Amending America: LGBTQ Human and Civil Rights

U.S. National Archives

Explore selected stories about LGBTQ human and civil rights.

On March 10, 1778, Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin became the first U.S. soldier court-martialed for “attempting to commit sodomy” with another soldier. His sentence was to be literally drummed out of the Continental Army by its regiments’ fifes and drums. Enslin was told “never to return.”

Over 230 years after Enslin’s court martial, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people are now allowed to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.

Born Lucy Ann Lobdell in 1829, Lucy took the name of Joseph (Joe) Israel Lobdell and later married Marie Louise Perry.

In 1879, Lobdell was committed to the Willard Insane Asylum for not conforming to contemporary gender norms.

Historians disagree about where this person falls on the LGBTQ spectrum. Some see Lucy as a lesbian who passed as a man. Others believe that Joseph was what we today refer to as transgender.

Jim South, a 24-year-old Canadian real estate agent, moved to Detroit in 1915. On a visit back to Canada, he met George McBurney, a drapery salesman.
A romantic relationship developed between the two. They exchanged numerous letters—sometimes two or three a day—and saw each other when they could. George moved to Detroit in late 1915.

In April 1916, the U.S. Immigration Bureau issued warrants for the arrest of South and McBurney. They were charged with having committed a crime of “moral turpitude,” “an unnatural, immoral act” prior to their emigration from Canada.

Rather than be deported, both returned to Canada voluntarily.

In 1956, Bruce Scott was fired from his job at the Labor Department because he was gay. Five years later he applied for another job at the same agency. Although he passed a qualifying exam, he was declared “ineligible for federal employment on the grounds of immoral conduct.”

In 1965, Scott appealed to the US District Court of Appeals for DC, which ruled in September 1968 that he must be considered eligible for federal employment.

A prolific activist, Bayard Rustin was known as "an intellectual engineer behind the scenes," and the success of the March on Washington was credited to his planning.

He was in federal prison from 1944 to 1946 for conscientiously objecting to serving in World War II. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition to support the efforts of a then young, largely unknown minister named Martin Luther King Jr.. His achievements could have made him a household name.

But his open homosexuality led organizations to keep him in the background.

Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman elected to Congress from Texas, is widely remembered for her commitment to the U.S. Constitution. Her speech in favor of the impeachment of President Nixon was a key moment in the Watergate investigation. After retiring from Congress in 1979, she remained actively engaged with issues of the day. She gave a rousing speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

What was not known publicly was that she shared 30 years of her life with another woman. While she was not outspoken about her sexuality during her lifetime, she remains a hero to the LGBTQ community.

Harvey Milk, a gay man elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, gave a rousing speech at the city’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day celebration.

In his speech, Milk emphasized that LGBTQ rights are part of the American tradition of freedom and equality.

Harvey Milk wrote President Jimmy Carter asking him to speak out against Proposition 6, which would have banned gay men and lesbians from teaching or otherwise being employed by California school districts.

The initiative was opposed by a number of leading politicians, including former Governor Ronald Reagan, and former President Gerald Ford.

The initiative was ultimately defeated at the polls in November 1978.

For more stories about how we have attempted to change the shape of our government, check out our other Amending America exhibits on Google Cultural Institute

Credits: Story

This online exhibit was created under the direction of Jim Gardner, the Executive for Presidential Libraries, Legislative Archives, and Museum Programs. The exhibition and this online exhibit would not have been possible without the combined efforts and expertise of many National Archives staff.

Co-Curator - Michael Hussey

See more featured documents reflecting the history of American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women from 1778 to the present on Discovering LGBTQ History on Tumblr. A project of Stonewall@NARA, the National Archives LGBTQ employee affinity group.

Amending America at the National Archives

Amending America Exhibition in Washington, D.C. presented in part by The National Archives Foundation, AT&T, HISTORY®, and The Lawrence O'Brien Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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