It may be hard to understand now, but until the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, most LGBT people didn't identify as "a people," a "minority" or even as "a community" with a shared history, dreams and common problems.
There had been movements and efforts to connect - the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, ONE Magazine, the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in the 1950s and 1960s, the Stonewall Riots and Gay Liberation in the late 60s, the fights against Anita Bryant and the emerging Religious Right in 1977. But with a few exceptions - such as ongoing visibility from pioneers Jose Sarria, Frank Kameny and the new "social welfare" organization the National Gay Task Force that lobbied on federal issues and in 1975 worked with New York Rep. Bella Abzug to introduce the first gay rights bill in Congress (HR 5452) - most political efforts dedicated to making progress on gay rights were done locally and often by closeted gays with political connections.
Looking through the kaleidoscope of LGBT history, it is easy to see that that Stonewall was a significant turning point, prompting more people to come out and stand up for gay liberation. But Stonewall - and the Black Cat in LA in 1967 - also sent people "scurrying into closet" fearing police raids and being exposed as gay or lesbian with arrests, says longtime LGBT politico, attorney and businesswoman Diane Abbitt. "There was also a lot of shame. People were terrified because they were not out and they were afraid of losing their jobs. A lot of them were teachers and professional people. And it impacted businesses. There was a lesbian bar in Redondo Beach where the police kept coming in on the pretext that they were looking for a runaway."
Political consultant and famous anti-Vietnam War activist David Mixner was closeted, for instance, until he came out in the mid-1970s when he was the director of LA Mayor Tom Bradley's re-election campaign. He joined the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), a political action committee for which his business partner Peter Scott was president. He subsequently became MECLA board co-chair with Diane Abbitt after the group decided it needed to be co-gender.
MECLA had grown out of the secretive group Orion, where famous Gay Liberation/LA co-founder Morris Kight lead conscious-raising sessions. MECLA board members Rob Eichberg (founder of gay conscious-raising conference "The Experience" and co-founder with Jean O'Leary of National Coming Out Day) and attorney Sheldon Andelson wanted to "change the quality of life for gay people so they could be who they are - and they wanted to do that through political action," Abbitt said. They would use the model of Jewish fundraising - but they worried about how to raise more than $100 from gay men who might be afraid to explain it to their tax accounts.
"MECLA was afraid people would not contribute to an organization that had the word 'gay' in it because we were so closeted as community," says Abbitt, who later became president of the EQCA board and chair of the EQCA PAC. After MECLA raised enough money for a PAC, they met with and interviewed politicians who wanted their contributions.
"It was a new experience for both of us," Abbitt says. "At first the politicians appeared to be receptive. But upon realizing that, as a result of the reporting process, it would become known they would be taking money from an organization dedicated to achieving full equality for gays and lesbians, a couple of them returned the money. But as MECLA continued to contribute, politicians became more comfortable with the group and more understanding of the issues and they started to take action to show their support."
For example, President Jimmy Carter's mother Lillian was among those attending a "roast" of Sheldon Andelson in 1979 that raised money for the LA Gay Community Services Center, where Sheldon was also on the board. Gov. Jerry Brown gave the keynote speech; the next year, in 1980, he appointed Andelson to the UC Board of Regents and Orion/MECLA member Steve Lachs to become the first openly gay judge in the nation. At Mixner's invitation and with the help of politico Bob Shrum, Sen. Ted Kennedy also spoke at an early MECLA dinner. After Kennedy's death, Mixner recalled:
The place was packed and the entire room was in awe that Senator Kennedy would break bread with us when most politicians wouldn't accept our money or return our calls. The list of his accomplishments for our community is endless and impossible to encapsulate in one piece. Just know that in our darkest moments, he gave us light.
Meanwhile, independently in Northern California, the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club of San Francisco formed in 1971 with the mission of training activists to become political professionals and candidates and directly engage with the Democratic Party. "[T]he issue of homosexuality was still thought of in the popular consciousness as 'The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name.' For gay people to sign up publicly for a gay democratic club at this time, and for politicians to be associated with the issue of homosexuality, was an act of bravery," the club's website notes. But, "[s]aying you were a 'member of Alice' was like saying 'I'm a friend of Dorothy' - only gay people would know that the 'Alice' club referred to gay people."
Alice's founder Jim Foster and Madeline Davis, from Buffalo, New York, became the first gay and lesbian delegates to the Democratic Convention in Miami in 1972. They tried to have a "Gay Liberation" plank included in the Democratic Platform but were blocked. Presidential candidate George McGovern, however, issued a letter saying, "I have long supported civil rights of all Americans and have in no way altered my commitment to these rights and I have no intention of doing so." The club subsequently developed, raised money for and engaged with Democratic candidates, including Dianne Feinstein.
