In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section LGBT Politics in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Political Theory
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • History of LGBT Politics
  • HIV/AIDS and LGBT Politics
  • Social Movement
  • Political Office and Political Representation
  • LGBT Identity, Attitudes, and Political Behavior

Political Science LGBT Politics in the United States
Donald Patrick Haider-Markel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0188


The American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) political movement has its roots in the post–World War II era. Through the 1950s and 1960s early LGBT groups focused on social mobilization and education, with limited observable political activities. Political activity increased in the 1960s and caught fire after the rioting that broke out in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York City following a regular raid of the bar by police. A modern and diverse movement arose in the 1970s; early local victories on city ordinances banning employment discrimination based on sexual preference/sexual orientation generated an anti-LGBT backlash movement manifested in a series of ballot measures to repeal these laws and ban the adoption of similar laws. A chain of LGBT victories included the high-profile defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California. The decade also saw the political mobilization of the LGBT community at the ballot box and the election of openly lesbian and gay candidates for local and state offices. By the early 1980s, sizable local, state, and national LGBT groups gained footing just as the first cases of HIV/AIDS began to disproportionately appear among gay men. Although public attitudes had become more positive toward homosexually and LGBT rights, fear of AIDS generated a negative public and political backlash. However, by the late 1980s LGBT groups had built a political infrastructure for a series of legal, policy, and candidate victories throughout the 1990s. These achievements included state and local anti-discrimination protections, hate crime laws, a Supreme Court ruling that ended attempts to pass laws that prevented any LGBT antidiscrimination, and the start of a long national debate to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. The 1990s also saw the start of a broad-based effort to gain marriage equality and family protections for same-sex couples. Early legal victories in Hawaii helped to generate a negative backlash in Congress and most states throughout the decade, but some localities and states began to consider alternative recognition through civil unions. At the same time the number of openly LGBT public officials grew each election cycle. With the Supreme Court repeal of all standing anti-sodomy laws in 2003 and the Massachusetts judicial legalization of same-sex marriage later that fall, same-sex marriage again became a national issue and many states adopted constitutional amendments to ban its recognition. Unprecedented shifts in public opinion and legal victories paved a path toward the 2015 Supreme Court decision to effectively legalize same-sex marriage. In the wake of the victory LGBT activists have struggled to maintain political mobilization for antidiscrimination protections and long-ignored transgender issues.

General Overviews and Political Theory

A variety of books and articles provide general views of LGBT political development, including historical, social, and cultural elements (Engel 2015, LeVay and Nonas 1995, Murray 1984). Important in this area are works focused on theorizing sexuality (Foucault 1978), homosexuality, sexual identity, sexual desire and identity, and gender as individually and socially constructed for political purposes (Blasius 1994, Faderman 1991, Kitzinger 1987, Phelan 1989, Phelan 1994, Wilchins 1997). Other works highlight the context of anti-LGBT politics within a broader political struggle over culture and morality within the United States (Hunter 1992). Many additional works in this area could be included that touch on similar topics.

  • Blasius, Mark. Gay and Lesbian Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

    Blasius argues homosexuality is inherently about politics and power, and suggests there is a gay and lesbian ethos, or way of life, that gays and lesbians have contracted. The author traces the elements of power and identity in American politics that enable the creation of political identities based on sexual attraction and gender.

  • Engel, Stephen M. “Developmental Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Politics: Fragmented Citizenship in a Fragmented State.” Perspectives on Politics 13.2 (2015): 287–311.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592715000043

    Engel uses the examples of gays and lesbians serving in the military and LGBT marriage and family issues to illustrate how American Political Development (APD) concepts can be applied to understanding LGBT citizenship status.

  • Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

    Making use of a variety of cultural artifacts, Faderman provides a detailed overview of lesbian social and political life and the development of lesbian identity subculture in modern America.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin, 1978.

    Foucault’s three-volume collection on sexuality is a classic in theorizing about sexuality, power, and the mobilization of science and the “confessional” method to explore sexuality and assign value to different representations of sexuality. Volume 1 is perhaps most directly relevant to the social construction of homosexuality and sexual perversion. Translaton from the French Histoire de la sexualité, Vol. 1, La volonté de savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1976).

  • Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

    In what has become a classic, Hunter argues that conflict over issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and education have become intertwined in an ideological and religious battle over what defines America.

  • Kitzinger, Celia. The Social Construction of Lesbianism. London: SAGE, 1987.

    A treatise on lesbianism as a radical feminist project that seeks to demonstrate that lesbianism should not be normalized or assimilated but instead be viewed as a rejection of traditional constructions of femininity and womanhood.

  • LeVay, Simon, and Elisabeth Nonas. City of Friends: A Portrait of the Gay and Lesbian Community in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995.

    The authors provides an overview of central terms and concepts of homosexuality and gay and lesbian culture in America and delivers numerous examples of the diversity within the gay and lesbian community. It serves as both a modern history and a reference guide.

  • Murray, Stephen O. Social Theory, Homosexual Realities. Gai Saber Monograph No. 3. New York: Scholarship Committee, Gay Academic Union, 1984.

    Interdisciplinary analysis that explores the major social science theories on homosexuality while critiquing those theories.

  • Phelan, Shane. Identity Politics: Lesbian-Feminism and the Limits of Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

    Makes use of postmodern (queer theory) theory to explain and explore the social construction of lesbianism and lesbian identity.

  • Phelan, Shane. Getting Specific: Postmodern Lesbian Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

    Political theorizing that goes beyond lesbian feminist theory; Phelan argues for a “democratic identity politics” that deals with identity in terms of human experience and opportunities for political mobilization.

  • Wilchins, Riki Anne. Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1997.

    Something of a manifesto by a founder of GenderPAC that deals with transgender and other gender-related issues, combines the author’s personal experiences with theoretical and pragmatic political considerations. Strongly arguing for a liberationist approach, the author urges a broad-based coalition encompassing homophobia and “transphobia” as well as sexism, racism, and class inequality.

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