September 1, 2010
While the ACLU has long worked in defense of lesbian and gay equality, the organization first formally endorsed the principles of gay rights in 1966, and a few years later created the Sexual Privacy Project to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1986, the ACLU established the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, which has since become a major force in the ongoing battle for equality.
In the words of founding director Nan Hunter, June 1986 was 'a hell of a month to start a gay rights project.' Within 30 days of its formation, the Supreme Court had ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that Georgia's sodomy law criminalizing consensual sex was constitutional when applied to same-sex relationships. The ruling was a devastating blow to the burgeoning gay rights movement. But advocates understood that forging a path to equality would involve many setbacks alongside cherished victories. They were in it for the long haul.
For the next decade, the ACLU and its allies put increasing emphasis on passing laws against sexual orientation discrimination. Starting in the late 1980s, the other side fought back with constitutional amendments which took away the power of state legislatures and city councils to pass civil rights laws. The point was not to defeat proposed discrimination laws, but to prevent them from ever being taken up. They succeeded in Colorado with Amendment 2, which would have prevented lesbians and gay men from being protected by the state's civil rights laws. When the Supreme Court struck it down in 1996 as a violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law, the movement had its first major Supreme Court win in Romer v. Evans (a joint ACLU/Lambda Legal case). The success of the ACLU and its coalition partners in litigating this case largely put an end to nationwide efforts to pass such measures.