Stonewall at 50. ACLU at 100. A Legacy of Fighting for Justice and Equality.

The ACLU’s first LGBTQ rights case was 33 years before trans women of color led the riot against police brutality and anti-LGBTQ harassment at Stonewall.

We look back at some of the pivotal moments in the ACLU’s work to advance equality and justice for LGBTQ people and the work that remains today.

1936

Defense of The Children’s Hour against censorship for lesbian content

Lillian Hellman’s stage play The Children’s Hour was nearly banned in Boston because of ‘lesbian content.’ The ACLU’s challenge of the attempt to ban the play sparked public conversations about LGBTQ people in public life and led to future victories.

1956

Defense of San Francisco Bay Area gay bar Hazel’s Inn raided by police

A decade before Stonewall, 87 people were arrested for being “lewd and dissolute” at a bar in Pacifica. Local council of the ACLU appeared on behalf of some of the people in court.

ACLU successfully challenges police raid on San Francisco LGBTQ event

The San Francisco Police Department tried to shut down a New Year’s Eve 1964 fundraiser dance for the newly-formed Council on Religion and the Homosexual, one of the nation’s first faith-based LGBTQ rights groups. Police attempted to scare patrons away with floodlights and cameras and multiple “fire inspections” and when event organizers asked to be shown a warrant police responded by arresting them. The ACLU defended the organizers at a trial, where the jury took only 10 minutes to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. The raid, the surrounding publicity, and the subsequent trial led to unprecedented changes: the appointment of a special liaison between the police department and the gay community and the formation of an LGBTQ community hotline to report police abuse.

1967

ACLU opposed Los Angeles ordinance targeting transgender people and LGBTQ clubs

In the early fall of 1967, the Los Angeles police cracked down on the performances of Sir Lady Java, a Black trans woman from Louisiana, at the Redd Foxx Club. Invoking Rule No. 9, which made it illegal for performers to “impersonat[e] by means of costume or dress a person of the opposite sex,” the police threatened to arrest the owner of Redd Foxx if Sir Lady Java ever again got up on the club’s stage. The ACLU threatened to sue over the rule but the club owner was unwilling to be a plaintiff. Sir Lady Java continued to publicly protest the rule and ultimately another lawsuit declared the rule unconstitutional.

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1970

ACLU files the first ever legal challenge to the military ban on gay servicemembers

While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wouldn’t be repealed for another four decades, the ACLU first challenged a ban on gay service members on behalf of Richard Schlegel in Schlegel v. U.S.

First challenge to law restricting marriage for same-sex couples

A same-sex couple in Minnesota, Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell, applied for a marriage license and were denied by county officials. Their challenge, Baker v. Nelson, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but was dismissed “for want of a substantial federal question.”

1989

Supreme Court recognizes trans women in prisons should be protected from sexual assault

On August 21, 1989, Dee Farmer, a Black trans woman, sued prison officials after being raped in a maximum security men’s federal prison. On June 6, 1994, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Farmer v. Brennan that Dee Farmer’s case against the prison could move forward. Tens of thousands of subsequent court decisions have cited Dee’s case and the legal standard it established.

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2009

Federal court rules that discriminating against someone for being trans is sex discrimination

Diane Schroer was a retired Army Colonel who was denied a position with the Library of Congress after her future supervisor learned she is transgender. The victory in Schroer v. Library of Congress has meant that trans people are protected from discrimination in the workplace under federal law.

2013

Supreme Court strikes down the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer shared their lives together as a couple in New York City for 44 years. On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that it was unconstitutional for the federal government, under section three of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” to treat married same-sex couples as though they were unmarried for purposes of over 1,100 federal programs and protections.

2014

Gavin Grimm challenges Gloucester County School Board anti-trans policy

Gavin’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board for adopting an anti-trans bathroom policy helped spark a national conversation about trans people in public life. Now graduated, Gavin still waits for a decision in his case, and for his school to treat him as the man he is.

2015

Supreme Court makes freedom to marry the law of the land

Jim Obergefell spent 22 years of his life with John Arthur. When John died, Jim was handed a death certificate with no surviving spouse listed. His fight to have his marriage recognized struck down state bans on marriage equality across the country when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges.

2016

Federal challenge to North Carolina’s anti-trans “bathroom bill” HB2 filed

The ACLU’s fight, along with Lambda Legal, against anti-trans bathroom policies continues in Carcaño v. Cooper. The notorious law was replaced by HB 142, which continues to discriminate against trans people.

2017

President Obama commutes the sentence of Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning was denied medically necessary care while serving a prison sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Ft. Leavenworth Kansas. Before a court ruled in Manning v. Hagel, her sentence was commuted.

Aimee Stephens challenges her firing for being trans

Aimee Stephens worked in funeral services for nearly three decades when she told her employer that she is a woman. A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that her firing was unlawful sex discrimination. This fall, the Supreme Court will hear Aimee’s case and decide whether or not to roll back critical protections for LGBTQ people.

ACLU challenges transgender military ban

Six transgender service members, as well as six individuals who want the opportunity to serve in the military and are transgender are challenging the Trump administration’s military ban in Stone v. Trump.

2018

Supreme Court upholds Colorado nondiscrimination law in Masterpiece Cakeshop

David Mullins and Charlie Craig were turned away from Masterpiece Cakeshop because they are gay. While ruling for the bakery due to concerns specific to the case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the core principle that businesses open to the public must be open to all in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Wisconsin jury awards $780k to transgender women denied health care coverage

Alina Boyden and Shannon Andrews are two state employees who were denied medically necessary care because they are transgender. A Wisconsin jury sent the state a bill for discriminating against Alina and Shannon.

1,829,689 people in Alaska and Massachusetts voted to uphold transgender nondiscrimination protections

With financial and on-the-ground support from the ACLU, voters in Alaska and Massachusetts rejected transphobia and voted to keep nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

Today

The Trans Justice Campaign was formalized to support our growing number of trans organizers in states across the country and respond to the ongoing attacks on trans lives.

While we’ve struck down anti-LGBTQ adoption and foster care bans across the country, we’re now fighting against a license to discriminate in taxpayer-funded child welfare services.

This October, the Supreme Court will hear three cases that could roll back nondiscrimination protections in federal law. In addition to representing Aimee Stephens, the ACLU is counsel in the case of Don Zarda, who was fired for being gay. No matter what the court decides, we will need the Equality Act to close the gaps in our civil rights laws and ensure explicit and comprehensive legal protections.

Today, we must commit ourselves to a United States where trans and non-binary people can belong. We must not erode the wins of the past by allowing religion to be used as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people. We must recognize that anti-trans rhetoric from politicians fuels violence against trans women.

For the ACLU, and for LGBTQ people throughout the United States: Pride is still protest.

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