By Jeanne Cordova
Anita Bryant ruined my softball career.
In 1978, my pitching days were about to end as the Gay Liberation Movement (*1) was compelled to morph out from its radical sub-culture and become a national civil rights struggle.
By 1977, gays and lesbians had won the repeal of sex laws and gay protections in jobs and housing in 19 states and 40 cities. Our latest victory was in Florida where Dade County Commissioners passed a gay rights ordinance. But Anita Bryant—a Sarah Palin-like 1950s singer, now promoting Florida oranges—led a local protest pledging to overturn Dade’s “evil decision.” The evangelical Bryant seemed laughable when she first spoke about “men wearing dresses” teaching in public schools and “the devastation of the moral fiber of the youth of America.”
Born in the post WW II reconstruction of 1948 Germany, and growing up with eleven siblings fighting each other in the orange groves of Southern California, I was no stranger to combat. By twenty-three I’d left the sisterhood of a Catholic convent and joined the sisterhood of lesbian nation—becoming the President of L.A.’s Daughters of Bilitis. Young, angry, and butch, I was the dyke Anita Bryant didn’t want to meet at night on her way home. By the time she came to California I was a veteran having organized two national lesbian conferences and a newsmagazine, the Lesbian Tide, a national voice of the gay and feminist movements.
But six months after she first spoke, the parody that was Bryant turned serious when she gathered the necessary signatures to put a referendum on Dade’s June 7, 1977 ballot. It would repeal the city’s new ordinance. Voters sided with her. They rolled back protections for LBGT folks in employment and housing.
The next weekend, gays and lesbians in fifteen cities took to the streets. Ten thousand marched in Los Angeles. Five thousand San Franciscans protested, chanting “out of the bars—into the streets!” Harvey Milk, a Castro District activist just elected as City Supervisor, only the second open homosexual elected to public office, was their rally speaker. Lesbians in Los Angeles marched under a banner proclaiming, “Hitler. McCarthy. Anita.” Speaking to the crowd, I announced Bryant’s new alliance with Phyllis Schlafly, America’s top anti-feminist and an arch foe of our embattled ERA—equal rights for women—amendment.
The Dade County defeat sideswiped our fledgling movement. As Anita moved from Florida to Minneapolis/St Paul, then Wichita, Kansas, and then on to Eugene, Oregon, she was convincing Middle America to call gay rights “special rights.” By then, we Californians began to realize: she had gays in her crosshairs.
Watching Minneapolis fall was especially depressing. It was a university town, a liberal city. How could they have lost? Within months, she had become a national anti-gay spokesperson; an advocate who also railed against a woman’s right to choose and called the peace movement’s struggle to end the Vietnam War, “a war between atheism and God.” And she was gathering powerful local allies.
John Briggs, an ambitious state Senator from Orange County, California’s Bible belt, had rushed to Florida to support Anita. Briggs aspired to higher office. So when Anita came west and joined him, rumors abounded that the two would target San Francisco’s one year-old gay rights ordinance or Governor Jerry Brown’s recent decriminalization of sodomy.
Two days after Dade, Morris Kight, L.A.’s grass roots leader, had summoned community leaders to his house to talk about its implications. The mood was anxious, but angry, as sixty hardcore activists—mostly gay men and a half dozen lesbians—formed the Coalition for Human Rights, one of the first groups to organize. The next evening I was at the Westside Women’s Center where 130 lesbians formed the Ad Hoc Committee for Lesbian Rights. Our aim: to bring straight feminists into the fight. Months later, gay Leftists would form the Action Coalition and target people of color voters in Watts with the door-to-door message, “Discrimination: Who’s Next?”
But Bryant and Briggs hit us where we were weakest. Their Briggs Initiative played to heterosexual fears that gays needed to ‘recruit’ their children. Also Bryant’s four victories had made them shrewd. They were now ready to go statewide by launching a ballot measure, “Proposition 6,” instead of a city-based attack on employment or housing. The huge scope of the initiative against all teachers—one that would appear before millions—struck fear in our hearts. It read: “Provides a system for determining fitness of school employees engaged in activities related to homosexuality...”
It further mandated that all “teachers, counselors, aides or administrators” who “advocate, solicit, impose, encourage, or promote private or public homosexual activity” could be dismissed, as could any heterosexual who supported gay rights. Reading it, the first thing that came to my mind was Senator McCarthy’s vicious anti-communist smear campaign of the 1950s.
Activists were shocked and panicked. How the hell were we going to convince a statewide majority that lesbian and gay teachers posed no threat to their children? Most of them, who composed 25% to 30% of all teachers, were still in the closet. And losing would decimate the school system.
We had reason to worry. According to the Harris poll only 27% of the country believed that “homosexuals” should be allowed to work as “counselors in a camp for young people.”
