Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author


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Timeline of Gay Rights Advances

Mar 22, 2013

And Key Historical Events Related to Sexuality and Identity

As with other cultural identities that I discuss in Chapter 8 of my textbook, Communication in the Real World, notions of sexuality have been socially constructed in different ways throughout human history.

Sexual orientation didn’t come into being as an identity category until the late 1800s. Before that, sexuality was viewed in more physical or spiritual senses that were largely separate from a person’s identity. The table below traces some of the developments relevant to sexuality, identity, and communication that show how this cultural identity has been constructed over the past 3,000 years.

This table is especially relevant given that the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments next week in two key cases related to gay rights. It's been ten years since the Court heard a significant case related to gay rights, so even though gay rights have been in the news in a lot of other areas, a case at this level is a rare occurrence.

1400 BCE–565 BCE

During the Greek and Roman era, there was no conception of sexual orientation as an identity. However, sexual relationships between men were accepted for some members of society. Also at this time, Greek poet Sappho wrote about love between women.


Byzantine Emperor Justinian makes adultery and same-sex sexual acts punishable by death.


Civil law in England indicates the death penalty can be given for same-sex sexual acts between men.


Napoleonic Code in France removes all penalties for any sexual activity between consenting adults.


England removes death penalty for same-sex sexual acts.


The term heterosexuality was coined to refer a form of “sexual perversion” in which people engage in sexual acts for reasons other than reproduction.


Dr. Magnus Hirschfield founds the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin. It is the first gay rights organization.


Doctors “treat” homosexuality with castration, electro-shock therapy, and incarceration in mental hospitals.


The first gay rights organization in the United States, the Chicago Society for Human Rights, is founded.


Tens of thousands of gay men are sent to concentration camps under Nazi rule. The prisoners are forced to wear pink triangles on their uniforms. The pink triangle was later reclaimed as a symbol of gay rights.


The terms heterosexuality and homosexuality appear in Webster’s dictionary with generally the same meaning the terms hold today.


American sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s research reveals that more people than thought have engaged in same-sex sexual activity. His research highlights the existence of bisexuality.


On June 27, patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back as police raided the bar (a common practice used by police at the time to harass gay people). “The Stonewall Riots” as it came to be called was led by gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons of the bar, many of whom were working class and/or people of color.


The American Psychiatric Association removes its reference to homosexuality as a mental illness.


The Vermont Supreme Court rules that the state must provide legal rights to same-sex couples. In 2000, Vermont becomes the first state to offer same-sex couples civil unions.


The US Supreme Court rules that Texas’s sodomy law is unconstitutional, which effectively decriminalizes consensual same-sex relations.


The US military policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is repealed, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Adapted from Brenda J. Allen, Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2011), 117–25; and University of Denver Queer and Ally Commission, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer History,” Queer Ally Training Manual, 2008.