National Coming Out Day: Key Moments in Fight For Equal Rights

Twenty-five years ago today, half a million people participated in a historic march on Washington, D.C., for gay rights.

Fired up from the march, organizers found a way to keep the march alive. The first National Coming Out Day was celebrated on Oct. 11, 1988.

The goal of the day is for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies to celebrate coming out and encourage those who haven't to make their voices heard.

"It's a day to be visible," said Candace Gingrich-Jones, associate director of youth and campus outreach with the Human Rights Campaign.

"What we know today is people who know someone who is queer are much more likely to understand the issues of inequality and be supportive of the work to gain that equality," she said.

On this 24th annual National Coming Out Day, click through to revisit the pivotal moments that shaped the gay rights movement.

1957: Frank Kameny Fights Back

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared homosexuals a threat to national security and ordered the immediate firing of every gay man and lesbian working for the U.S. government.

Over the course of the McCarthy-era "Lavender Scare," 5,000 government workers lost their jobs. Frank Kameny, an astronomer at the Army Map Service, was sent packing in 1957.

Considered one of the founding fathers of the gay rights movement, Kameny fought back, taking his battle to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961.

His petition was denied but his actions helped bring visibility to the fight for equality.

The federal government issued a formal apology to Kameny in 2009, more than half a century after he was fired for his sexual orientation.

After decades of activism, Kameny passed away last year on National Coming Out Day at age 86.

1969: Stonewall Riots

Early on the morning of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar, to enforce a law banning homosexuality in public.

This time, a fed-up crowd fought back, clashing with police in riots that lasted six days.

The riots served as a catalyst for people around the country to organize in the push for equality and are heralded as the true beginning of the modern gay rights movement.

Raymond Castro, who was arrested at the Stonewall Inn, shared his memories in the PBS documentary "Stonewall Uprising".

"All I know is, enough was enough," he said. "You had to fight for your rights And I'm happy to say whatever happened that night, I was part of it. Because [at a moment like that] you don't think, you just act."

1970: Gay Liberation Day March

One year after the Stonewall Riots, the galvanized masses filled the streets of New York City again, this time marching in the first Gay Liberation Day parade.

In San Francisco, an estimated 200 marked the day with a "Gay-In" at Golden Gate Park.

Over the years, the marches spread to other cities in the U.S. and became an annual event, eventually taking on the name "Gay Pride."

PHOTO: Kathy Kozachenko's successful bid for a seat on the Ann Arbor, Michigan city council, April 1974.
arborwiki.org
1974: First Openly Gay Public Official

In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko was elected to a seat on the Ann Arbor, Mich., city council, becoming the first openly LGBT candidate to win elected office in the United States.

"Kathy's election sparked the idea that our community could work for change not just as advocates outside legislative chambers, but as elected officials inside of government. She blazed the trail for better-known LGBT politicians like Elaine Noble, Harvey Milk, Barney Frank and Annise Parker, to name just a few," said Denis Dison, vice president of communications at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group committed to helping LGBT candidates win elected office.

Later that year, Noble, an out lesbian, dodged bullets fired through her campaign windows to win election to the Massachusetts State House.

1977: Life and Death of Harvey Milk

An icon of the American gay rights movement, Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay men elected to office in the country when he was elected a city supervisor in 1977.

In his 11 months in office, Milk was responsible for passing a landmark gay rights ordinance in the now famously gay-friendly city. He sponsored legislation to add an attachment to San Francisco's police code that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodation. He also was a key figure in defeating a statewide bill that would have made the firing of gay teachers in California public schools mandatory.

Just under a year into his tenure, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco's City Hall by Dan White, a city supervisor with whom Milk had clashed.

Milk's death made him a martyr in the gay community. That, coupled with White's conviction on voluntary manslaughter rather than a tougher charge, prompted the White Night riots and inspired the first 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Milk was portrayed by Sean Penn in the Academy Award winning film "Milk," and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

1987: The Second Great March

Hundreds of thousands of LGBT people and their supporters marched on Washington to demand equal rights and ask President Ronald Reagan to address the AIDS crisis.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg, then presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, and Latino civil rights leader Cesar Chavez were among the estimated 500,000 people who descended on the capital.

"National Coming Out Day really happened because of the 1987 march on Washington," said Gingrich-Jones. "After that, organizers had a summit to talk about the next steps. It was too easy for America to forget about its gay citizens. [That's when] the idea for National Coming Out Day was born."

1997: Ellen: 'Yep, I'm Gay'

Ellen DeGeneres was the star of her own eponymous sitcom when she made a shocking decision: coming out as a lesbian on the show, then on the cover of a national magazine.

In the 1997 "The Puppy Episode," DeGeneres' character Ellen comes out to her therapist, and an entire airport. The episode was a ratings success, but DeGeneres and the show faced criticism and backlash, and the show eventually ended after the next season. The same year her character came out, DeGeneres herself came out with the famous "Yep, I'm Gay," Time magazine cover, and on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Despite initial backlash as the most visible openly lesbian celebrity, DeGeneres has had a highly successful career since 1997, hosting both the Emmys and the Academy Awards, starring in another sitcom, judging "American Idol," and hosting her own award-winning talk show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." She has also become an outspoken advocate of a number of LGBT issues. Her coming out helped pave the way for other celebrities to be more open about their sexuality.

1998: Murder of Matthew Shepard

The tortuous death of a gay 21-year-old college student helped shine a light on hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard left a bar in Laramie, Wy., with two men who said they'd give him a ride home.

Instead, Shepard, who was targeted because he was gay, was driven to the outskirts of town where he was beaten, robbed and tied to a fence. He was found 18 hours later by a bicyclist who had mistaken him for a scarecrow.

Shepard spent five days in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries.

Eleven years after his death, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, making it a federal hate crime to assault a person based on their gender or perceived gender, sexual identity or sexual orientation.

2000: Civil Unions in Vermont Pave Way For Gay Marriage

Civil unions become legal in Vermont, paving the way for gay marriage

In 1999, Vermont's Supreme Court made a historic decision giving same-sex couples access to the same rights and benefits as heterosexual married couples. The state legislature followed in 2000 with a law creating legal civil unions for same-sex couples.

The debate surrounding the passage of the legislation was highly contentious, but ultimately it passed, making Vermont the first state to allow same-sex civil unions.

As of 2012, same-sex unions in some form (marriage, civil unions, etc.) have been legalized to some extent in Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia. Thirty-one states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, and voters in four states are set to vote on same-sex marriage this election.

2011: Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

LGBT service members no longer had to hide their orientation when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was repealed on Sept. 20, 2011.

The controversial policy, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, led to almost 13,000 service members' being discharged over its lifetime because of a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

"To exclude one group of Americans from serving in the armed forces is contrary to our fundamental principles as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and weakens our defenses by denying our military the service of a large group of Americans who can help our cause," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in 2010.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage in a television interview with ABC anchor Robin Roberts, May 9, 2012.
ABC News
2012: President Obama Announces He Supports Marriage Equality

After an "evolution" of thought, President Obama announced he supports same sex marriage.

"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'Don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," Obama told ABC News' Robin Roberts.

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