From Albatross to Litmus Test, Part 3

The rainbow is today widely recognized as a symbol for both diversity and gay rights. Reverend Jesse Jackson helped to popularize the symbol by founding the Rainbow Coalition in 1984, the same year he ran in the Democratic presidential primaries. Gay rights groups had sought to include discrimination against LGBTQ people into the broader category of civil rights for years. Yet, in 1984, Jackson seemed more interested in demanding that LGBTQ audiences contribute to the goals of others in the coalition. At a gay rights forum with a mostly white audience, Jackson admonished the audience to grow beyond a “self-centered, narcissistic movement,” despite the extensive volunteer work gay rights groups had already done on behalf of other causes. Jackson said that gay people were

historically a part of the white economic and political establishments [which tended] to represent a small circle of middle-class men and women who frequently consolidate rather than share their power and positions…Ours is a challenge to search for common ground.  We must move from the sexual battleground to the economic common ground.  We must get bigger than ourselves…AIDS is not the only disease in the nation tonight…Sex is a thrill, but so is getting the Voting Rights Act.  Sex is a thrill but so is getting ERA.  Sex is a thrill, but so is unscrewing those nuclear warheads that could destroy the human race.[i]

As the death toll from AIDS was mounting, Jackson’s speech felt like a dressing down to many in the audience. The presidential contender reduced the gay rights to sexual gratification, and focused on what he expected them to do for other causes rather than what the Rainbow Coalition could offer for their cause. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was also known for its multicolored logo and “World of Difference” public service announcements. As late as 1988, gay rights groups were unsuccessful in persuading the League to address sexism or gay rights. The National LGBTQ Task Force (NGTF) wrote, “despite pressure and protest, ADL has been unyielding on this issue.”[ii]

This post on coalition building between gay rights and civil rights groups is third in a series on the growing importance of gay rights in the Democratic Party, inspired by the recent CNN forum on LGBTQ Rights. Parts 1 and 2 looked at the politics of protest and the coalescence of gay men, lesbians, and feminists. The evidence below mostly consists of archival sources from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), NAACP, and NGTF. I found precious little material on gay rights in civil rights group archives, so I rely mainly on the perspective of gay rights groups. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights’ (LCCR) available archives extend to 1991, and contain only a single folder on gay rights, NGTF and HRC each. The sources I found do not offer proof that this coalition building was the reason for the Democratic Party transformation – just proof of gay rights group strategies and the process of coalition building. My book offers evidence that coalition building is a crucial step in changing the direction of a party in the most important cases of party transformation in the twentieth century.

In the 1970s, gay rights groups hoped to gain legitimacy by persuading the public to view gay rights as a civil rights or human rights issue. Civil rights were broadly popular and gay rights were not. If members of Congress saw a gay rights proposal as a civil rights proposal, they would be less likely to see gay rights as a “special interest.” Members could defend a vote in favor of a civil rights bill to their constituents more easily than they could defend a vote in favor of gay rights. NGTF therefore developed an “umbrella project” to win support for civil rights groups among gay rights groups. They were not at all sure they could win this support. At one board meeting, a member advised that “the Urban League and NAACP in his area would not be likely to become involved unless there was a real understanding of how black people could be helped.” There were regional NAACP chapters in large cities that had been supportive, but NGTF sought national recognition.[iii] As a consulting firm advised the Triangle Institute years later, “A person who is already a strong advocate of civil rights is in the best position to make support for gay and lesbian rights part of his overall message in a way that doesn’t seem obtrusive.”[iv]

NGTF was worried about how unpopular gay rights were and sought bridge builders from other groups to make their argument to groups like NAACP.  In 1976, NGTF Co-founder Jean O’Leary said “should not be done directly by the NGTF staff – that other organizations should get the support statements to add to their weight.”[v] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was one of the bridge builders between gay rights and civil rights. In the 1960s, the ACLU undertook a “sexual privacy project” that included gay rights. Dr. Bruce Voeller, another cofounder, successfully persuaded NOW and ACLU to support a bill outlawing discrimination in housing and employment in the 1970s, sending a letter to every member of Congress.[vi] By 1980, NGRP was managing 50 gay rights cases under the auspices of its “National Gay Rights Project” (NGRP). The NGRP argued that ACLU’s 60 years of experience made it an “ideal vehicle for building coalitions with non-gay groups…whose support is indispensable if gay rights are to prevail,” specifically mentioning the National Organization for Women, the American Medical Association, and American Bar Association. A fact sheet argued that that “gay men and lesbians are perhaps the only remaining minority still subject to de jure deprivation of civil liberties.” It emphasized the potential for ACLU to raise money from gay donors, claiming that gay people had not “suffered economic deprivation as a class,” and therefore held “great promise for sustaining the financial strength of the ACLU.” [vii]

