Many issues currently face the global LGBTQIA+ community, all of which are rooted in systems and histories of discrimination. It remains a criminal offense in 70 countries to openly identify within the LGBTQIA+ community. In 12 of these, it is punishable by death. Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is legal in 34 countries, the first of which to legalize it was the Netherlands in 2001. No matter the country, however, LGBTQIA+ individuals worldwide face discrimination and violence in the labor market, the healthcare system, housing, schooling, organized religion, the criminal justice system, on the streets, and within their own families based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The acronym LGBTQIA+ has developed over the last few decades, evolving from simply "the gay community" to LGBT to the longer acronym it is today. While LGBT, LGBTQ, and LGBTQ+ are still used today, LGBTQIA+ is considered a more inclusive term. But what does it stand for? Let's break it down L: Lesbian G: Gay B: Bisexual T: Transgender Q: Queer, Questioning I: Intersex A: Asexual, Aromantic +: Every other identity on the gender and sexuality spectrum (i.e., non-binary, Two-Spirit, pansexual, etc.) There are many different labels that members of the LGBTQIA+ community use to identify. Some members use multiple labels, and some prefer not to use labels at all. On this page, we use LGBTQIA+ unless citing a study, in which case we use the language used by that study. For a more detailed list of sexual identities and their definitions, see https://www.healthline.com/health/different-types-of-sexuality For a more detailed list of gender identities and their definitions, see https://www.healthline.com/health/different-genders#a-d
The LGBTQIA+ rights movement dates back to 1924, when the first LGBTQIA+ rights organization in the US, the Society for Human Rights, was founded by Henry Gerber.⁷ Through this, he wrote his newsletter, Friendship and Freedom, the first US gay interest newsletter, inspiring many other gay rights groups and writing. Lesbian experiences were documented, such as in Radcliffe Hall’s controversial novel, The Well of Loneliness.
While there were more outspoken LGBTQIA+ rights organizations, serious prejudice and persecution continued. During World War II, the Nazis kept gay men in concentration camps, branding them with the pink triangle badge, also given to sexual predators.¹¹ This was because they were seen as “undesirables” and an enemy of the Aryan race. During the war, around 100,000 gay men were arrested, with approximately 5,000-15,000 men put into concentration camps. Even after the war, anti-gay legislation continued, with the anti-gay laws in Germany lasting until 1994 and many prejudice and legislation against members of the LGBTQIA+ community persisting in the United States.
In 1950, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Foundation, another gay rights group, coining the term homophile.⁷ Homophile was a term used to describe gay people, focusing more on community building and other parts of their identity instead of emphasizing sexual activity. Through this foundation, he sought to improve the lives of members of the LGBTQIA+ community through discussion groups and other community-building activities.
The Daughters of Bilitis were created as the first lesbian rights group in the US and another homophile organization.¹⁵ While it seemed there was more support for the LGBTQIA+ community at this time, there were severe matters of discrimination and persecution.
In 1952, the American psychiatric association called homosexuality a mental disorder. Dwight D. Eisenhower passed a bill banning people guilty of “sexual perversion” from federal jobs, which directly targeted members of the LGBTQIA+ community.⁷ Fueled by fear, many believed that LGBTQIA+ people were a threat to national security because they had “weak moral characters”. These harmful ideologies led to the Lavender Scare, a nationwide moral panic about LGBTQIA+ people in the U.S. government, which led to the removal of about 5,000-10,000 federal employees after intense interrogation about their private sexual lives.⁶ LGBTQIA+ people were also subjected to harassment and persecution and were not allowed to be served alcohol in public.
In 1966, the Mattachine Society organized the Sip-In protests, where they would walk into bars and restaurants, hand over a statement announcing they were gay, and would wait to be turned away so they could then sue for discrimination.³ While the first couple of establishments the group visited did not turn them away, when they went to a bar called Julius’, they were immediately denied service, allowing the society to sue bars that refused service to gay people.
