PRESENTED by WorldPride 2019 | Stonewall 50
Next summer, WorldPride comes to the United States for the first time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. The sixth edition of the culturally-diverse WorldPride will attract millions of LGBTQI+ revelers for the largest celebration of Pride in history. In honor of this incredible event Towleroad is celebrating 50 years of LGBTQI+ history with a series examining queer life from the 1960s through today.
Considering how rapidly LGBT rights and acceptance have accelerated over the last eight years, it’s hard to believe what a different world we were living in at the turn of the century.
There are high school students today who were alive at a time when sodomy laws criminalized consensual relations between men in the privacy of their homes in the United States of America. This wasn’t ancient history; this was yesterday.
In the 2003 landmark civil rights decision Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. “The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion.
That sentiment became representative of the shifting attitudes toward queer people throughout the early aughts. Increased acceptance started the ball in motion for what would become the primary (for better or worse) civil rights cause of the aughts: marriage equality.
Vermont became the first state to implement civil unions in 2000. The “separate but equal” solution spread in the subsequent years, as Connecticut, California, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington followed.
Although nationwide marriage equality is a reality today, the earliest same-sex marriages were issued in San Francisco in early 2004. (Massachusetts’ state supreme court ruled in late 2003 requiring the state to legally recognize same-sex marriage, but it didn’t go into effect until May 2004.) Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and Washington, D.C. began recognizing same-sex marriages by the end of the decade.
Just like we’ve seen ludicrous bathroom bills flood legislatures in light of the increased visibility of trans individuals, the spread of marriage equality galvanized conservatives. Twenty-nine states had amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage by 2010.
The most infamous of these discriminatory initiatives was California’s Proposition 8. The ballot measure proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Voters passed the measure in 2008, and it was met with overwhelming opposition.
Celebrities, activists and politicians decried Prop. 8, including a legendary, tongue-in-cheek live reading of Prop. 8 the Musical. The proposition — heavily impacted by influences outside the state — faced a long legal battle into the 2010s, the most significant being a 2010 ruling by Chief Judge Vaughn Walker of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California. He ruled the proposition was unconstitutional, a decision ultimately upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
The ideological war was on. According to Gallup polling, the majority of Americans didn’t support same-sex marriage until 2011 when, presumably, people saw the proverbial sky didn’t fall in states where same-sex marriages were taking place.
Also fueling this cultural evolution was an increase in LGBTQ representation. After decades of slowly increasing visibility in media, the early aughts began telling more nuanced and complex queer stories. (Though, overwhelmingly, they still focused on white gays and lesbians.)
The most prominent, of course, was NBC’s Will & Grace. The recently rebooted series may not have featured the most groundbreaking portrayals of gay people, but it was still a broadly popular mainstream network sitcom with multiple gay principal characters. In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden credited the series, saying Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
Similarly, Bravo’s hit series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy brought a (sanitized, family-friendly) gay perspective to audiences in 2003. The highly-rated first season made the original Fab Five household names and introduced gay people into homes all over the country.
While mainstream America was getting easily-digestible exposure to gay people on Will & Grace and Queer Eye, two of television’s greatest queer series were airing on premium cable.
Queer As Folk, an American take on Russell T Davies’ British series of the same name, became the first hour-long drama on American television focused on the lives of homosexuals. The show ran from 2000-2005 on Showtime, tackling a range of issues including hate crimes, HIV/AIDS, open relationships, drug use and sex in the gay community with refreshing candor. (More than a decade before How to Get Away With Murder, it was the first series to show simulated sex between men on American television.)
As gay men were getting increased exposure on television, a series dedicated to gay women, The L Word, debuted in 2004 (also on Showtime) to critical acclaim. Focusing on gay women in West Hollywood, the series offered a more realistic portrayal of lesbian characters than, say Xena and Gabrielle, but still was a bit soapier and more melodramatic.
Although it didn’t have the reach of Queer As Folk or The L Word, another important queer series from the early aughts was Noah’s Arc. Racial diversity in LGBTQ representation is still lacking today, but 20 years ago, it was barely existent. Noah’s Arc was Logo’s first scripted series, and it became the network’s highest-rated original series before being abruptly canceled after the second season’s cliffhanger finale. A follow-up film, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, opened in limited release in 2008.
“It’s hard for me to really grasp the impact of Noah’s Arc on TV’s landscape,” Noah’s Arc star Darryl Stephens said in a 2014 interview. “I know I’ve heard from and continue to hear from hundreds if not thousands of people who loved the characters on that show. To me, it was a fun little soap opera. To some, it was television’s first affirmation of black gay love–ever. I’m not sure how much the show managed to change television depictions of black gay men or the weight of its impact with respect to the TV shows that followed it, but I know that the people who enjoyed it have been incredibly loyal and vocal about how much it meant to them.”
On the big screen, few LGBTQ films have made a bigger impact than 2005’s Academy Award-winning film, Brokeback Mountain. Famously starring the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal — two heterosexual actors hitting the peak of their popularity — the story offered a heartbreaking, raw tale of rough and tumble ranchers that fall in love. It was the kind of love story even most open-minded mainstream audiences had never seen.
Most people look back at Brokeback Mountain‘s Academy Awards loss for Best Picture as a blow to LGBTQ storytelling. However, 2005 was a year featuring so many queer films, including the big-screen adaptation of Rent, Transamerica, Capote and Breakfast on Pluto.
Against the backdrop of increased exposure to queer people, legal protections and resources also expanded outside of marriage laws. At the beginning of the 2000s only one-third of the population was covered under state laws banning at least one type of anti-gay discrimination. By the end of the decade, 21 states and the District of Columbia had laws to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. By 2010, there were more than 4,000 registered gay-straight alliances in the country (up from TWO in 1990).
The early aughts could also be considered an important milestone toward the “Transgender Tipping Point.” Thanks to the tireless work of transgender activists, the gay and lesbian community evolved into a more inclusive LGBT movement. There was only one state (Minnesota) that had a law to protect trans people from discrimination in the year 2000. A dozen more states and the District of Columbia added protections in the following 10 years. Although today the trans community is still at disproportionate risk for discrimination (even from within the LGBT community) and violence, these were important early steps toward trans equality.
As the decade drew to a close, the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and increased media saturation of megahits like Glee, True Blood and Modern Family paved the way for the rapid sea change that washed over American society in the 2010s.
There is still so much work to do to ensure safety, dignity and equality, particularly for trans and queer people of color. However, looking back at the hard work of generations of queer people, it’s clear to see the arc of history still bends toward justice.
This is just a taste of the rich queer history of the 2000s. What were some key moments and important memories we missed? Leave your impressions of the LGBTQ ’00s in the comments below…