Panic turned to rage as Oklahoma and Arkansas banned gay teachers. Bryant was creating a national anti-gay surge. But instead of buckling under the hatred, thousands of closeted gays came out in angry response. Rank and file, as well as leaders, seemed to say, “We’ve marched for a half decade for liberation, given up our lives, and sworn to destroy our closets. We will not give up.”
In the spring of 1978, as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego mobilized, I flew north with our “No on 6” state-wide campaign to find the Bay Area more tightly organized but more fractious than Southern California. Still, we realized that we had to fight on television. And TV ads meant money. Not thousands, millions. So at the meeting everyone kept their doubts to themselves—although David Goodstein, the new publisher of The Advocate later publicly predicted, “We will lose.”
As a strategist, I realized losing—or forcing teachers to take a litmus test—would send the movement back to the 50s. We had to reach out of our ghettos, yes, but we also had to unite from within, somehow build and implement a coalition mobilizing all our squabbling groups into a coherent force, one larger and more effectual than anything we’d ever known.
In the town-hall meeting in Oakland, I saw the northern community was as divided along political lines as the south. Their assimilationist wing represented the gay establishment trying to persuade straights that, “We (gays) are just like you and deserve our rights.” The burgeoning ‘streets’ were mostly long-haired bearded hippie populists, among them, the clean-shaven Harvey Milk who had just founded San Franciscans Against Prop 6. As historian Lillian Faderman observes, “Among (Milk’s) greatest talents as a politician was that he understood what it took to build coalitions and he never underestimated the vital role of… volunteers.”(1) To mobilize the city’s strong lesbian feminist community, Milk recruited Professor Sally Gearhart to be his debating partner against Briggs. He also appointed Bill Kraus, a tall thin white activist who would later die from AIDS, and Gwen Craig, one of our few black leaders, as his campaign directors. I saw this unlikely former Republican stockbroker as the man who could organize California’s north. His grass-roots marchers coined and embraced the phrase, “the suits versus the streets,” but his people agreed to strategize with Goodstein’s conservative Concerned Voters of California. The socialist group, the Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, would fly separately but they ultimately brought in the labor unions and people of color communities.
Back in Los Angeles, I became part of my city’s largest ever gay rights ‘get-out-the vote’ campaign. But first we had to bring disparate organizations into a united front. The Westside of town adjacent to Beverly Hills quickly organized into New AGE, the New Alliance for Gay Equality. This campaign was formed by the country’s first and only gay political action Pac, MECLA—the Municipal Elections Committee of L.A. created only one year earlier.
A neo-socialist back then, I chose to join the centrist Coalition for Human Rights and the lesbian rights group, but I recognized that the grass roots would be heavily dependant on our community’s moneyed conservative wing. California had had seven years since Stonewall to develop activist organizations for every kind of Democrat. Would the just-born gay Republicans, the Log Cabin Club, help? Could these usually bickering wings actually work together?
One of my first lessons as a young activist was that ‘sleeping behind enemy lines’ was an important tool. There are dozens of unusual connections in our history, but one such bond with MECLA lesbian leaders did aid and abet an alliance between the conservative and centrist wings in Los Angeles.
My personal friendship with MECLA Co-chairs Diane Abbitt and Roberta Bennett, a lesbian couple, both lawyers, was forged in the National Organization of Women’s early trench warfare in ‘72 over N.O.W.’s hard-won acceptance of lesbianism as a feminist issue. Now they asked me to persuade the Human Rights Coalition’s leadership to come to what amounted to a summit meeting with MECLA’s leadership to see if we would cooperate.
The organizations didn’t respect or like each other, but we’d all heard about the Dade County gay leadership bickering and fracturing during Bryant’s campaign. We didn’t want to repeat their mistakes. Right before the broker-ship meeting Diane told me, “You know, Jeanne, you’d be a great asset if you’d join MECLA.” I asked jokingly, “What would I have to do to do that?” Diane smiled, “The first thing you have to do is change the way you dress – starting with those gold chains around the heels of your boots.” I laughed, realizing that she objected to my too-butch dress style. “Never gonna happen,” I quipped. And we got down to business.
After hours of haggling, we agreed to combine our grass roots organizing and street power with MECLA’s fundraising ability. We also agreed to hire the gay political consultant team of David Mixner and Peter Scott, the first time the movement had hired outside experts. Finally, the compromise I’d dreamed about. Yes! Socialists, centrists, lesbians, gays, and the wealthy would take up arms together.
The bleak summer of ‘78 flew by. No one enjoyed the beach. No one had ‘free’ time. We worked frenetically on television with ads made possible by donated money, and on the streets marching, chanting that gays were not pedophiles or recruiting children. All summer, we looked for opportunities to convince straight folk to “Vote No on 6.” Finally, the labor unions joined our coalition saying Prop. 6 “endangered teacher’s right to work.” By now, the ACLU and National Organization for Women were on board; the feminist movement had our backs.
