Law and the Gay Rights Story: The Long Search for Equal Justice in a Divided Democracy

Law and the Gay Rights Story: The Long Search for Equal Justice in a Divided Democracy

Law and the Gay Rights Story: The Long Search for Equal Justice in a Divided Democracy

Law and the Gay Rights Story: The Long Search for Equal Justice in a Divided Democracy


For much of the 20th century, American gays and lesbians lived in fear that public exposure of their sexualities might cause them to be fired, blackmailed, or even arrested. Today, they are enjoying an unprecedented number of legal rights and protections. Clearly, the tides have shifted for gays and lesbians, but what caused this enormous sea change?

In his gripping new book, Walter Frank offers an in-depth look at the court cases that were pivotal in establishing gay rights. But he also tells the story of those individuals who were willing to make waves by fighting for those rights, taking enormous personal risks at a time when the tide of public opinion was against them. Frank's accessible style brings complex legal issues down to earth but, as a former litigator, never loses sight of the law's human dimension and the context of the events occurring outside the courtroom.

Chronicling the past half-century of gay and lesbian history, Law and the Gay Rights Story offers a unique perspective on familiar events like the Stonewall Riots, the AIDS crisis, and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Frank pays special attention to the constitutional issues surrounding same-sex marriage and closely analyzes the two recent Supreme Court cases addressing the issue. While a strong advocate for gay rights, Frank also examines critiques of the movement, including some coming from the gay community itself. Comprehensive in coverage, the book explains the legal and constitutional issues involved in each of the major goals of the gay rights movement: a safe and healthy school environment, workplace equality, an end to anti-gay violence, relationship recognition, and full integration into all the institutions of the larger society, including marriage and military service. Drawing from extensive archival research and from decades of experience as a practicing litigator, Frank not only provides a vivid history, but also shows where the battle for gay rights might go from here.


In 1958, in a little noticed decision, the Supreme Court of the United States told the United States Postal Service that it could not suppress an obscure publication, ONE magazine, aimed at a homosexual audience. The October 1954 issue had been seized on the ground that it was obscene. Without issuing a written opinion, the Court simply determined that the issue did not meet the Court’s recently enunciated definition of obscenity. Even by the more prudish standards of the fifties, characterizing this magazine as obscene was patently absurd. The subtext, however, of the Postal Service’s action—that homosexuals were virtually without constitutional rights—was all too real, for this was a time when homosexuals were seen as no less a threat to the nation’s security and moral fiber than the Communists with whom they were often equated.

The journey from that time to a twenty-first-century America in which gays can marry in at least seventeen states and the District of Columbia, can serve openly in the military, enjoy significant legal protection against discrimination in twenty-one states and countless municipalities, and in which courts, even in the deep South, are becoming increasingly hostile to stereotypical justifications for discrimination against gays, is a remarkable one. Just how did it come about that we went from a nation that a few decades ago felt threatened by the idea of gays even meeting together to a nation in which increasing majorities of Americans support the legal gains that were unthinkable just a few decades ago?

Answering that question is not easy, but I believe the answer begins with gay men and women themselves, for while this book focuses very much on law and politics, this is also an intensely human story about people many of whom, for a long time, were able to live reasonably satisfactory if thwarted lives in a kind of suspended animation. As long as they were willing to keep their secret, they could in effect pretend to be someone else, someone society found . . .

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