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social sciences

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ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project  
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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has for more than four decades been at the forefront of litigation designed to secure glbtq rights on a variety of fronts, dealing with such issues as employment discrimination, entrapment and unequal enforcement of the law against public and private sexual expression, family law and marriage equality, AIDS discrimination, gender identity discrimination, and the rights of school children to be free of bullying and harassment.

Lawyers associated with the ACLU have been either counsel or co-counsel in many of the significant cases that have helped define the constitutional rights of glbtq individuals and families.

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Since 1986, the ACLU's efforts in the area of glbtq rights have been coordinated by the Gay Rights Project (later renamed LGBT & AIDS Project).

Organization and Mission

The ACLU was founded in 1920 with the mission of defending "the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." It is widely regarded as the nation's premier public interest law firm and its foremost protector of individual rights.

Supported by over 500,000 members, the ACLU has provided legal counsel in thousands of cases and has appeared before the U. S. Supreme Court more times than any other organization except the U. S. Department of Justice.

The ACLU maintains national headquarters in New York City and Washington, D. C., but most of the litigation and educational work of the organization is performed by its 52 locally-based affiliates and chapters. Although staff from the national headquarters work with the affiliates to set priorities and formulate strategies, the affiliates exercise a great deal of autonomy in accepting cases and launching educational campaigns.

In addition to litigating "high impact" cases, the ACLU also lobbies legislators at the local, state, and federal levels about civil liberty issues. It also attempts to educate the general public about individual rights and liberties.


Despite its current reputation as a fierce defender of glbtq rights, the ACLU was slow to join the battle for equal rights for sexual minorities. Although the ACLU website dates its earliest defense of gay rights to 1936, when it fought the censorship of Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play, The Children's Hour, most of its early efforts that intersected with assaults on the rights of glbtq people actually had little to do with protecting homosexuals as such, but were in defense of free speech or the right of assembly.

In 1951, in his influential book The Homosexual in America, Donald Webster Cory (pseudonym of Edward Sagarin) lamented that liberal groups such as the ACLU had shown indifference to the plight of homosexuals, who were then experiencing vicious oppression in the McCarthy-era of purges and widespread arrests for homosexual activity.

Indeed, in January 1957, the Board of Directors of the ACLU adopted a national policy upholding the constitutionality of state laws, under some of which individuals could be imprisoned for life, as well as federal security statutes that banned the employment of homosexuals. Chillingly, the policy declared that "It is not within the province of the [ACLU] to evaluate the social validity of the laws aimed at the suppression or elimination of homosexuals."

The organization most concerned with American civil liberties shamefully abandoned the very group that most needed its protection at the time.

Although the ACLU did nothing to halt the government purges, psychiatric incarcerations, entrapments, and bar raids that made gay life in the 1950s so dangerous, during the 1960s individual affiliates of the ACLU began hesitantly to take up the cause of gay rights.

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