Three years later, in 1975, San Francisco Assemblymember Willie Brown (who would become one of California's most charismatic and effective Assembly Speakers and San Francisco mayors) advanced a bill to decriminalize sex between consenting adults of the same gender. Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy (who would later be elected Lt. Gov) allowed the bill to advance through the House. Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally flew home from a trip out of state to break a tie in the State Senate and Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill when it reached his desk.
Homosexuality was a criminal offense in California, as well as condemned by the church and diagnosed as a mental disease. Freda became co-chair of the California Committee for Sexual Law Reform and worked for the passage of Assemblyman Willie Brown's consenting adult law. It was during this lobbying effort that she wrote her narrative poem Dear Dora/Dangerous Derek Diesel Dyke which she read to a group of legislators which included Lt. [Gov] Merv Dymally who voted to break the Senate deadlock to pass the legislation.
In 1974, no longer enrolled at UCB, I moved to the Castro in San Francisco and became a full-time gay rights activist. I volunteered at the Whitman-Radcliffe Foundation. One of the projects of this educational and charitable foundation was the Committee for Sexual Law Reform. This group of attorneys drafted proposed state legislation to advance gay rights where there were none.
In December 1974, I became California's first full-time gay rights legislative advocate in Sacramento, representing the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), a San Francisco-based early gay rights organization. My first legislative victory was AB 489, the Willie Brown Consenting Adult Bill (1975). This legislative reform legalize sex between consenting adults. It was the anti-lynching law that opened the door to gay rights legislation. The next major piece of legislation to be introduced was non-discrimination in employment legislation, AB 633. Eventually, it won passage years later as AB 1 by Art Agnos. [It won passage - but wouldn't become law until the early 1990s.]
Illinois was the first state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1962 so California was not unique. However, the circumstances might have been. Picture this: in 1975, some of the heroes pushing to OK sex between consenting adults of the same gender were an openly gay Latino who co-founded San Francisco's La Raza Centro Legal, a white lesbian minister, and two straight Black men. And no one's political career was harmed in advocating for this gay rights bill.
On the national level, things were not as bright. While the resignation of President Nixon over the Watergate scandal made a win look possible for the Democrats - a gay rights plank was removed from the 1976 Democratic Party Platform to avoid "controversy."
After the convention, Democratic Presidential nominee Jimmy Carter, a Baptist peanut farmer from Georgia, gave an interview to Playboy Magazine in which he indicated he would sign a gay rights bill, a first for a presidential candidate. His wife Rosalynn Carter also said: "I do not think that homosexuals should be harassed."
These gay political clubs and PACs developed during the "counter-culture" movement when opposition to the Vietnam War united students, feminists, civil rights and liberation groups and progressive politicians. In LA, for instance, Morris Kight and others started the Stonewall Democratic Club in 1975.
The success of Anita Bryant and Falwell's Moral Majority in overturning a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida in 1977 lead to a surge of gays coming out, the election of openly gay Harvey Milk in San Francisco, a meeting of openly gay leaders organized by the Task Force's Jean O'Leary and closeted White House liaison Midge Costanza, and the significant defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California the following year, before Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.
Here's Harvey Milk talking about the Briggs Initiative:
Here's the NBC News report from that day (the video cuts off in the section about Milk), wherein the mainstream reporters note that there is no link to the Jonestown massacre:
One can only imagine what LGBT rights would be like today had Milk not been assassinated and Jimmy Carter been re-elected in 1980. Carter attended a White House East Room reception for gay major donors, at which Jim Hormel, Steve Smith and other gay politicos were present. But perhaps more importantly - the late Jean O'Leary, who became a major Democratic Party activist, told me that the 1977 White House meeting had led to other White House-ordered meetings with the heads of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). "If Carter had been there when the AIDS crisis came up," O'Leary said, "it would have been a whole different story. It could have been treated like a legitimate disease."
There were a record 71 openly lesbian and gay delegates to the 1980 Democratic Convention, 17 of whom came from California. Alice B. Toklas worked with the more left-leaning worked Harvey Milk Democratic Club to lobby Carter - with the help of Mayor Dianne Feinstein - and a gay rights plank was finally included in the Democratic Party Platform. And Alice finally came out as the "Alice B. Toklas Gay Democratic Club."
Carter lost re-election to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had helped defeat the Briggs Initiative three years earlier.