Until the middle of the last century, sexual practices that veered from the conventional heterosexual model were largely illegal in the United States. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights have come a long way since then, thanks to seven of these landmark cases. The status of the eighth—and the fact that six of the eight cases have occurred only since the year 2000—demonstrates that LGBTQ rights are still far from assured in America.
One, Inc. v. Olesen – 1958
The FBI and the United States Post Office declared One: The Homosexual Magazine obscene and therefore not deliverable via the mail. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found in favor of the magazine. It was the first time in American history that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of homosexuals.
Renee Richards, a male-to-female transsexual, was banned from competing in the women’s U.S. Open after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. The New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of Renee Richards, permitting her to compete professionally as a woman.
Brandon v. Richardson County – 2001
Brandon Teena – whose life inspired the film Boys Don’t Cry – was living as a man when he was brutally raped by men who discovered he was transgender. The investigating sheriff informed the rapists that Teena had pressed charges, and he then refused to protect Teena, who was ultimately murdered by the rapists.
The Nebraska Supreme Court found the sheriff’s abuse to be “extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community” and held him liable for his abusive treatment of and failure to protect Teena.
Lawrence v. Texas – 2003
In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that consenting adults do not have a constitutional right to engage in homosexual acts in private. That decision was overturned in this 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. “The state [Texas],” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, “cannot demean their [gays’] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”
Lupita Benitez, a lesbian, was denied infertility treatment by the North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group, which was staffed by conservative Christian doctors. The California Supreme Court ruled that the personal religious beliefs of a healthcare provider cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT patients by withholding care. The case addressed issues of LGBT persons receiving equal access to treatment as well as religiously motivated discrimination.
United States v. Windsor – 2013
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were a lesbian couple living in New York state, which recognized their same-sex marriage as legal, when Spyer died in 2009, leaving her entire estate to Windsor. But based on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex spouses, Windsor was disallowed the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses and therefore was compelled to pay $363,053 in estate taxes.
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found DOMA unconstitutional because it violates equal protection by denying married gay couples recognition under federal law.
Obergefell v. Hodges – 2015
After same-sex couples from across the nation sued their states for not allowing them to get married, the matter reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, stating that under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause the states must provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
G.G. v Gloucester County School Board – October 2016
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Gavin Grimm, a 15-year-old transgender male who sought to right to use the boys’ restroom in his high school. The decision was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which, in March 2017, sent the case back to the appellate court for reconsideration in view of the Departments of Justice and Education having rescinded earlier guidance on protecting transgender students.