From Albatross to Litmus Test, Part 2

This blog post is the second entry in a series on the importance of gay rights in Democratic Party politics, inspired by the recent CNN forum of Democratic presidential candidates on LGBTQ rights. The last post in the series discussed how gay rights groups used the politics of protest to pressure the Democratic Party to change its stance on antidiscrimination laws and marriage equality.

This post moves back in time from the impact of gay rights groups on the Democratic Party, looking instead to the formation of 1970s gay rights groups and their early alliance with feminist interest groups. I explore early divisions to show how gay rights groups arrived at a place where they could later influence a party. The post is based on secondary sources and archival sources from the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), the National LGBTQ Task Force (NGTF),[i] and Human Rights Campaign (HRC). In subsequent posts, I plan to discuss coalition building with other civil rights groups and the role of the AIDS crisis.

Getting different elements of the LGBTQ community to coalesce for a political agenda was no easy task. As with most public interest groups, only a small fraction of their intended beneficiaries donated to or volunteered for early groups like NGTF or National Gay Rights Lobby (NGRL). NGTF, in particular, complained about its lack of resources. In 1992, it did not even have the staff to attend meetings of other civil rights groups in the wake of the Rodney King riots:

“The Rodney King verdict provided a great opportunity for us to build a coalition with people of color groups and activists with whom we do not generally work.  The good news is that Ivy and I were able to make a very successful demonstration happen at the Justice Department on Monday, May 4th…The bad news is that we have nobody on staff who can dedicate the time to sustaining the process of interaction and political alliance we began. This has meant that we have been unable to attend and participate in meetings of national leaders (the National Rainbow Coalition has invited us to several), or to be involved with progressive, non-homophobic people of color organizations.”[ii]

In 1978, the National Gay Rights Lobby (NGRL) had a single desk, a disconnected telephone, and a pile of unpaid bills. That year, Steve Endean left NGTF to become NGRL’s director. However, NGRL had a staff of 10 two years later. The same year, Endean also started HRC, which grew to be one of the best-funded gay rights groups (NGRL was enfolded into it in 1985). Newspaper accounts of the early 1980s claimed that HRC’s fundraising ability quickly attracted prominent Democratic politicians like Jerry Brown and Walter Mondale.

Adding to the divisions in early gay rights groups, gay rights leaders often disagreed with each other and members on the need to assimilate mainstream values. The largest gay rights groups generally favored a mainstream appearance even though it lost them some support. NGRL and NGTF depicted gay men and women as normal Americans apart from a different choice of sexuality. Professional activists worried about the open displays of affection or the public perception of gay party culture.[iii] An NGTF advertising strategy primer in 1986 read “When portraying gay males, stress clean-cut All-American types, and avoid images of campy feminine types of menacing muscled leather types. Statistical and stereotypic ‘normalcy’ must be the rule.”[iv] The Stonewall Club, on the other hand, disagreed with “party leaders who would tolerate gay presence, but only if it is ‘respectable in appearance. In reality, this is impossible.”[v] Some gay people viewed unconventional appearance and public behavior as a way to oppose oppressive or bourgeois social norms.[vi]

On top of the usual collective action impediments faced by public interest groups, closeted homosexuals were afraid to risk revealing their identity by associating with any gay rights organizations. Many white-collar homosexuals had more to lose through public exposure, making it difficult for early groups to get off the ground.

The early history of lesbians in gay rights groups fits with the findings of Dara Strolovitch in Affirmative Advocacy. Lesbians generally faced more levels of discrimination and possessed fewer resources, and gay rights groups prioritized the policy demands of their more advantaged male members. Gay newspapers and magazines overwhelmingly published stories and advertisements appealing to gay males, not lesbians.[vii] Both the leadership and membership of NGTF and GRNL were predominantly male, while other split up over the issue of including women.[viii] Some gay men participated in gay rights for social reasons and preferred to avoid the company of women.[ix]

Among some early donors were gay club owners and publishers, since they were already publicly associated with homosexuals and had more resources to donate than others. Since they catered to gay male populations, their priorities differed with lesbians. Club owners prioritized the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, partly because these laws were used to justify police raids on gay clubs. They were seldom used to prosecute lesbians, although occasionally they were used against lesbians in child custody hearings.[x] Some men in the movement wanted to lower the legal age of consent. When this issue was brought up at conventions, lesbians almost uniformly opposed the policy as a way to exploit underage women.[xi]

