History of GLBTQ+ Acceptance

It’s Pride Month 2022, and for my first article this year, I thought it would be helpful to share some history around sexual attraction and activism.

You might be aware that same-sex relationships have been acknowledged as far back as ancient Rome and Greece, but did you know there are sculptures dating back to the 100th century BCE?  And…there are also intersex images in the 70th century BCE?

Most of the research I found focused on male sexual relationships, though there were minor references to lesbian relationships between women beginning in ancient Greece.  This makes sense given most history is written or created by men. 

Ancient times

While references to same-sex relationships between men dates to the 100th century BCE,  evidence of punishment did not appear until the 15th century BCE. Same-sex acts and relationships between men remained unacceptable until the beginning in the 7th century BCE.

What is clear throughout ancient times, is the waxing and waning of acceptance to persecution of same-sex love.  This continued into the common era and around the globe.  For example, the Arab world appears to have viewed same-sex relations between women as necessary to alleviate “heat” in the labia.  Additionally, prior to the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE) in China, male sex-same relationships were common.  Furthermore, in 750 CE, a famous Muslim poet wrote homoerotic verse that was accepted and praised. 

The impact of the Bible on views of homosexuality began in the 6th century, with the writing of the Book of Leviticus.   Within Leviticus, there were verses specifically stating same-sex love and sexual behavior is a sin deserving of death (“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”  18:22).

As the influence of the western world, and the bible, began to spread, we see many territories implementing diverse types of punishment.   The first European law written to criminalize sodomy occurred in 654 CE.  During the Assyrian and Median Empire, Middle Eastern countries practiced castration.  Interestingly, it is not until 1260 CE that persecution of women began to be documented.

Modern Times

The waxing and waning has not stopped in modern times.  The 17th and 18th centuries had many important dates again demonstrating both the criminalization to the acceptance. 

  • For example, in 1688 Japan had its first open gay bar.
  • Then, in 1781, Norway imprisoned transmale, Jens Andersson.
  • France was the first to decriminalize same-sex acts in 1791.
  • And by 1795, Monaco, Prussia, Luxembourg, and Belgium joined France in decriminalization off gay and lesbian behavior and relationships.

While I have focused on same-sex attraction so far, it is important to note that bisexuality has also been well documented, as had gender non-conformity.

In Japan men had same-sex relationships, but also married and created and provided for families with a wife and children.  Gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals were widely accepted in the Aztec, Mayan, Quechua, Moches, Zapotec, and Tupinamba communities.

book cover about Kathoey ladyboys in Thailand

Thailand acknowledges three genders, with kathoey or “ladyboys” being their third.  Thailand is the only country or territory that has never had laws against same-sex relationships.

With respect to acceptance, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, widely accepted homosexual, bisexual, and gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals.


Let’s jump to history in America. 

In early modern times across America and Europe cross-dressing became common for women in as an avenue to better paying jobs, opportunities, and the ability to fight for their country.  These women were not always transgender, though there is enough historical evidence to argue this was the case for some percentage of both female and male cross-dressers.

There were several attempts to create laws against same-sex acts, though they did not pass.  The first women to be persecuted were Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon in 1649.  They were found to be guilty of “lewd behavior upon a bed.” 

Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon

were not only the first but

were the only women to be prosecuted in United States History.

Over the next three centuries, women often developed strong emotional relationships with each other.  This was seen as acceptable because they also married men and maintained a sexual relationship with their husbands.  At times, women did live together and without the support of a man.  In my lifetime, women who lived together have been called “old maids,” which implies they were unwanted by men.  It pleases me now to read about the normalcy of these relationships.  It shifts the image of “old maids” being forced to live together for financial reasons, to women choosing to be together for love.

Studying Sexual Behavior

In the 1920s and 1930s, we begin to see medical doctors speaking out more about sex and sexuality.  The belief being that because they studied the body, medical doctors should also have expertise on sexual activities.  Freudian psychiatrists eventually took over as “experts” and homosexuality became viewed as maladaptive.  Both the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) and the Committee for Research in the Problems in Sex (CRPS) were formed in the 1920s.  ASHA focused on teaching about sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of masturbation.  While CRPS funded research by psychologists to study sexuality, attitudes, and behaviors.

Early studies were often incomplete or relied only on questionnaires.  

Dr. Albert Kinsey

Then, in 1938, Albert Kinsey, Ph.D. was offered to lead a new opportunity in a new field of study.  The man who was to become the “father of the sexual revolution” headed and helped teach a multi-disciplinary course on marriage at the University of Indiana.  In the classes on marriage, professors were allowed to talk about sex and provide positive information.  Ten years after starting his work in the field of sex research, Kinsey published his famous reports on sexual behavior in both men (1948) and women (1953).  He also developed the Heterosexual – Homosexual Rating Scale (a.k.a. The Kinsey Scale) and professed sexual attraction to be fluid.

The Kinsey Reports - sexual behavior in the human male and sexual behavior in the human female

Despite Kinsey’s research, when the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s (DSM) was published in 1952, homosexuality was included as a mental disorder. 

Prewar same-sex love was able to flourish in some cities, particularly in Harlem and Greenwich Village.  The entertainment industry has always been a place where same-sex love and interest has been safer to explore and express.  Listen to blues music, remember “drag shows” throughout time, and see it openly expressed in theatre and clubs.