In the north, Milk and Gearhart debated John Briggs multiple times, while exhorting people to “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Our statewide gay organization, “No on 6” went on a massive educational campaign themed, “We Are Everywhere.” We urged gays to come out since polls showed that 60% of those who knew someone gay opposed Briggs. As my spouse, the secretary of New AGE, came home each night, we’d ponder: from where could we get another sliver of Californians to support basic human rights?
As much as we tried to take the Bible out of the fight and argue that the Briggs Initiative was about civil liberties, the so-called morality issue plagued us nationally. A summer NBC television program aired, “Is School Out for Gay Teachers?” showed how dangerous Prop. 6 was for the constitutional rights of all Americans. But it ended quoting a housewife and mother saying, “Our children come before any civil rights.”
I realized that publicly arguing the obvious—that heterosexual families created ‘homosexuals’ – would never fly on television. I remembered overhearing my sisters, aged nine and ten, ask, “Can we catch being gay from Jeanne?”
A surprising late poll indicated that average Californian didn’t believe gay or homophobic spokespeople anymore. So we turned to figures that people thought were more objective. New AGE produced a concert starring Joan Baez and Harry Chapin. Backed significantly by the Jewish community, the entertainment industry recognized the parallels between Prop. 6, and the gradual, but fatal, loss of civil liberties in Hitler’s Germany. A $100 per plate – a hefty price tag in ’78 – the New AGE concert brought out stars like Burt Lancaster, Lily Tomlin, John Travolta, Brenda Vaccaro, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Rock Hudson and Diane Keaton. As celebrities came out against Briggs, so did politicians like former President Gerald Ford and then-President Jimmy Carter, as well as Angela Davis and Tom Hayden. The concert raised $150,000. Historically, it brought out Hollywood’s pro-gay under-belly. Weeks later, Beverly Hills businesswoman, Gayle Wilson, brought out hundreds of wealthy—heavily closeted—lesbians to a posh luncheon which raised $50,000. The event
became historic because it nationally signaled professional lesbians that it was safe to become movement donors.
Two months before the November vote, the usually conservative L.A. Times advised a “no” on Prop. 6. Their editorial read: “Calculated to appeal to parents’ concerns and camouflaged as an education issue, Proposition 6 is actually part of a vicious nationwide campaign against homosexuals. Teachers have become the latest pawn. They deserve public backing…”
It wasn’t enough. Polls showed we still trailed by five percent. But Mixner/Scott had secretly hatched a plan to go after the biggest straight fish in California; Ronald Reagan, the former governor and now presidential hopeful. Mixner had manufactured a pitch designed to appeal to Republicans. He defined the issue as one of privacy. He said that the Briggs Initiative “would create chaos in the public school system;” allow students to blackmail teachers who gave them low grades; it was a question of government meddling in private life; it would destroy student discipline” and the endless litigation it inspired “would waste taxpayer money.” It was the perfect conservative strategy.
But how could we get an audience? The answer was surprisingly simple—we were everywhere! Because of his prior movie career and public statements, we knew that Reagan wasn’t personally anti-gay. And we knew he and his wife, Nancy, socialized with movie industry folk. Mixner found someone, who knew someone, who knew someone: Don Livingston, a closeted, then married, Reagan aide. Mixner/Scott’s ultimate sit-down with Reagan lasted for more than an hour. No promises were made, but on August 20th, and seemingly out of nowhere, the “Citizens for Reagan” presidential campaign issued a statement, “The measure (Prop 6) has the potential of infringing on the basic rights of privacy… it has the potential for causing undue harm to people.”
Reagan’s endorsement headlined TV, newspaper, and radio news for a week. Polls began to shift. A broad coalition of Democrats, Jews, Blacks, those with “no religious preference,” gays, voters under thirty, and other liberals began to form. Our scrambling intensified. A September L.A. Times poll revealed we had 52% support. Suddenly, it looked like we could actually win! What would California voters do?
Vote night saw 3,000 jubilant lesbian, gays, and allies rejoicing as the anti-Briggs vote came in 58% to 42% -- our margin, a little over one million pro-gay votes. Anita Bryant was only our first national assailant from the religious right. But as Abbitt noted in 2013, “Every attack, even those we lost initially, ended with our community becoming stronger, better organized, and more visible.”
California stopped the hate campaign cold. Before Bryant, we’d organized as city-states. Battlegrounds revolved around city councils or counties. By making California state face a ballot measure, Briggs and Bryant turned our movement from its city-based beginnings into a state-based civil rights movement and accidentally gave birth to what would necessarily become a national civil rights struggle.
*1 in 1977, the “L” word was still largely ignored; gay men ran the movement; a few transsexuals walked the streets; the Q word went unspoken and feared; Intersex folk were unknown.
*2 Lillian Faderman, "Our America Too: The Story of the Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights (Simon and Schuster), forthcoming, June 2015.