A Conversation with Josh Burford about LGBTQ History in the United States

July 2, 2018
Event Recap

As part of the firm’s celebration of Pride Month, on June 27 Bass, Berry & Sims hosted Josh Burford, an award-winning historian, archivist and educator with over 20 years of experience building stronger LGBTQ communities across the United States. Mr. Burford has worked with K-12 schools, universities, corporations and nonprofits to bring greater understanding about inclusion of diverse identities, self-evaluation and best practices related to LGBTQ students and employees and increased retention of LGBTQ individuals in school and in the workplace. He is currently serving as executive director of the invisible Histories Project of Alabama, preserving and making accessible the LGBTQ history of individuals in Alabama.

During his presentation, Mr. Burford discussed the importance and evolution of key terms and phrases related to LGBTQ history. He also discussed several important milestones in the LGBTQ community’s struggle to find equality and acceptance. He began by stressing the importance of sharing LGBTQ history so that everyone can learn from the mistakes of the past and appreciate the accomplishments that have taken place. He noted that only 17% of students in the United States have access to LGBTQ history at school.

In the early part of the 20th Century, LGBTQ activists operated mostly at the grass-roots level and focused on issues relevant to a particular, local community. Themes of isolation and invisibility were often the focus of these grass-roots efforts. Many LQGTQ individuals were fighting against the pervasive narrative that LGBTQ individuals simply didn’t exist in certain communities. This narrative was perpetuated by the fact that certain behaviors were still illegal in many states, which forced LGBTQ individuals to hide relationships and not reveal their true identities.

As the movement for LGBTQ rights developed on a more national level, the focus of LGBTQ activists shifted to changing laws, gaining access to healthcare and mental illness treatment, ensuring job protection, and attaining freedom from religious persecution. The struggle for increased rights expanded during this time to members outside of the gay and lesbian communities to include members of the transgender and bisexual community.

Early leaders within the LGBTQ community included individuals, such as:

  • Henry Gerber – a writer and founder of the Society for Human Rights
  • Franklin Kamey – an astronomer who was the first individual to sue the government after being fired because of his sexual orientation
  • Bayard Rustin – a key leader and advocate for non-violence in the civil rights movement
  • Barbara Gittings – the founder of the first gay and lesbian professionals group

These individuals, along with many others, worked tirelessly throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century to bring about change within the United States. Their efforts led to several key events, court decisions and new laws affecting the LGBTQ community (sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse):

  • ONE, Inc. v. Olesen (1958) – the first Supreme Court case to address free speech with respect to sexual orientation
  • Stonewall Riots (1969) – a series of violent demonstrations that began in New York City in response to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn
  • AIDS epidemic (late 1970s -1980s) – the first AIDS diagnosis was in 1978 and by the late 1980s had decimated almost an entire generation of LGBTQ leaders
  • Democratic National Convention (1980) – first party to have pro-gay rights platform
  • Wisconsin bans discrimination based on sexual orientation (1982) – Wisconsin becomes the first state in the country to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, education, credit and public accommodations
  • Gerry Studs (1983) – Gerry Studs becomes the first openly gay member of Congress
  • Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) – a Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of state sodomy laws
  • The first census to include homosexual as an identity (1990)
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (1994) – becomes official U.S. policy for military service
  • American Medical Association no longer recommends aversion therapy for “curing” homosexuality (1996)
  • Romer v. Evans (1996) – Supreme Court overturns ruling in Colorado preventing protected status based on sexual orientation
  • Defense of Marriage Act (1996) – federal law defining marriage as union between one man and one woman; states do not have to recognize same sex unions
  • Vermont becomes first state to legally recognize civil unions between gay and lesbian couples (2000)
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003) – Supreme Court ruling invalidates all state sodomy laws
  • Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2010)
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) – Supreme Court ruling extending marriage rights to same sex couples

In conclusion, Josh discussed some of the ongoing issues facing the LGBTQ community such as youth homelessness and employment discrimination. He also explained that while the LGBTQ community has many common concerns, the community consists of a wide variety of individuals that have unique and sometimes conflicting goals, resulting in difficult challenges as the LGBTQ community and its allies continue to strive for a more equal and inclusive society.