The debate over NGRP’s creation illustrates the desire of NGTF to frame gay rights as broadly as possible. Even though NGRP chapters rapidly recruited members and raised donations,[viii] NGTF wanted ACLU litigation to be filed under the general auspices of ACLU.[ix] In Voeller’s words, “the ACLU’s independent support for the gay movement is a much more effective voice in lobbying in court proceedings and in public relations than if each of these target audiences perceives the ACLU as a part of the gay movement…To us it seems dangerous to our movement to separate gay rights from human rights by creating separate ACLU chapters. Too often, well-meaning liberals, not to mention homophobes, claim we are not in the same league with other more popular minorities.”[x] Of course, Voeller might have also worried about NGRP competing with NGTF for donations.[xi]

The NAACP position on gay rights evolved in the 1970s, offering support later than NOW and with less intensity. When asked to support Congress’ first gay rights bill in 1974, Assistant executive director John Morsell told NGTF that “While my personal views, and probably those of others on our staff, are in favor of your position, we cannot make a policy for the Association.” After unsuccessfully appealing to the Board of Trustees for support, Morsell reported “The board declined to adopt a position…I am sorry I have nothing more favorable to report.”[xii] In 1977, however, a new director publicly linked the cause of civil rights and gay rights. Benjamin Hook said that “mistreatment of minorities – whether it be a gay minority or any other minority – is intrinsically wrong in my book” and praised President Carter for meeting with NGTF.[xiii] A.D. Pinckney, the Midwest regional president of NAACP, issued a press release that “The NAACP is not involved in the theological question of who is going to Heaven. We are involved in the question of equal rights for all citizens. This so called ‘gay’ bashing seems like a return to the times of the Inquisition when those who were not Christians were burned or hanged, and also the era of the Moslems who spread their beliefs at the point of the sword.”[xiv] In 1987, the NAACP supported the American Federation of Teacher’s (AFT) efforts to have the Center for Disease Control promote AIDS education.[xv]

The Reagan administration and New Right groups helped convince liberal groups that opposition to gay rights were one and the same as opposition to other liberal causes. A 1986 advertising strategy note urged the NGTF to link the opponents of gay rights to “universally negative associations, repugnant values, and undesirable people. Use footage or remarks of despicable bigots, rednecks, and ignorant louts – preferably from the KKK, neo-Nazis, or other hate groups – to discredit and ridicule victimizers and their hateful fears.” Since Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell’s popularity was rapidly declining, gay rights groups could also capitalize on opposition to him among liberal groups and the broader public.[xvii]

Several administration proposals and nominations provided the opportunity for gay rights groups to coalesce with other liberal groups in opposition. In 1981, Congress considered a “Family Protection Act” pushed forth by the New Right with support from the administration. The bill would have removed federal funding for legal services used in divorce and gay rights cases. The NAACP joined NOW, NWPC, ACLU, and an assortment of gay rights groups to oppose it. In 1982, President Reagan nominated Reverend B. Sam Hart, a black minister from Philadelphia, to the US Civil Rights Commission. Hart, a radio station owner who participated in National Religious Broadcasters conventions, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and busing to achieve school integration. He also said gay rights were not civil rights issues. After protests from many civil rights groups, Hart withdrew his name from consideration. HRC founder Steve Endean mentioned that blocking Hart’s nomination enhanced its “already good relations” with NOW, NWPC, ACLU, NARAL, and ADA. Endean said it was an “excellent chance to expand our contacts and coalitions,” and its second occasion to work with LCCR. (They had earlier worked together on voting rights). As NGRP pointed out, fundraising could open doors for gay rights groups. Endean declared that “In a power-oriented city like Washington, D.C., the potential fundraising success of the HRC is opening new, unimagined doors for coalition-building.”[xvi]

LCCR had been another prestigious civil rights group that was slower to support gay rights than NOW. While secular members were supportive, much of the black religious community was opposed. Gay rights groups were not allowed to participate in the 20th anniversary March on Washington in 1983. Walter Fauntroy, a Baptist minister who helped Martin Luther King coordinate the 1963 March on Washington, said their presence would be divisive and “might be interpreted as advocacy of a gay way of life.”[xviii] Fauntroy allegedly said that “gay rights were as extraneous to the themes of ‘Jobs, Peace, and Freedom’ as were ‘penguin rights” (he denied saying this). [xix] According to two former leaders of NGTF, Jeff Levi and Ginny Apuzzo, LCCR yielded only after lobbying from Coretta Scott King, who continued to be an important ally in later years.[xx] In 1999, LCCR wrote letters to Congress urging members to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) using the framing suggested by NGTF two decades earlier. A draft read “ENDA does not create any ‘special rights.’ Rather it protects a right that should belong to every American – the right to be free from job discrimination based on irrational fear.”[xxi]