Many lesbian rights activists concentrated their efforts in feminist groups like NOW instead. Betty Friedan purged “the lavender menace” in one chapter of NOW in the early 1970s, but lesbians received significant institutional support shortly thereafter.[xii] By the mid 1970s, local NOW chapters insisted that opposition to women’s rights and gay rights were cut from the same cloth, since insisting on heterosexual relationships was a patriarchal demand. In 1977, a NOW Lesbian Rights Workshop unanimously recognized that “women are all oppressed by one common oppression” and disseminated guidelines to prevent discrimination from local chapters.[xiii] NOW promised to change direction and apologized for its past inattention in 1977, writing “lesbians were never excluded from NOW, but we have been evasive or apologetic about their presence within the organization. Afraid of alienating public support, we have often treated lesbians as the step sisters of the movement, allowed to work with us, but then expected to hide in the upstairs closet when company comes.”[xiv]

Gay rights and feminist groups worked side-by-side at several points in the 1970s. When gay rights legislation was introduced in Congress in 1974, NGTF’s leadership met with NOW’s director. NOW appeared with NGTF at the bill’s press conference and lobbied Congress. NAACP and other civil rights organizations declined to support the bill at the time.[xv] In 1975, NOW staffed a convention’s day care with male NGTF volunteers to dispel stereotypes of gay men as pedophiles.[xvi] At the 1976 Democratic Convention, NOW included gay rights as one of its four demands, albeit the only one not incorporated (the others were support for ERA, abortion rights, and federally funded daycare). At the 1979 White House Conference on Families, NOW worked with Planned Parenthood and NGTF to prevent the conference from adopting a traditional definition of the family.[xvii] NOW delegates even helped gather signatures for vice-presidential candidate Mel Boozer, a gay activist, at the 1980 Democratic convention.[xviii]

NGRL and NGTF actively worked to promote feminism and the inclusion of women. NGTF and NGRL’s published policies were to have a board of directors evenly split between men and women, despite having more male members. NGTF supported abortion rights and affirmative action for women. In reviewing a gay male resource book, one NGTF employee wrote:

“the commitment of NGTF to feminism should be clearly reflected throughout the book…A theme of feminism should be found throughout, perhaps the concept of coalition building between women and men in gay/lesbian groups could replace the thought of attracting women. A feminist theme might also deal with drag, male privilege, competition, etc.”

Moreover, the resource book should concede that gay males “are socialized to be sexist…despite our realization of how we are oppressed as gay males.”[xix] In 1985, NGTF was renamed to include lesbians in its title. The Victory Fund, founded in 1991, mandates that endorsed candidates be strongly pro-choice.

NGTF and HRC mentioned NOW far more often than NOW mentioned them, arguably demonstrating that gay rights groups perceived their need for an alliance as more crucial. As the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) came before the states, NGTF argued that a defeat for feminists was a defeat for them. If feminism could not be enfolded into civil rights, neither could gay rights. NGTF also stressed their common opponents in the New Right and the growing Christian Right – just as labor unions and civil rights groups argued that they shared the same enemies as they coalesced in the 1940s. In one letter to members in 1978, NGTF claimed “the future of gay civil rights legislation rests heavily with the” ERA. Just as “gay civil rights is truly a feminist issue, so too, is the ERA a genuine gay concern.” An employee wrote “If we don’t all hang together, we’ll all hang separately…Both the Gay and Feminist movements are working toward the elimination of sex-role stereotyping and are fighting a common enemy – sexism.” A New York ERA interest group admitted that ERA would accomplish no legal victories for gay rights but “will demonstrate popular support for a more humanistic government.” [xx]

By 1984, gay rights were a litmus test issue for two of the largest feminist groups, NOW and NWPC. Based on solicited input from state and local chapters, NOW included gay rights on its questionnaire to presidential candidates. While they viewed California Senator Alan Cranston as the best candidate on both feminist and gay rights issues, many members thought that former Vice President Walter Mondale was the best of the “electable” candidates.[xxi] Mondale, a minister’s son, admitted that gay rights issues made him uncomfortable. But between the Democratic midterm convention of 1982 and the Democratic primaries of 1984, he spoke to an HRC banquet in New York City and promised to include gay people on his campaign staff. Both NOW and NWPC complained that Mondale’s main rival, Colorado Senator Gary Hart, had not endorsed a gay rights bill (though he ultimately did in April of 1984) and evaded their questions.[xxii] Florida Governor Reubin Askew, who had been a supporter of Anita Bryant’s campaign to repeal Dade County’s antidiscrimination laws, now said that it was unfair to discriminate against people based on innate sexual orientation. (Askew was still excluded from NOW gatherings for being against abortion rights). Of the Democratic candidates, only Ohio Senator John Glenn was overtly opposed to gay rights, saying that civil rights should not encompass lifestyle choices.

