Three distinct eras of LGBT history exist in regards to the United States. Philosopher Michel Foucault famously explained the first era in his book The History of Sexuality (1978). He asserts that before the 1870s, sexuality was simply thought of as actions that someone could take, rather than as an identity.
Society back then did not approve of what we might call homosexual actions, or what they called “sodomy,” but homosexuality was not considered an identity. Indeed, doctors did not create the word “homosexual” in English until 1892.
After 1892, Foucault claims that, “the homosexual was now a species” (43) according to medical science. This is to say, by the 1890s, sexuality became another factor in how Americans thoughts about their and each other’s identities. Sexuality was no longer merely a set of actions, but a way to categorize human beings.
As a result, for the next hundred years, American “homosexuals” were to become thought of as criminals. In his book Gay New York, cultural historian George Chauncey points out how, “In the half-century between 1890s and the beginning of the Second World War, a highly visible, remarkably complex, and continually changing gay male world took shape in New York City” (1). Chauncey goes on to explain how this complex gay male culture was a reaction to being labeled “homosexual” by the straight community.
By World War II, homosexuality became fully criminalized; “homosexuals” were constantly brutalized by the police, thrown in jail, fired from their jobs, and shunned by their families. The well-known documentary Before Stonewall shows how early Gay Civil Rights groups, like the Mattachine Society, tried to fight against homophobia and discrimination.
However, it was not until 1969 when the Stonewall Riots erupted in New York City that LGBT Community began to win its civil rights and “gay liberation” was born. In these riots, LGBT people fought off a police raid at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. The documentary After Stonewall, as well as articles such as CNN’s “LGBT Rights Milestones Fast Facts,” demonstrates how the LGBT community organized and protested, eventually winning many civil rights.
For instance, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association finally admitted that “homosexuality” was not a mental illness; after the 1870s it had been considered such. What is more, famous people began to come out as gay to support the LGBT community, such as Ellen Degeneres in 1997. Perhaps most notably, marriage between same-sex couple was made legal by the United States Supreme Court in 2015. In America today, homosexuality is considered an identity that is highly visible.