LGBTQ+ Court Cases in History: What You Might Have Missed

Students Keegan Hunt and Alex

This year I will be taking a look into LGBTQ+ history that is not often mentioned in schools. As of October 27, 2020 Amy Coney Barret was approved, tipping the Supreme Court to have a 6-3 Conservative majority. In the past 50 years, the U.S. has made many decisions through the Supreme Court that have greatly changed the lives and rights of LGBTQ+ community members. Issues of all caliber, from the right to marriage to access of healthcare have come up in the Supreme Court, and some of the lesser known cases are pivotal for the country. As we face an unknown and potentially dark future with the current Supreme Court, the cases below detail the successes the LGBTQ+ community have been able to achieve in the Supreme Court, which you may or may not be aware of. 

Inc. V. Olesen (1958)

One of the first major wins for the LGBTQ+ community in the Supreme Court was Inc. V. Olesen. A publisher association located in L.A. published the first real LGBTQ+ magazine targeted for gay men at the time. It was one of the first major media sources to publish content specifically for the LGBTQ+ community, and was majorly successful. However, the August and October editions of the magazine were taken by L.A. postal authorities. In the Supreme Court case, the authorities argued that the magazine violated obscenity laws, and the owners of the magazine argued that there was nothing obscene about homosexuality. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the publication, because the publication was not inherently obscene making it a violation of free speech. The legal line for what constitutes obscenity has been historically blurry and largely subjective, but Inc. v. Olesen established a precedent for depictions of homosexuality to be within the bounds of the freedom of expression. 

Romer V. Evans (1996)

In Colorado, the state legislature adopted an amendment to their state constitution that forbade federal protection from discrimination based on homosexuality, which was challenged by LGBTQ+ interest groups but ultimately upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court. The federal Supreme Court struck down the amendment, ruling that its provisions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Further, it did not meet the requirement of fulfilling a specific goal of the government. This case applied the provisions of the 14th Amendment, which were originally written to prevent discrimination based on race, to the LGBTQ+ community, giving a constitutional basis for LGBTQ+ rights activists to fight against discrimination with.

Lawrence V. Texas (2003)

Texas law specifically forbade “homosexual conduct,” which included intimacy between same-sex couples, which led to the arrest of citizens John Lawrence and Tyron Garner. The federal Supreme Court ruled that these laws were unconstitutional and in violation of the Due Process Clause. Lawrence and Garner, then, were considered to be consenting adults exercising their right to privacy. With this precedent, same-sex couples were given the legal right to engage in intimate relationships without intervention from state or federal governments.

United States V. Windsor (2010)

Following the death of Thea Clara Spyer, her spouse, Edith Windsor, was taxed $363,000 on her property as their marriage was not federally recognized under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996, leading Windsor to sue the federal government on the basis of the DOMA being unconstitutional. The court ruled that states have the power to define marriage as either allowing or prohibiting same-sex relationships, but that the DOMA upholds an unconstitutional discrimination against same-sex couples. As such, this case federally allowed LGBTQ+ marriage but maintained the possibility for states to bar couples from marrying. 

Obergefell V. Hodges (2015)

James Obergefell, like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, was barred from marrying his partner in his state and was required to travel out of state to get officially married, leading him to join several other LGBTQ+ couples in challenging the constitutionality of state bans on LGBTQ+ marriage. The federal Supreme Court ruled in favor of Obergefell, declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to marry as a fundamental liberty, which includes LGBTQ+ marriage. With this case, LGBTQ+ marriage was federally protected, an important step forward for LGBTQ+ activists and the culmination of decades of work. This case set the stage for the current state of affairs regarding LGBTQ+ rights. 

Whether you are learning about these cases for the first time, or you already knew about them, these cases were so important for members of the LGBTQ+ community, and still hold relevance today. While the Supreme Court cannot overturn previous cases, they can set a new precedent with new cases that arise. With members of the LGBTQ+ community always fighting for fair and equal rights, there is no doubt that we will continue to see these cases come forward in the Supreme Court as we actively make history. This is the first of an ongoing series about LGBTQ+ history not taught in schools, check for more information.

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She/her | Senior | Editor of the MB Spyglass

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