975-1979.
Harvey Milk, the first openly LGBTQ+ person to serve as a California elected official, introduced a successful bill outlawing sexual orientation-based discrimination in San Francisco. Later that year, Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by a disgruntled former Supervisor.
On October 14, 1979, more than 75,000 LGBTQ+ people and their allies gathered for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
1980s – 1990s
LGBTQ+ Silent Gens and Boomers lived through the excruciating first years of the AIDS crisis, referred to in the early 1980s as “gay-related immune deficiency" by health officials and the media. They became primary caregivers for their dying partners and friends when healthcare workers refused treatment to patients for the “gay plague."
Disease research, education, and prevention efforts remained sparse during these years, even after it became clear that HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) could also be spread through heterosexual contact and blood transfusions.
In 1987, activists formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in response to the federal government's slow response to approve life-saving pharmaceutical treatments. Later that year, 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. to demand more attention to the AIDS crisis and to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
In 1990, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act to provide for HIV prevention, testing, and biomedical research as well as for assistance for people living with HIV/AIDS.
1993 marked the largest LGBTQ+ March on Washington, D.C. to date – with an estimated 700,000 people gathering at the National Mall to demand LGBTQ+ equality in all areas of public life and more funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, research, and patient care.
Hate Fueled Violence
Persistent LGBTQ+-based discrimination and harassment resulted in fatal consequences. Transgender and gender non-conforming people experienced the highest rates of deadly violence during this period (as they do today), but their stories were not widely circulated until decades after their deaths.
In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to collect data on hate-based crimes, the first federal law to specifically include sexual orientation.
The brutal murders of Brandon Teena (1993) and Matthew Shepard (1998) brought international attention to violence against LGBTQ+ people. The savage killing of Rita Hester sparked the first Transgender Day of Remembrance, held annually since 1999.
LGBTQ+ Discrimination and the Law
In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), SCOTUS upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause did not extend the “right to privacy" to consenting adults engaged in private, same-sex intimate contact.
In 1993, President Clinton introduced the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, which allowed LGBTQ+ people to serve in the military as long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation. Out servicemembers received "other than honorable" discharges, blocking them from receiving VA benefits like medical care, pensions, home loans, and other benefits given to honorably discharged veterans.
In a rare victory for LGBTQ+ rights in 1996, SCOTUS ruled that a Colorado constitutional amendment preventing state municipalities from passing laws to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause in Romer v. Evans.
But later that year, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA):
- Defining “marriage" as only between one man and one woman,
- Defining “spouse" as only a “person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife," and
- Permitting states to deny recognition of same-sex marriages from out of state.
Over the next ten years, voters in 27 states approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
2000 – Present Day
With some setbacks, the next two decades marked major progress toward legal equality for same-sex relationships and protecting LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.
State Laws: Civil Unions and Marriage
- In 2000, Vermont became the first state to allow same-sex civil unions, granting essentially the same benefits and rights given to married couples in that state.
- Massachusetts became the first state to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2003.
- In 2008, Connecticut became the second state to allow same-sex marriage.
- The Supreme Court of California also granted same-sex couples the right to marry. But later that same year, California voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage called Proposition 8. Same-sex marriage in California was ultimately declared legal by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 (see below).
Supreme Court Rulings
- In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), SCOTUS ruled that enforcing a New Jersey law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public spaces would violate the Boy Scouts' First Amendment right of “expressive association," allowing them to remove an Assistant Scoutmaster who came out publicly as gay.
- In 2003, SCOTUS overruled Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, ruling that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. In the Court's majority opinion, Justice Kennedy noted: "[Bowers'] reasoning and holding have been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights . . . other nations have taken action consistent with an affirmation of the protected right of homosexual adults to engage in intimate, consensual conduct."
- On June 26, 2013, Hollingsworth v. Perry re-legalized same-sex marriage in California. That same day, the Court released its opinion in United States v. Windsor, holding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) “unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment."
- On June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges overruled Baker, holding that under the Fourteenth Amendment, states must not only permit same-sex couples to marry but also recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. This historic decision legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S.
- Three years after Obergefell, SCOTUS found in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018) that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause when it required a bakery to provide wedding cakes to same-sex couples in spite of the bakery owner's religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Masterpiece provides a template for future cases where courts must weigh the free exercise of religion alongside the State's power to enforce laws.
- In 2020, Bostock v. Clayton County, SCOTUS ruled that discrimination based on someone's sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in employment is unlawful based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex," and the Court found that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex." Bostock extends employment discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ people.
- In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, extending federal hate crime protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Congress repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2010, allowing LGBTQ+ service members to serve openly in the military.
- On December 13, 2022, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) accomplishing two main objectives. First, RFMA repeals DOMA, which is significant in the event that Windsor is overturned. Second, RFMA requires every state to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages granted legally in other states.
Although much progress towards LGBTQ+ equality has been made over the last decade in particular, LGBTQ+OA are more likely to be estranged from their families of origin than older adults who identify as heterosexual and cisgender in part because they came of age during a time when being LGBTQ+ was criminalized and pathologized.
Additionally, same-sex marriage equality does not directly address other areas of life affected by anti-LGBTQ+ bias, like discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and health care. Families of choice are especially vulnerable when it comes to tough decisions connected to caregiving for LGBTQ+ OA.
Unique People, Unique Struggles
Historical movements have affected people differently depending on their race, gender, sexuality, etc. And they continue to face unique struggles today.
BIPOC and TGNC Older Adults
Black or Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), and transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people have historically experienced added layers of discrimination both outside and inside LGBTQ+ communities. Even though BIPOC and TGNC people led community resistance to police violence in events like Black Nite Brawl (1961), Compton's Cafeteria Raid (1966), Black Cat Raids (1967), and the Stonewall Uprising (1969), BIPOC and TGNC contributions to the LGBTQ+ rights movement have only recently gained recognition.
Additionally, national data reporting systems consistently reflect that BIPOC report lower levels of education, household income, social support, and affirmation of their LGBTQ+ identities compared to their non-Hispanic, white LGBTQ+ counterparts.
Bisexual Older Adults
Bisexual older adults have a unique experience with discrimination as well. Historically, people who identify as “gay" or “lesbian" will assume that bisexual people are “hiding" or “passing" as heterosexual. Meanwhile, heterosexuals often assume that bisexuals are fully immersed and accepted within the “gay" community. Although these views are shifting as younger generations come of age, most bisexual older adults do not feel accepted and understood in gay and lesbian spaces or in heterosexual spaces.