This resulted in the 1967 supreme court decision to allow members of the LGBTQIA+ community service, so long as there was no apparent reason to turn away service.⁵ However, this decision did not do much, with members of the LGBTQIA+ continuously denied service and gay bars raided, eventually culminating in the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
In the 1960s, soliciting same-sex relations was illegal in New York City. LGBTQIA+ people would flock to gay bars and clubs, many of which were run by the mafia, who would serve clients without a liquor license, meaning they were not subject to the liquor laws.
Police harassment continued at this time, with regular raids of gay bars. Stonewall Inn was a gay bar operated by the Genovese crime family, who would usually be tipped off by various corrupt cops connected to the crime family before any incoming charges on the establishment. On June 28, 1969, the bar was raided without prior warning, and the police arrested 13 people, including employees.⁸ Many were detained for cross-dressing, based on the three-article law, a law disputed by historians which stated that you must have three pieces of your assigned gender’s attire to avoid being arrested for cross-dressing.¹³
When fellow patrons and neighbors noticed the manhandling and violent actions of the cops, many got involved, leading to a full-blown riot lasting five more days. Stonewall Inn was a significant step in the gay rights movement, with the rest of the nation finally noticing the immense inequalities and leading to the founding of more human rights groups.
A year after Stonewall, activists decided they needed to be more vocal. They held the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, the first New York City Pride Parade.⁹ This is where the term “pride” was coined. There were many proposals for the slogan of the parade to be “Gay power”, but one member of the planning committee stated that gay individuals didn’t have power to make change but did have pride. Cities like Chicago and LA also held pride parades, with Chicago’s being one day before the New York City parade.⁹
These marches, equal parts celebration, and protest, helped to spark a movement of gay pride and eventually led to former President Bill Clinton announcing June as pride month over thirty years later.
After Stonewall, there were many political victories for the LGBTQIA+ community. In 1977, the Supreme Court allowed transgender woman Renée Richards to play at the US Open as a woman. Additionally, several community members won public office, including Kathy Kozachenko, the first openly gay American elected to public office, and Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was sadly later assassinated.⁷
However, Lesbians were still excluded from many feminist spaces. The First Congress to Unite Women purposely excluded Lesbian organizations, leading to the Lavender Menace. Lesbian women united and protested these feminist spaces arguing for inclusion and hosting a forum where congress members could discuss different issues within the women’s rights movement.⁷
In the 1980s and 90s, HIV (AIDS) swept across the country, primarily affecting gay men and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, 40.1 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses, many of them members of the LGBTQ+ community.⁴ In 1984, the first antiretroviral medication for HIV became available. At the height of the epidemic, gay people were often ostracized, and others were scared to touch or shake their hands in fear of the disease transmitting. Women were still excluded from the LGBTQIA+ rights movement by men who thought that gay men should be the voice of the movement. However, this time was a notable era for gay-lesbian solidarity. Many lesbians cared for those infected with AIDS.¹²
In 1987, Princess Diana opened the UK’s first HIV/Aids unit in London Middlesex Hospital and shook the hand of a man suffering from AIDS.¹⁰ This single gesture inspired others and let them know that ostracizing an entire community was not the answer to the crisis. Additionally, in 1987, the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was held, with the first national coverage of ACT UP, an advocacy group trying to improve the lives of AIDS victims.⁷
In 1992, Bill Clinton became president and promised to lift the ban against gay people in the military. He failed to gain enough support for this plan and instead passed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, allowing members of the LGBTQIA+ community to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexualities secret.⁷ This did little to stop discharging based on sexuality, and the bill was officially repealed under President Obama in 2011.
Obama also passed the Matthew Shepard Act to reduce hate crime incidents based on sexuality.⁷ Throughout the 2010s, there were many other historic advancements, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts allowing transgender members, the military allowing transgender people to serve in the military, and the legalization of gay marriage, which was universally recognized in 2015.