NOW’s president endorsed Mondale in February of 1984, highlighting his commitment to “millions of lesbians and gay men who will no longer tolerate second class citizenship. Mondale has a long history of support for civil rights for everyone. His support for an end to discrimination against lesbians and gay men was an important factor in our endorsement, and we are pleased that he has joined us in supporting” a gay rights bill. NOW boasted that it had worked with the Mondale campaign ahead of time to ensure that gays would be represented at the convention.[xxiii] NWPC also dubbed ERA and gay rights “our issues” at a strategy meeting for the 1984 platform.[xxiv]

Despite a rough start and some periods of retrenchment,[xxv] prominent feminist interest groups generally became committed supporters of gay rights. Like the Democratic Party, some early feminist interest group leaders feared that the cause of gay rights would make women’s rights less popular. But state and local chapters pushed the national organization to treat gay rights as part of the feminist agenda. NOW ultimately used gay rights as a litmus test issue in the 1984 Democratic Primary. My next post will explore the relationship between gay rights groups and civil rights groups, who were slower to coalesce with gay rights groups than feminist groups.

[i] I use this abbreviation based on the earliest name of the organization, the National Gay Task Force, which later become the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and then the National LGBTQ Task Force.

[ii] Urvashi Vaid to Board of Directors, June 17 1992, NGTF 3.

[iii] Out for Good, 248, 303, 313, 480, 500.

[iv] Erastes Pill and Marshall, “A Primer of Suggested Advertisements for a ‘Waging Peace’ Campaign in the Print Media to be Undertaken by the NGTF,” January 30 1986, NGTF 3.

[v] Paul Boneberg to Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs, January 11 1984, NGTF 140.

[vi] Out for Good, 79, 465, and 526. After an antidiscrimination bill lost 7-5 in New York City in 1972, both supporters and opponents blamed it on the confrontational tactics and appearance of the Gay Activist Alliance.

[vii] Out for Good, 263-264.

[viii] Some early gay rights groups had fizzled over the inclusion of women in the leadership (Out for Good, 259, 263). This tension persisted in NGTF, though the organization survived. At one point, a board member of NGTF wrote to another that “you have yet to understand that dealing with sexism and racism — in NGTF and in the larger society – demands more than attempts to mollify…It demands more than surface change…Instead of seeing the very real ways, and the many subtle and insidious ways that sexism and racism are ingrained in everyday interactions, you seem to see only your own response…I do expect you to begin fulfilling a promise made to the board when you were hired — to try and deepen your understanding of institutional racism and sexism” (Kay Whitlock to Charlie Brydon, May 12 1980, NGTF 168).

[ix] Rimmerman, Craig. From identity to politics: the lesbian and gay movements in the United States. Temple University Press, 2001, 25.

[x] Out for Good, 341.

[xi] NGTF refused to take a stance on the issue until it opposed any repeal in the mid-1980s (Minutes of the Board of Directors Meeting, August 13 1977, NGTF 167; Larry Gurel to Co-executive directors, June 2 1981, Papers of Charlotte Bunch 3, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute (henceforth Bunch); Sharon McDonald, “NOLAG Founders Battle Over ‘Sexual Freedom,'” May 9 1981, Gay Community News, in Bunch 3; Gerald Gerash (NGTF Board Member), “General Approach to the New Right/Moral Majority,” undated, Bunch 3; and Out for Good, 407, 456).

[xii] Barbara Love to Board of Directors, January 6 1973, Records of NOW 47, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute (henceforth NOW).

[xiii] NOW Lesbian Rights Workshop, April 1977, NGTF 167.

[xiv] Lesbian Rights Resource Kit, undated, NGTF 168; also see Kay Whitlock and Judy Block, NOW Lesbian Rights Workshop, April 1977, NGTF 167.

[xv] NGTF wins Congress Support from ACLU and NOW, undated 1974, NGTF 167.

[xvi] Nada Chandler to Bruce Voeller, September 29 1975, NGTF 167; NOW Task Force Challenges Lesbian Taboo, NGTF 167.

[xvii] Charles Brydon to Margaret Standish, September 30 1980, NGTF 168.

[xviii] Lesbian Rights Resource Kit, Undated, NGTF 168.

[xix] Untitled notes for Gay Male Resource Book outline, undated 1977, NGTF 2.

[xx] NGTF to members, October 9 1978, NGTF 171.

[xxi] Marjorie Storch (Charlotte president of NOW) to Mary Jean Collins (Vice President for Political Action, November 12 1983, NOW Carton 100 Box 35.

[xxii] “NOW convention,” NWPC Carton 233, Folder 24.

[xxiii] Mary Jean Collins to the National Board, May 4 1984, NOW 5.

[xxiv] Democratic Task Force Meeting Minutes, May 18, 1984, NWPC 286.

[xxv] Out for Good, 100-102. For example, NOW refused to ally gay rights banners at its rallies in 1978 (Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right, 147).

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