King later spoke to HRC and Lambda Legal Defense fundraisers, and stood by Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Barney Frank as they introduced ENDA. At the 25th Anniversary Luncheon for Lambda Legal Defense, she proclaimed “I hasten to remind that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”[xxii]

For the most part, civil rights groups have not made their archived documents available for the postmillennial years in which marriage equality gained traction. President Obama’s support for marriage equality in May of 2012 was a late but apparently influential endorsement for African American voters. Maryland passed a marriage equality bill that was subsequently ratified by referendum shortly after Obama’s support. Some gay rights groups initially doubted the ability to win a referendum. Fifty-six percent of black respondents said they would vote against the referendum in March, when the president declined to support marriage equality, but fifty-five percent said they would support it in May – a thirty-six-point shift.[xxiii] Sorting out the role of Obama, who opposed marriage equality in 2008 but supported it in 2012, is cumbersome. Freedom-to-Marry recruited prominent officeholders to support a platform plank for marriage equality at the 2012 national convention. This appeared to force Obama’s hand.

In summary, gay rights were initially unpopular enough that some gay rights groups wanted civil rights groups to be the face of gay rights in Congress and in coalition-building efforts. NGTF stressed that discrimination against gay people was one and the same with discrimination against other minorities; gay people did not choose their sexual orientation, but were born with it. Some civil rights activists viewed sexual orientation as a lifestyle choice and resisted its incorporation of gay rights into civil rights. But by effectively raising money and capitalizing on the fear of common opponents, groups like HRC and NGTF built bridges to other liberal groups, including civil rights groups. Both NAAPC and LCCR eventually adopted the framing initially proposed by NGTF in the 1970s.

[i] Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, 297.

[ii] November 4 1988, NGTF 191.

[iii] Minutes of the Board of Directors, October 23 1976, NGTF 2.

[iv] Foreman and Heidepriem To Board of Directors, Triangle Institute, February 2 1988, HRC 6.

[v] Minutes of the Board of Directors, October 23 1976, NGTF 2.

[vi] “NGTF wins congress support from ACLU and NOW,” undated, NGTF 167, folders 1975-1979.

[vii] ACLU National Gay Rights Project Fact Sheet, undated NGTF 171.

[viii] Peter Judge (President of the Gay Rights Chapter of ACLU of Southern California) to Aryen Neier, January 27 1978, NGTF 171. In Southern California, a gay rights chapter of the ACLU recruited 700 new members and $14,000 in fees in the fifteen months leading up to 1978.

[ix] ACLU National Gay Rights Project Fact Sheet, undated NGTF 171; Ira Glasser (New York Civil Liberties Union) to Aryen Neier (President of ACLU), January 9 1978, NGTF 171.

[x] Bruce Voeller to Peter Thomas Judge, April 6 1978, NGTF 171.

[xi] Also see C.F. Brydon to Larry Lyon, July 16 1979, NGTF 171. Brydon worries about duplication of efforts.

[xii] John Morsell to Thomas Smith (NGTF), January 11 1974 and January 24, 1974, NAACP 242, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (henceforth NAACP).

[xiii] “Next Director of NAACP opposes discrimination against gays,” March 9 1977, NAACP 242.

[xiv] A.D. Pinckney, Press Release, October 8 1982, NAACP 242.

[xv] Benjamin Hooks to Al Shanker, July 16 1987, AFT 10.

[xvi] Steve Endean to Board of Directors, undated (but located between documents dated 1981), HRC 5.

[xvii] 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.

[xviii] Out for Good, 496.

[xix] Pritchard, Eric. “Memorializing the March on Washington, 1983: Black Queers and Coalition Politics.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, November 18, 2010.

[xx] Interview with Ginny Apuzzo, July 15 2014 and Jeff Levy, August 15 2014.

[xxi] Draft of letter from Wade Henderson (LCCR Executive Director) and Dorothy Height (LCCR Chairperson) to a member of Congress, September 1999, AFT 11.

[xxii] Philips, Carmen. “How Coretta Scott King leveraged MLK’s Legacy to Fight for Gay Rights.” Available at

[xxiii] LoGiurato, Brett. 2012. “This gay marriage poll shows an incredible shift in Black support since Obama’s endorsement.” Business Insider, May 24, 2012.


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