During World War II, some members of the GLBT community thrived in the U.S. military.  They found community and a way to bond and explore together.  It was not lost on all, though, that at the same time, Nazi’s were persecuting homosexuals, and anyone identified as homosexual was sent to concentration camps.  At the same time, the United States, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, began investigation into homosexual behavior in government jobs, including the military.  President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order banning gay men and lesbian women from serving in the military.  Rather than prosecuting sodomy, the military prosecuted homosexuals because homosexuality was in the DSM.  If found out, they were “blue carded,” meaning discharge without veteran benefits, and sent to mental institutions.


The vulnerability of the gay population, at the same time the civil rights movement was ramping up, lead to the formation of various activist organizations, including Mattachine Society, One Inc., and Daughters of Bilitis.

Lesbianism became further politicized in the 1960s to fight sexism and the compulsory, and assumed superiority of, heterosexism.  The hope was that women would band together against the oppression of heterosexuality and men.  This hope was not realized as various lesbian groups had different agendas.

In the 50s and 60s, the GLBT community was at risk for psychiatric lockup as well as jail time, losing jobs and/or child custody.  When activist groups became successful in lobbying for the removal of homosexuality as a mental health disorder in 1970, the 3rd edition of the DSM, the risk of lock up decrease though the GLBT community was still considered abnormal by the general population and often the courts.

Most of you have heard of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.  The riots were a series of demonstrations in response to police violence when raiding the Stonewall Inn.  According to Wikipedia, the Stonewall Riots “are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement in the US, and one of the most important events in the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.”

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), formed in 1972, offered family members greater support roles in the gay rights movement. The first march on Washington for gay rights was held in 1979.


The global LGBT rights movement suffered a setback during the 1980s, as the gay male community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic.  Activist groups continued to demand compassion and medical funding.  Enormous marches on Washington drew as many as one million gay rights supporters in 1987 and again in 1993.

Additionally, 1993 saw President Bill Clinton signed a law directing military personnel “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, and don’t harass.”  Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DWDT) theoretically lifted the ban put in place by President Eisenhower.  While DWDT was supposed to make serving in the military safer for the GLBT community, eight years after it was signed, 12,000 officers had been discharged because they no longer wanted to hide their sexual orientation.

Memorial at Pulse dance club in Orlando

Six years ago today, June 12, 2016, there was a mass shooting in Orlando at the gay dance club Pulse.  With at least 49 dead and another 50 injured, this hate crime is being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. 

It occurred during what was Pride week for many towns and cities around the world.

Activism Back on the Rise

Over the past 25 years, we have seen significant forward movement, not only in public acceptance, but in laws protecting GLBT rights.

Ellen DeGeneres

Some significant dates include April 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV.  As mentioned earlier, it was well known the GLBT community flourished in the entertainment industry, but Ellen’s coming out on TV was the first time a celebrity had made such a public declaration.

Same-sex civil unions were first recognized under Vermont law in 2000 and Massachusetts became the first state to perform same-sex marriages in 2004.  Then in June 2020, fittingly, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity are included under “sex” as a prohibited grounds for termination of employment under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

There have been at least 10 additional federal laws enacted to protect GLBT rights including, employment, housing, medical rights, military, prison, sex trafficking, and identity.  Just two months ago, United States Passports now give the option of male, female, or X gender choice by self-determination.  Most states also have laws allowing for transgender individuals to change their gender on birth certificates and other identity papers.

The past 25 years has also seen a shift into more inclusive language around gender identification, gender expression, sexual attraction, and romantic attraction.


I want to wrap this up with information about bisexuality.  I mentioned at the beginning of this blog there has been evidence of bisexual orientation since the earliest times, but it deserves some special attention given the negative assumptions and stereotypes that still exist, even within the GLBTQIA+ community.

Bisexual Pride Flag

Like many aspects of sexuality, what it means to be bisexual depends on the person.  Historically, bisexual meant romantically and/or sexually attracted to both men and women.  With the newer language we have developed over the past twenty years, some folks might use bisexual synonymously with pansexual (attracted to all genders).  As always, my suggestion would be to ask the person you are speaking with what any sexuality terminology means to them.

Bisexuality has been largely invisible because people typically associate someone’s sexuality with the gender of their partner.  This means, if you identify as female and you are with another female, you will be labeled by others as lesbian.  Attraction to more than one gender is a newer concept for most people and may be confusing the same way being homosexual has been misunderstood throughout history.

I cannot go into depth here, but I wanted to put a few thoughts out for now.  Bisexual people are at higher risk of both physical and mental health problems because of their invisibility.  In my opinion, less attention has been given to bisexuality than to gay men, lesbian women, or transgender folks.  This community needs more attention, compassion, and understanding.  For now, I ask you to challenge your (likely) misperceptions and move away from fetishizing people in the bisexual community.

Thank you for sticking it out with me.  Until next time…



Bullough, V. L. (1998). Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Report: Historical Overview and Lasting Contributions. The Journal of Sex Research, 35(2), 127–131. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813664








Dr. Irgang
Dr. Lisa Irgang is a Clinical Psychologist and the Owner of Relationship Solutions Center. She provides a variety of services to meet her clients needs. Dr. Lisa has worked with people throughout Chicagoland, helping with adjusting to significant life changes, ADHD, Alternative Sexualities, Anxiety Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Dealing with Chronic Illness, Depression, Low self-esteem, Parenting special needs children, Relationship concerns, and Trauma. She's a graduate of Argosy University Chicago and a Fellow at CLII - Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois.

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