Additionally, while heterosexual couples are allowed to deduct IVF treatments from their income tax, these benefits are not provided to LGBTQIA+ couples.¹⁴ While new bills such as the Equal Access to Reproductive Care Act will help to end this inequality, there are still many areas in which healthcare is unequal for LGBTQIA+ people.
In recent years, states have passed legislation harmfully targeting transgender youth, focusing on bathroom use, participation in sports, and the reduction of gender-affirming medical care. The American public is seemingly divided on these issues, with some fervently against transgender rights, with others strongly supporting them.
To track anti-transgender legislation, see https://translegislation.com.
Pre-2000, the right to marriage for all was primarily a state concern. In the 1970s, states like Maryland, Virginia, Florida, California, and Wyoming passed measures explicitly defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It was only in the 1990s that cities like San Francisco and Washington D.C. gave homosexual couples the right to register for domestic partnerships, a status that gave some legal recognition but still fell short of marriage.²²
The passing of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) pushed back strides made in the fight for marriage equality by limiting federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples.²² In 2003 Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, and for the next ten years, other states like Vermont, Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, California, Maryland, and Washington would follow. Notably, these marriages were only recognized on the state level - [it was only after the 2013 Supreme Court](https://www.npr.org/2020/06/26/883908854/5-years-after-same-sex-marriage-decision-equality-fight-continues.) case United States v. Windsor that federal marriage benefits were extended to homosexual couples.²¹In 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized across the United States after the Supreme Court decision Obergefell vs. Hodges.
Even in the 1900s, individuals accused of homosexuality were barred from and, if discovered, dishonorably discharged from the military, and in 1949 a formal ban was placed.¹⁸ In 1993, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy by the Clinton administration replaced the ban which stated that homosexuals could serve in the military if they did not publicly declare their sexual identity.²³The policy was controversial on both sides; anti-gay groups fought against having LGBTQIA+ individuals serve in the military, while pro-gay groups felt that the policy still created a culture where service members couldn’t be open with their identities and forced to remain in the closet.²³
After much political push-back, the policy was repealed in 2010, and in 2013 same-sex couples were finally able to receive military benefits. Transgender individuals have faced unique challenges with enlistment, particularly in recent years.²³In 2015, the Department of Defense stated gender identity could no longer be a reason for discharge.²⁵ In 2017, President Trump repealed this measure and announced a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. After a series of congressional and legal opposition, the ban was implemented in 2019 but was repealed two years later under the Biden administration.²⁰
Unfair stereotypes of LGBTQIA+ people promote false beliefs and harmful legislation. For example, the stereotype that LGBTQIA+ people are “groomers” or “sexual predators'' has been perpetuated since the very start of the LGBTQIA+ movement.²⁷
This has led to laws criminalizing drag shows, limiting access to potentially life saving gender-affirming care, and banning LGBTQIA+ topics from schools. The stereotype and continued ideology that providing youth gender-affirming care is “child mutilation” resulted in multiple states across the US banning it.
Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill resulted in millions of people expressing hate on social media, with a 400% increase of the term “groomer” in tweets. The focus on bathrooms in anti-trans legislation is another way the unfair stereotypes of transgender people as “groomers” has harmed them, with severe pushback against people using the bathroom based on their gender identity, instead of the sex they were assigned at birth.²⁷
In 1976, Matthew Shepard was abducted by two men in an area east of Laramie, Wyoming.²⁶ He was tied to a fence, assaulted, beaten, and left to die. He was targeted because of his sexuality. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act to reduce hate crime incidents against members of the LGBTQ+ community based on their sexuality.
Unfortunately, there are still many instances of hate crimes. In 2016, a shooting at Pulse Nightclub, a gay club in Orlando, left 43 people murdered and 53 wounded. LGBTQIA+ people are nine times more likely than non-LGBTQIA+ people to be victims of hate crimes.²⁴
In 2021 alone, the FBI recorded 1,707 anti-LGBTQIA+ hate crimes, a 54 percent increase from the previous year.¹⁹ LGBTQIA+ hate crimes continue to rise sharply.