Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

Beginning in the early 1970’s, a number of city governments in the United States—and Canada—passed ordinances protecting lesbians and gays from discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, and education. The municipal-level actions were soon followed by county- and state-level legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Summary of Event

Beginning shortly after the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in 1969, a number of local governments in the United States began debating whether to amend their local civil rights ordinances to prohibit discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation (also referred to as “affectional preference” or “sexual preference” in some ordinances). Several municipalities and counties, and then states, have changed their laws. [kw]Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws (1972-1973)
[kw]Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws, Local (1972-1973)
[kw]Antidiscrimination Laws, Local Governments Pass (1972-1973)
[kw]Laws, Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination (1972-1973)
Antidiscrimination laws;and municipal governments[municipal governments]
Civil rights;municipal governments
Employment rights;municipal governments
[c]Civil rights;1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws[0870]
[c]Government and politics;1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws[0870]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws[0870]

The university town of East Lansing, Michigan, East Lansing, Michigan is generally credited with adopting, on March 7, 1972, the first such nondiscrimination policy. Under pressure from gay activists at Michigan State University but unable to muster enough votes to adopt a formal ordinance giving effect to this policy, the East Lansing city council settled for a policy that simply prohibited discrimination in city employment. On April 3, 1972, San Francisco passed a law prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians by city contractors. In July, Ann Arbor, Michigan, amended its civil rights ordinance to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in a wide variety of arenas, including employment, housing, and public accommodations.

It seems that both San Francisco and New York City had administrative nondiscrimination policies for city employees in place before East Lansing did, but East Lansing was the first city council to hold a public vote on the issue of sexual orientation discrimination. A little more than one year later, East Lansing formally amended its human rights ordinance establishing the nondiscrimination policy in law and expanding its coverage to private as well as public employment and public accommodations. In October of 1973, Toronto became the first Canadian city to adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance.

Another dozen or so U.S. cities, including both college towns and major urban centers, passed similar ordinances in the remaining years of the 1970’s. Some big cities, such as San Francisco and Minneapolis, Minnesota, adopted laws before 1975, while others, such as New York and Chicago, debated the issue for several years before their city councils finally adopted nondiscrimination ordinances.

Opposition to local ordinances began even before the first ordinances were passed. In several cities, bills were introduced but could not muster enough votes to pass. Religious groups in particular often were the leading opponents of such laws, though others, who believed that homosexuality was immoral, criminal, or an illness also argued against offering civil rights protection to gays and lesbians for living a “lifestyle” believed to be deviant.

In 1977, the backlash against nondiscrimination ordinances took on new momentum. Singer Anita Bryant Bryant, Anita led the charge against the actions of the Dade County Commission, Dade County, Florida which had adopted Florida’s first nondiscrimination ordinance. The ordinance was repealed by a 2 to 1 vote in the first major referendum on GLBT rights in the United States. Referenda repealing GLBT rights ordinances in Wichita, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota, quickly followed. Miami did not pass another GLBT rights ordinance again until 1998, and it again faced a referendum in 2002: In 2002, however, a little more than half the voters chose to retain the law.

This pattern continued throughout the 1980’s, as a few cities and counties adopted ordinances and many cities tried unsuccessfully to adopt such laws. The 1980’s also saw the first states to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances, beginning with Wisconsin in 1982. The 1980’s and 1990’s also saw intensive campaigns to repeal ordinances. In 1992, the voters of Colorado passed Amendment 2, which amended the state constitution to prevent local governments from adopting local nondiscrimination ordinances that would prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans overturned Colorado’s constitutional provision. In the first few years of the twenty-first century, more than two hundred city and county governments had ordinances or formal policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

As of March, 2006, seventeen states and the District of Columbia had state laws protecting GLBT rights (and eight of these plus the District of Columbia also protect gender identity/gender expression), while another dozen or so states have executive orders covering state employees only. Executive orders, however, often last only as long as a sympathetic governor remains in office. Several states that had such executive orders lost them when new governors or hostile legislatures opposed to GLBT rights repeal or amend the previous executive order. Other states, including Delaware, have had hotly contested debates over several years about protecting GLBT rights but have failed to garner sufficient support to pass the nondiscrimination legislation.

The actual content and strength of these policies and ordinances can vary widely, however. Many of them simply prohibit the government from discriminating against its own employees. Others attempt to be as comprehensive as federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and union practices. Some only allow a human rights commission at the local level the right to hear complaints and attempt to negotiate settlements, whereas others allow a given city to impose fines or allow individuals who feel their rights were violated to pursue private court actions. Formal complaints under such laws are infrequent, in part because civil complaints become public record; filing a complaint, then, is a form of “self-outing,” which likely keeps many from filing in the first place.


Social and cultural attitudes about lesbians and gays have changed through the years, partly because of the actions of numerous municipalities and state governments. Cities, counties, and states are beginning to see that discrimination against GLBT people is a civil rights issue. In response, they have adopted antidiscrimination ordinances and laws, even if limited in scope. The number of cities, counties, and states providing such coverage is relatively small, but about half the U.S. population lives in jurisdictions where sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited. Antidiscrimination laws;and municipal governments[municipal governments]
Civil rights;municipal governments
Employment rights;municipal governments

Further Reading

  • Button, James, Barbara Rienzo, and Kenneth D. Wald. Private Lives, Public Choices. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1997.
  • Koppelman, Andrew. The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Murdoch, Joyce, and Deb Price. Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians vs. the Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  • Riggle, Ellen, and Barry Tadlock, eds. Gays and Lesbians in the Democratic Process. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Witt, Stephanie L., and Suzanne McCorkle. Anti-Gay Rights: Assessing Voter Initiatives. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

June 21, 1973: U.S. Supreme Court Supports Local Obscenity Laws

August, 1973: American Bar Association Calls for Repeal of Laws Against Consensual Sex

1977: Anita Bryant Campaigns Against Gay and Lesbian Rights

December 19, 1977: Quebec Includes Lesbians and Gays in Its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms

1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

November 6, 1984: West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council

April, 2003: Buenos Aires Recognizes Same-Gender Civil Unions