Opinion | What Makes the Supreme Court’s Gay Rights Ruling So Surprising

The move to overturn such deeply entrenched discrimination began almost immediately. Frank Kameny, a Harvard-trained astronomer, was hired by the Army Map Service in 1957 — then fired, a few months later, when the Army discovered he had been arrested on a morals charge in San Francisco.

Kameny became the first gay federal employee to openly challenge the government’s policy. In a brief he submitted to the Supreme Court in 1961, he described the rules banning homosexuals from federal employment as “a stench in the nostrils of decent people, an offense against morality, an abandonment of reason, an affront to human dignity, an improper restraint upon proper freedom and liberty, a disgrace to any civilized society, and a violation of all that this nation stands for.”

The Court ruled against Kameny. But he had discovered his life’s purpose: He became the intellectual father of the modern L.G.B.T.Q. rights movement. As recounted in a newly published biography of Kameny, “The Deviant’s War,” he was the first person to convince homosexuals that just because they were gay did not mean they were sick. Then he got the A.C.L.U. to change its position. Eventually he led the fight to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 — a victory that helped make all of the movement’s subsequent progress possible.

It would take another 23 years before the Supreme Court would issue its first important pro-gay decision, Romer v. Evans, in which Justice Kennedy led a six-to-three majority to throw out a Colorado state constitutional initiative stripping gay people of anti-discrimination protection. But that ruling didn’t end discrimination for gay people — “it just stopped the right to take it away,” said Matt Coles, who led the gay rights project at the A.C.L.U. for 15 years.

For all the recent progress, practically the entire L.G.B.T.Q. establishment had braced itself for Monday’s decision. The conservative tilt of the court, and the recent spate of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. moves by the Trump administration, made the worst seem inevitable. So there is jubilation over Monday’s decision, unlike anything since Barack Obama’s White House was lit up in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2015.

“We won because Black and Brown trans people fought and died for us to live and fight,” Chase Strangio, a lawyer who represented one of the clients in Monday’s cases, tweeted after the court’s decision. “The words that we crafted. And fought for. In the middle of the night. Through so many drafts. Are in this opinion. The words of trans lawyers. The words of Black queer women lawyers. Our words.”

Charles Kaiser is the author of “The Gay Metropolis, The Landmark History of Gay Life in America.” He directs the L.G.B.T.Q. Policy Center at Hunter College at Hunter College.

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