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January 11, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: The LGBTQ Rights Movement

by Angela Li

In the first 2020 presidential debate, Donald Trump stunned many by refusing to condemn the white nationalist Proud Boys, instead issuing what appeared to be a directive: “Stand back and stand by.” Members of the organization immediately took to social media to celebrate, quickly garnering more than a million mentions on Twitter.

But in the days following, the Twitter hashtag #ProudBoys went viral for another reason entirely. Called to action by gay actor and LGBTQ rights activist George Takei, thousands of gay men countered the bigotry of the Proud Boys by posting photos under the hashtag with their partners and children. Allies and celebrities chimed in with messages of support for the “proud boys” in their lives.

This wasn’t the first time the LGBTQ community mobilized against prejudice, at times working through established channels and other times taking a more revolutionary tack. 

From its gay liberation roots to today’s nationwide network of activists and supporters, the LGBTQ rights movement has always strived toward progress.

From its gay liberation roots to today’s nationwide network of activists and supporters, the LGBTQ rights movement has always strived toward progress.


Born from the 1969 Stonewall uprising, the nascent gay liberation movement of the 1970s–᾽80s embraced a radically intersectional approach, linking arms with contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements to seek social transformation. It was spearheaded by transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, lifelong advocates for those who faced cross-cutting discrimination within the LGBTQ community. They established the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization that provided housing to homeless LGBTQ youth and sex workers, who were some of the community’s most vulnerable. Johnson also marched and lobbied for the rights of HIV-positive people through the grassroots political organization ACT UP, while Rivera would later staunchly oppose the exclusion of transgender people from New York’s 2002 Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.

By the 1990s, the movement had pivoted to fighting for legal and civil rights through more institutional channels. This strategy’s crowning achievement is undoubtedly the successful campaign for marriage equality. The right to marry was first granted on a state-by-state basis through legal challenges, such as Good-ridge v. Department of Health (which made Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003) and Hollingsworth v. Perry (which in 2010 struck down California’s Proposition 8 eliminating the right of marriage for same-sex couples). Along with legal victories, the movement’s messaging strategy also contributed to its rapid progress. A powerful combination of social media activism, celebrity endorsements, and public relations campaigns successfully swayed public opinion and accelerated state-level gains, such as ballot initiatives and court victories enshrining the right to marry. These steps ultimately culminated in the national legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, a groundbreaking achievement for LGBTQ rights and civil rights law.

But although marriage equality has long dominated the mainstream LGBTQ rights agenda, it was never meant to be the final goal. Liberation activists, in the tradition of Johnson and Rivera, have remained steadfast in their advocacy of those overlooked by the mainstream LGBTQ movement. For instance, even though marriage equality is now a reality, trans women of color still face violence, even murder, at disproportionately high rates.

A significant trans rights victory came in June 2020 when Bostock v. Clayton County established that gender identity and sexual orientation were protected traits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to being the first Supreme Court case that was ruled in favor of trans rights, Bostock also reaffirmed the effectiveness of the strategic impact litigation and persuasive messaging approach that has, since marriage equality, become the playbook for the LGBTQ rights movement.

In Bostock, the liberationist and institutionalist factions of the movement joined forces toward a common goal. It was also another step forward for a movement that has won dignity, equality, and justice for over 14 million LGBTQ Americans over the past 50 years. From its gay liberation roots to today’s nationwide network of activists and supporters, the LGBTQ rights movement has always strived toward progress. We celebrate the movement and every one of its members whose courageous contributions and sacrifices have steadily pushed society in the right direction—Human Rights Heroes in every sense of the phrase.

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Angela LI

Summer 2020 CRSJ Intern

Angela Li is a senior at Cornell University studying government, inequality studies, and the law. She is passionate about civil rights, public service, and social change and plans to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney.