From Albatross to Litmus Test: Gay Rights and the Democratic Party, Part 1

Last week, Democratic presidential candidates met to discuss LGBTQ rights at a CNN town forum, mostly enunciating unequivocal support for recent policy concerns. It is hard to imagine a Democratic nominee that does not receive at least a passing grade from LGBTQ rights groups. Indeed, one reason for widespread distrust of Democratic presidential contender Tulsi Gabbard is her erstwhile activism against marriage equality in her home state of Hawaii, despite her insistence that she now supports it. But support for gay rights was not always a Democratic Party litmus test. At the 2007 counterpart to the recent CNN forum, only Mike Gravel supported marriage equality. I argue in my book, First to the Party: The Group Origins of Political Transformation, that gay rights groups advanced their agenda through the politics of protest and strategic alliances. In this blog post, I will reviews the role of protest in influencing Democratic presidents and presidential candidates, using secondary sources as well as records from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Organization for Women (NOW), and National LGBTQ Task Force (henceforth NGTF, reflecting an earlier name). As Anderson Cooper acknowledged after a Trans Lives Matter protest at the CNN forum, “Let me just point out there is a long and proud tradition in history in the gay lesbian and transgender community of protest and we applaud them for their protest. And they are absolutely right to be angry and upset at the lack of attention, particularly in the media.”

Gay rights supporters have supported Democrats over Republicans since the early homophile movement in the 1950s. Even before the Christian Right congealed as a movement in opposition to gay rights, gay rights groups were a better fit for the Democratic Party. Since white collar professionals had more to lose by being “out of the closet,” early gay rights groups tended to represent lower income members of the population. In large cities, gay rights groups wanted city-funded health clinics to serve the gay population, since many felt uncomfortable discussing their health with traditional providers. With the advent of AIDS in the 1980s, gay rights groups also wanted government funding for research and treatment. Their demands therefore conflicted with fiscal as well as social conservatives.

This did not mean that Democratic politicians, especially at the national level, would be responsive to their support. There was a real danger that Democrats would not publicly push for their policy goals because LGBTQ groups could hardly threaten to vote for Republicans, in danger of becoming what Frymer calls a “captured minority.” Gay rights groups therefore needed to offer Democrats more than just votes.

When gay rights issues were first considered in Congress, privately supportive Democrats tried to prevent their support from being publicly known. This covert support was frustrating to gay rights activists who were hoping that the policies would start a dialogue and help normalize gay rights as an issue, and not simply change policy. Even New York City Representative Bella Abzug, an outspoken feminist who cosponsored the first gay rights bill in Congress in 1974, called gay rights a “dangerous issue.” Stu Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter’s “issues coordinator,” told future coalitions direct Midge Costanza at a platform hearing, “Midge, let’s do what we have to do for the gay rights movement — but let’s do it after we get to the White House. For God’s sakes, don’t let us carry this albatross going into the campaign.  We have to win this election.”[i] Both President Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale were wary of using the word “gay” in public, even to say the name of a group like the NGRL or NGTF. When asked his opinion about whether gays should be allowed to adopt children or teach in schools, Carter answered “That’s something I’d rather not answer.”[ii]

Gay rights groups could obtain some concessions by threatening to draw attention to the presence of their controversial constituency in the Democratic Party. Several gay rights groups contributed to a National Convention Project to send 80 openly gay activists to the 1980 convention. The project was premised on the assumption that “gay rights would never get anywhere in the Congress until at least one of the major parties put gay rights on its agenda in the form of a platform plank.”[iii]  When Carter supporters opposed the platform, members of the Stonewall Democratic Club pointed to committed Ted Kennedy delegates and said “See those guys with the clipboards?  We have the support to make this go.  You can give it to us now in the basement of the Mayflower Hotel without the TV cameras, or you can watch us fight it out on the floor of the convention in New York.”  The Democratic platform included sexual orientation in its antidiscrimination plank for the first time.[iv]  A contingent from San Francisco advocated a floor fight unless the platform contained the word “gay,” which would recognize the gay population on their own terms.  Even if it failed, activists would gain national recognition for the fight. However, they were outvoted by those who appreciated what Carter had already done and how a floor fight could hurt his chances for reelection.

