This year’s Pride Month is a time for optimism, not despair | Opinion

For the LGBTQ+ community and allies, June is a month of joy and celebration, marked by lively Pride parades that draw millions of supporters.

This year, however, a legislative onslaught has tempered the revelry. In the first six months of 2024, state legislators across the country have introduced 515 bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

The situation is so dire that the Human Rights Campaign has declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans. These legal attacks are painful and dispiriting. Yet, as I detail in my forthcoming book, the LGBTQ+ movement’s history offers hope for the road ahead.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the legal landscape for queer rights was bleak. Consensual sodomy was a crime in every state. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness, a designation that prevented gays and lesbians from serving in the military, obtaining federal employment, and securing custody of their children.

The punishments for same-sex sexuality could be extreme, as Bert Chapman learned. In 1940, Michigan police arrested the 35-year-old for being sexually intimate in his home with another man.

The court confined him to a psychiatric institution until he “fully and permanently recovered” from his homosexuality. Chapman spent 31 years detained in psychiatric institutions because he was gay. He was finally able to secure his release in 1971, after convincing a jury that he was no longer a danger to society. While the extreme nature of Chapman’s ordeal was the exception, he was also far from the only gay man who suffered prolonged periods of confinement because of his sexual orientation.

Chapman offers a sobering example of how harsh the law could be. Yet, his release underscores that American law could—and did—change. In the criminal law context, states first reformed their penal codes to eliminate punishments for same-sex sexuality, then began imposing harsher penalties for hate crimes against the queer community.

The changes to family law were just as significant. Judges began granting custody to lesbian mothers and gay fathers and schools increasingly taught students that same-sex sexuality was not inherently harmful.

Over 55 years, queer rights advocates transformed American law from a regime that criminalized gay and lesbian relationships to a system that recognized and affirmed the dignity of queer families.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights. By then, gay men no longer feared being arrested for being gay. Lesbians did not live with the constant anxiety of losing their livelihoods if their sexuality was discovered.

Instead, they could celebrate their relationships with pride. What made all the difference was the work of countless advocates, who fought for incremental change in cities and towns across the country. Change did not start at the federal level and work its way down. It came from small pockets of the country and spread outwards. The trickle became a tidal wave, and then a tsunami.

Indeed, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, many gay men and lesbians who had lived through decades of repression confessed that they never truly expected to see the day when they could marry the loves of their lives. As Tom Brougham, an activist who sparked a national movement for domestic partnership recognition in the 1980s, explained, “when we started out, we thought that every stage was almost impossible, but we were going to fight anyway. It turned out none of them were impossible.”

The heroes of the LGBTQ+ rights movement have been ordinary citizens, like Chapman and Brougham.

This June, I hope the LGBTQ+ community takes comfort in this past, which inspires optimism for the future. The current situation might seem grim, but the law can change for the better. After all, it already has.

Marie-Amélie George specializes in LGBTQ+ rights and teaches courses on civil procedure, evidence, and family law at Wake Forest University School of Law. Her forthcoming book, Family Matters: Queer Households and the Half-Century Struggle for Legal Recognition (Cambridge University Press) examines the shifts at the state and local levels that resulted in national legal change in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights.