10 Milestones in Gay Rights History

Gay couple getting married.
A happy couple toasts their marriage. (Image credit: Lisa F. Young, Shutterstock)

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in two gay marriage cases, it's easy to forget how far opinions have moved on the issue.

But the current decisions are just the latest milestones in centuries of changing mores on homosexuality. Whereas sex between consenting, same-sex adults was once considered a crime punishable by death, same-sex couples now have the right to marry in nine states.

From the Stonewall Riots to California's gay marriage battles, here are 10 milestones in the history of gay rights.

1. Ancient world

The ancient Greeks recognized same-sex love — at least for men. Plato, Herodotus and other philosophers described loving relationships between adult men and adolescent boys, and even Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon, was so overcome by Ganymede's beauty that he turned the handsome lad into an Eagle and took him to his celestial bed. Some scholars even suggest that world-conqueror Alexander the Great had a more-than-friends relationship with his confidante and bodyguard, Hephaestion.

2. Medieval times

After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was mostly bad news for same-sex love. Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that sex between two men violated the natural law, and thus held a special place in the hierarchy of sin. Aquinas also officially deemed sex between two women a sin. By the 12th-century, gay sex was considered sodomy and was punishable by death.

3. Victorian morals

In Victorian England, being gay could land you in prison. Though celebrated wit Oscar Wilde was married with two children, he was also involved in a passionate love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. When Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensbury, tried to end the affair and called Wilde a "posing sodomite" in 1895, Wilde sued the Marquess for libel. In the ensuing trial, details of Wilde's relationships came to light, and the author was imprisoned. Two years of hard labor in prison left him penniless and in poor health, and he died in 1900. [The 6 Most Tragic Love Stories in History]

4. Stonewall riots

In 1969, gays and lesbians were still deeply in the closet. Trying to find a partner was risky business, as police routinely raided gay bars and rounded up patrons. But when police raided a popular Greenwich Village bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn, arresting 13 people, the gay community erupted. The ensuing protests and rioting lasted six days, with police aiming fire hoses on the rioters and protesters shouting "Gay power!" Many historians see the Stonewall riots as the defining event that launched the gay rights movement.

5. Don't ask, don't tell

It seemed like progress at the time, but quickly became one of the most controversial laws on the books: in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the bill now known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The law allowed gay service members to remain in the military — as long as they stayed in the closet. Remarkable as it seems now, the law was actually a step forward in military policy. Since World War II, the U.S. military had developed elaborate procedures for actively searching for, and excluding, gay servicemen. Some of their tools included looking for feminine dress or body-type and looking for signs of patulous, or expanded rectums.

6. Defense of Marriage Act

In 1996, President Clinton also signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. As a result of the act, same-sex partners married under state or other country law are not eligible for the roughly 1,100 federal spousal benefits of marriage. That means same-sex partners are not eligible to receive social security or insurance payments when a loved one dies, cannot sponsor an overseas wife or husband for a green card, and can't file joint tax returns.

In one of the cases the Supreme Court will hear next week, the justices must decide whether denying such benefits to same sex spouses violates the constitution's equal protection clause.

7. State marriages

The Massachusetts Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in 2004. Over the next decade, gay marriage was legalized in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington state and Washington D.C. In 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on gay marriage, ruling that it violated the state's equal protection clauses. For a four month-period, gay marriage was legal and thousands of couples married. Gay marriage was banned once again when voters passed Proposition 8, which changed California's constitution to restrict marriage to opposite sex couples.

The Supreme Court will also hear arguments this week on whether Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. Lower courts have ruled that the law violates the U.S. constitution's equal protection clause.

8. Privacy protection

In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down a 1973 Texas anti-sodomy law that made it a misdemeanor to engage in "deviate sexual intercourse" with someone of the same sex. The controversy began when, in 1998, police who responded to a call at the home of Houston-resident John Lawrence claimed they saw two men engaging in anal or oral sex. They eventually charged Lawrence and his partner, Tyron Garner, under the Texas law. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos and Bizarre Facts]

In a landmark decision, the court ruled that the state cannot criminalize private sexual conduct between consenting adults. As a result, 13 sodomy laws in other states were also struck down.

9. Do tell

Under President Barack Obama's tenure, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed by congress in 2010. By that time, few in the military saw what the big deal was: a Pentagon survey found that 70 percent were fine with overturning the ban, suggesting objections to openly gay military would fade. The repeal officially took effect in 2011.

10. Rethinking DOMA

In 2011, the Attorney General, Eric Holder, argued that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and instructed the Justice Department to stop defending it in court. Since then, appeals courts have agreed, bringing the case to the attention of the Supreme Court. And just a few weeks ago, President Clinton publicly stated that he doesn't believe the law, which he signed, is constitutional.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter @tiaghose. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.