By 1992, a number of Democratic presidential candidates openly discussed gay rights at the primary stage. Former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas brought up gay rights many times and California Governor Jerry Brown wore a red ribbon to symbolize AIDS awareness.[v] The nominee, Bill Clinton, met openly with gay rights groups that ultimately raised $3 million for him.[vi] When Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey told an off-color joke about lesbians, NGTF was able to pressure him to cosponsor a gay rights bill.[vii] With the support of NOW and the National Education Association, gay rights activists won a party platform in 1992 pledged to fund AIDS research and end to discrimination in employment, the military, and immigration.[viii] Gay rights groups were frustrated that Democratic presidential candidates continued to avoid discussing gay rights after the primaries. As late as 2001, the Gill Foundation remarked that “After the primary, when we decided to get more aggressive in the media and otherwise, we faced tremendous pressure from some politicians not to do so…Their hope was that they could get the public to ignore the issue, and focus on other issues, and their fear was that our advertising would keep the issue front and center.”[ix]

Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was passed shortly before the Republican takeover of Congress in 2010. Many groups protested for Obama to move quicker on the issue.[x] President Obama initially waited for a Defense Department study to be released in December 2010. Members of “Get Equal” disrupted Obama as he spoke at a fundraiser for Barbara Boxer, and were arrested or dragged out. Protests such as these seem to have truncated the White House timeline; DADT legislation was introduced in May of 2010 and passed before the next session. One writer argues that Obama’s subsequent decision not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act would have been untenable without the repeal of DADT, because the policy implied that the government had a rational basis for antigay discrimination.[xi]

Even after two-thirds of Democratic voters and a majority of the public supported marriage equality in 2012, President Obama hesitated to publicly support it because of opposition in swing states like Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. Political strategist David Axelrod claimed that Obama had always supported full marriage but opposed it for political reasons with his counseling.[xii] The organization “Freedom to Marry” ultimately assembled an impressive line-up of party luminaries to support marriage equality leading up to the 2012 convention. In May, Obama came out in support of marriage equality after his vice president announced his support on “Meet the Press.” Privately, he said he did not want to go against his party on the issue.[xiii] Journalistic accounts show that Obama did not want to defy the leading party members who pledged themselves to Freedom to Marry’s platform.[xiv]

At many junctures, gay rights groups have obtained recognition from Democratic Party leaders by drawing attention to their constituency against the wishes of the same leaders. Many factors played a role in the growing importance of gay rights to national Democratic Party politics. Public opinion on gay rights issues has undoubtedly been important, but not sufficient for President Obama’s support in 2012, when he changed with a consensus of party leaders. In subsequent blog posts, I will review the role of interest group coalitions and the AIDS crisis.

[i] Clendinen, Dudley, and Adam Nagourney. Out for good: The struggle to build a gay rights movement in America. Simon and Schuster, 2001, 276-277.

[ii] Flippen, J. Brooks. Jimmy Carter, the politics of family, and the rise of the religious right. University of Georgia Press, 2011, 181. He eventually opposed California’s Briggs Initiative, which barred teachers from being gay or supporting gay rights, in public.

[iii] Gay Community News, November 10 1979, NGTF archives (Cornell University Library, Ithaca New York) 79.

[iv] D’Emilio, John, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds. Creating change: Sexuality, public policy, and civil rights. St. Martin’s Press, 2002, 86, 94.

[v] Urvashi Vaid to NGLTF Board of Directors, March 17 1992, NGTF 3.

[vi] O’Leary, “From Agitator to Insider,” 103.

[vii] Peri Jude Radecic, “December ’91,” January 10 1992,  NGTF 3.

[viii] Apuzzo said “We’ve gotten everything we could expect in the party platform” (Out for Good, 505). For Clinton, supporting their agenda in office proved more difficult than expected, and he was confined to executive orders, symbolic appointments, and AIDS funding. HRC still made an early endorsement of his reelection bid, noting that “while we have faced disappointment from this administration, it is essential to remember President Clinton has done more for lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans than any other leader in the history of this nation” (Joint Board Report, March 1996, Records of the HRC (Cornell University Library, Ithaca New York) (83).

[ix] Scott Swenson to GOTV Debrief Meeting Participants, April 9 2001, HRC 57.

[x] Eleveld, Kerry. Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency. Basic Books, 2015, 55.

[xi] Don’t Tell Me to Wait, 262.

[xii] David Axelrod, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, 447. In 1996, Obama wrote on a gay newspaper’s questionnaire that he supported, but said he was undecided on the two years later, and opposed it during the 2008 election. Documentation of his earlier support did not surface until after he won the election. Privately, his campaign advisers thought he supported it all along. See Halperin, Mark, and John Heilemann. Double down: Game change 2012. Penguin, 2013, 57.

[xiii] Halperin and Heilemann claim that Obama had privately decided to make an announcement in support of gay marriage after widespread support for Freedom to Marry’s platform, but no final decision was made about the time or venue (Halperin and Heilemann, Doubling Down, 298).

[xiv] Don’t Tell Me to Wait, 254-256.

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