By Bryce Vradenburg
With President Obama including the Stonewall riots of 1969 in the list of civil rights events that have changed the social fabric of the United States during his inaugural address, it is interesting to note how different the manner and ways in which it has become a defining moment in American history.
The women’s right’s movement began in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, and the Equal Rights Amendment for full equality for woman has not been ratified by the 38 states needed to make it an amendment to the Constitution. The issue still has not been resolved 160 years after the initial attempt for equality for women. The Civil Rights movement which began with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 didn’t get a public face to the issue until the Selma to Montgomery Alabama March lead by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965. Today there are still many unfilled promises that have not been addressed regarding both of those movements.
These civil rights movements depended on the force of federal government intervention to help promote and create social change. The forces that have shaped and created the gay rights movement have used a ground-up approach to creating change, not a government-down approach. In a short period of time historically, from 1965 to 2013, the gay rights advocates have accomplished a social change that is nearly unparalleled in American history. In less than 50 years, a small group of citizens, according to some studies at approximately 10 –15 percent of the population, have managed to make voices heard and created social change throughout much of American life, from the work place to religious organizations, the military establishment and to everyday life in communities throughout the United States.
How did a small number of individuals from a subculture manage to create such a monumental change in the American lifestyle? The leaders of this movement chose to work toward acceptance and tolerance within the local communities where they lived and worked. There were no attempts to get laws passed in the Congress to force a top-down decision on the entire population of the United States. Very few attempts were made to get local and state governments to enact laws that were specific to the rights of gays and lesbians.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s created an awareness of an illness that disproportionately affected the gay community. In many areas of the country the gay community was able to gather the support of many different groups in their communities to help with providing services for those who were dying. This contact with the social service groups and in some cases the religious communities helped to develop an awareness and appreciation for the gay community that the general population did not have.
The gay community was also able to participate in the life of their communities in the form of gay choruses and anti-bullying programs that attracted the heterosexual community to have opportunities to meet and interact with members of the gay community. As those relationships grew, the change in attitudes toward the gay/lesbian population began to change.
Rather than attempt to get the federal government to enact legislation that would protect members of the GLBT community that would enforce changes in communities that were not ready for change, the gay and lesbian community began to work with the state governments through legislators and ballot measures that would allow gay community to marry and or have civil unions. In some states those marriages and unions are now law. While there are still many issues and areas that the gay community has to gain acceptance in, the changes in attitudes in the general population has begun to infiltrate into the everyday lives of the population.
Another significant factor that has also helped to change the attitudes of the general population is the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the television programs seen by most Americans on a weekly basis. Shows like “Will and Grace,” “Modern Family” and “The New Normal” have helped to make gays a visible and accepted culture in the U.S.
President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the United States Armed Forces opened the door to a discussion of the fact that there has always been a presence of gays and lesbians in the military. President Obama’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and opening the military to all gays and lesbians who want to serve openly in the armed forces has proved to be a non-issue. Much of that can be attributed to the manner in which the gay community has worked within their communities to normalize being gay and lesbian as a part of the diversity of our society.
President Obama’s background as a community organizer, has served the gay community well. He understands the struggles of minority populations to gain acceptance and support from the general population. His willingness to acknowledge the importance of the Stonewall riots and the contributions that the gay/lesbian community has made to the social life of the American culture, is a step in the right direction. While there are many areas where full acceptance of gays and lesbians is lacking, the president’s acknowledgment of their existence and accomplishments is welcome.
Bryce Vradenburg of Marysville is a retired teacher, and Doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology .