Early Movements for LGBTQIA2S Rights

Early movements for LGBT rights are thought to be radical and provocative during their times. But it paved the way for more rights to be recognized by the law and for raising awareness of acceptance. Here are the different early movements for LGBT rights.

The Mattachine Society

The Mattachine Society was one of the first sustained gay rights groups in America, founded in 1950 to challenge anti-gay discrimination and build a positive homosexual community and culture. Its members held group discussions to promote self-understanding and minority consciousness, conducted research on legal cases and legislation that favored sexual equality, hosted annual conventions, and published the Mattachine Review and several newsletters.

By 1951 the membership had grown rapidly throughout Southern California and the San Francisco area. The leadership, however, had taken only tentative steps into the arenas of public relations and law. In March 1953 a journalist who had received a Foundation mailing contacted local politicians and journalists in an attempt to learn as much as possible about the organization, only to be disappointed by its secretive leadership; playing on popular fears of communism, the journalist wrote a sensational article suggesting that the Mattachine Society might be a Communist front.

The Mattachine Society was eventually restructured into “area councils” and chapters around the United States, and in 1955 it formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the country’s first lesbian rights organization, in response to fears of police harassment of gay and lesbian club owners. The Mattachine Society was a significant influence on later LGBTQ advocacy organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and AIDS activist groups. The USC Libraries has digitized collections of records from both Mattachine and its successor ONE Incorporated, and made them available through the Mattachine Society Project at ONE Archives.

The Daughters of Bilitis

The Daughters of Bilitis was an early lesbian rights organization founded in 1955 by journalist Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a working-class lesbian couple. They started hosting small gatherings of gay women at their house in San Francisco and soon had more than fifty members. The name Bilitis was taken from the Greek female lyric poet Sappho because the founders felt it was both subtle and communicative.

By 1960, the Daughters of Bilitis had national headquarters in New York City. While other gay male organizations concentrated on criminal law issues such as the exclusion of lesbians from bars, the Daughters of Bilitis focused more on civil rights, and specifically urged women to vote and run for office. The New York Chapter worked closely with Washington’s Mattachine Society, collaborating on such issues as challenging the State Liquor Authority ban on serving homosexual patrons and trying to reduce police entrapment of lesbians.

The Daughters of Bilitis also published Sisters, the first lesbian magazine. The organization’s publications arm was a significant force behind the movement, encouraging lesbian women to become political leaders and to support each other. The Sisters of Bilitis national convention was a major event in the movement, attracting press attention and inspiring many people to join the cause. This subseries includes convention program materials, pamphlets, speech transcriptions, and news clippings.

The Gay Liberation Front

The events of June 1969, sparked by the police raid of Stonewall Inn in New York City, unleashed a flood of energy that transformed the homophile movement into the Gay Liberation Front. This organization’s anti-authoritarian, counterculture philosophy and nonhierarchical structure contrasted with the Mattachine Society’s more traditional approach. Its members embraced the ideas of revolution, and they called for more radical sexual liberation than just changing laws or public attitudes.

The GLF established local chapters throughout the country and held meetings, marched, danced and protested. It fought for civil rights and against the draft, and it demanded that all homosexual men be considered equal to heterosexuals, including in employment, education and the medical establishment. It also wanted to see gay people display affection in public.

Although the GLF was short-lived, it spawned many other organizations, including Star (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and the Gay Activists Alliance. These groups addressed specific issues, such as the need for a church for gays and lesbians to worship in. They also pushed for AIDS awareness, and they organized gay pride parades.

Several openly LGBTQ individuals secured political office, and Gilbert Baker designed the first rainbow flag. These advances and others helped to propel the LGBTQ rights movement into the era of AIDS and the fight for marriage equality. Activists continue to push for change today.

The Rainbow Flag

The rainbow flag is the world’s most recognized symbol of LGBTQIA2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and allied) pride. It was designed by Gilbert Baker, an openly gay activist in San Francisco, and first waved in the air during the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade in June of 1978. The original flag included eight stripes – two more than today’s version – and each color carried its own meaning: magenta: same-sex attraction; royal blue: opposite-sex attraction; purple: transgender identity; orange: community; yellow: healing; green: nature; turquoise: magic and art; and indigo: serenity. Due to difficulties in obtaining the fabric, Baker dropped the hot pink and turquoise strips, creating the six-striped rainbow flag we see today.

The iconic rainbow flag is now an integral part of the global LGBTQIA2-S movement and a global symbol of acceptance, inclusion, and equality. Now, in this heartfelt and empowering picture book, readers can trace its remarkable and inspiring journey from the efforts of activist Harvey Milk and designer Baker to its enduring relevance in our modern world.

This design includes the white, baby blue, black and pink stripes of the Progress Pride Flag, a new flag that debuted in 2021 to acknowledge the marginalization of LGBTQ+ people of color and those living with HIV/AIDS. It also features a purple circle in a yellow triangle – indicative of intersex individuals who don’t fit into the traditional male or female gender.