Seeing Rhinoceros

The second half of the 1970s started with the creation of the Christian Voice, The Religious Roundtable, Moral Majority and the National Christian Action Coalition in America. The gay rights movement was about to meet its most vocal opponent…the Christian right.

In 1976, the same year Robert Grant founded the Christian Voice, Australia was establishing the Homosexual Law Coalition and the Gay Teachers Group…the Australian Capital Territory also decriminalised homosexuality between consenting adults in private and set the age of consent as the same as heterosexual couples. In Denmark, the age of consent for homosexuals was equalised, lowering it to the same age of consent as heterosexual couples.

The establishment of the Christian Voice in America began a political movement that still plagues American politics today. Between 1976 and 1979, the Christian Voice was joined by the Religious Roundtable, Moral Majority and the National Christian Action Coalition. The Christian Voice was formed from several anti-gay and anti-pornography organisation, as a lobby organisation, funded in large part by the evangelical minister Pat Robertson, with a mission to convince Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, and fundamentalists to put aside doctrinal difference and campaign together in support of Christian Values. Initially, the other three Christian right organisations founded in the late 70s were reluctant to work with the Christian Voice because their ideology demanded a more fundamentalist approach. The Christian Voice’s main goal, and the reason for it’s initial inception, was to counteract Jimmy Carter’s influence over the American Christian community during his 1976 Presidential campaign, and then his Presidency. Carter’s Presidency was filled with disaster, including hostages in Iran, the Panama Canal Treaty, and the Oil Crisis, all of which helped the Christian Voice establish a conservative political slant in the Christian community. By the 1980 presidential election, the political influence of the Christian right was firmly entrenched in American politics.

Until the late 70s, the gay rights movement in America had been sans organised opposition. This changed, however, with the creation of the above mentioned groups, and the passage of an ordinance in Dade County, Florida. In 1977, gay activists (who had superb connections) passed an ordinance which made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal in Dade County. A well funded, well organised, group of fundamentalist Christians responded with a a campaign entitled Save Our Children. Headed by singer Anita Bryant, the campaign argued that the ordinance prohibited the rights of parents to teach their children biblical morality. They ran political adverts which compared the Orange Bowl Parade with the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade…the advert stated that Dade County would be turned into a “hotbed of homosexuality” and insinuated that pederasty and pedophilia would  become the norm. Although gay rights activists flew to Dade County, led by political organiser Jim Foster, and a national boycott of orange juice was organised, the Save Our Children campaign claimed a decisive victory. The result of the special election, the largest of turnout of any special election in Florida history, repealed the ordinance by a 70% vote. The victory gave political purpose to the Christian right, and shocked gay activists.

For the first time, gay rights activists saw exactly how little support they had, even amongst the LGBT community. Harvey Milk, a relatively new face to gay rights activism, and fresh off a recent loss, led demonstrators through the Castro district of San Francisco on the night of the Dade County vote. Over 3000 people participated in the impromptu demonstration, and the atmosphere at the end of the night was light, and the gay rights community decided Dade County was a one-off. However, gay rights activists were wrong. The same scenario repeated itself in Saint Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas and Eugene, Oregon. In California, State Senator John Briggs sensed an opportunity to use the new political clout of the fundamentalist Christians. Briggs, who hoped to win the California governor’s seat in 1978, wrote a bill banning homosexuals from teaching in public schools (dubbed Proposition 6, or the Briggs initiative). Briggs argued he had nothing against homosexuals, that it was “just politics.” In June 1977, Briggs held a press conference calling San Francisco a “sexual garbage heap” and promising to clean it up if elected governor. Throughout 1977, violence against homosexuals rose in the Castro District, with little police protection, culminating in the death of Robert Hillsborough from 15 stab wounds on 21 June 1977. The 1977 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade saw 250,000 participants, the largest gay pride parade held to date in the United States.

The new political power of the Christian right had an unexpected consequence, it fuelled gay politics in San Francisco. In the next election for supervisor of the district surrounding the Castro District, seventeen candidates applied…over half of them were gay, including Harvey Milk. After the votes were tallied, Milk had won. His swearing in, where he joined Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, made him the first, non-incumbent, openly gay man in the US to win public office.

While the American political structure was undergoing a tremendous change, anti-homosexual laws were being felled all across the globe. In 1977, Quebec became the largest jurisdiction to enact an anti-discrimination bill. Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Vojvodina all decriminalised homosexuality. In the UK, the first homosexual Trades Union Congress met to discuss the rights of homosexuals in the workplace.

On 27 November 1978, Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former San Francisco supervisor Dan White. White, Milk and Moscone had ongoing antagonism which only intensified after White resigned his spot as supervisor arguing the salary wasn’t enough to raise his family. Although he, and his supporters, later asked for Moscone to ignore the resignation and ask White back, Moscone refused. Milk and Moscone’s assassinations weren’t the only ones planned by White, but he was arrested before he was able to retaliate against others whom he felt were the reason for the refusal of Moscone to reinstate him on the Board of Supervisors. At the same time, Milk had seen increased death threats from various sources, and Moscone had ordered security for Milk and his partner Scott Smith. In reaction to the increased threats of violence, Milk said “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

White, who confessed to the murders, and showed no remorse, used the defence of diminished capacity, his lawyer arguing that good, upstanding, moral men don’t commit murder in cold blood. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and given a seven year sentence. The defence used by White’s attorney coined the term ‘Twinkie defence’ (because it seems sweet, but impossible…like the snack cake).

The assassinations, and the verdict, caused increased tension throughout San Francisco. The homosexual population felt White’s conviction and light sentence was a direct attack on the gay community, and they retaliated. On 21 May 1979 (the night before Milk’s 49th birthday), violence erupted throughout San Francisco. Called the White Night riots, the protest started as a march through the Castro district, and resulted in the demonstrators causing severe property damage to San Francisco City Hall, and injuries to both rioters and police. Once broken up, rioters dispersed, but several hours later police raided a gay bar in the Castro. Patrons were beat by police in riot gear, and two dozen were arrested. Gay leaders refused to apologise for the riots, and tensions throughout San Francisco increased. In November, acting mayor Dianne Feinstein was elected to a full term. Feinstein, in an effort to ease tensions, appointed a pro-gay Police Chief and ordered the increased recruitment of homosexuals on the San Francisco police force.

In 1979, Martin Sherman’s play Bent premiered in the West End in London, staring Ian McKellan. The play, which dealt with the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany and takes place during and immediately following The Night of the Long Knives, was named after the European word for homosexual. The play was the first of its kind, there being very little historical research into the plight of homosexuals under the Nazi regime. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that German would acknowledge that there was also a gay holocaust, along with a Jewish one.

In late 1979, both Cuba and Spain decimalise homosexuality, and Sweden becomes the first nation to remove homosexuality as an illness. In Washington, DC the first national Gay Rights march is held.

The 1970s saw huge advancements for gay rights throughout the world. By 1979, most of Europe had decriminalised homosexuality, and gay rights groups were gaining momentum in both the UK and the US. The increased traction of the gay rights movement in the US, however, also saw a new, well organised, well funded opposition: the Christian right. As the world tumbled into the 1980s, it also tumbled into an epidemic the size of which the modern world was entirely unprepared for.

Part XXI: Politics and the AIDS Epidemic

[Political Note: After its inception in 1976, the Christian Voice was headquartered at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that espouses free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, strong national defence and traditional American values. Please don’t ask me what any of that means, because I won’t be able to answer sans sarcasm.]

[Disclaimer: Since I will finally be alive once I write the first half the 1980s post, and was cool enough to understand once we hit the late 90s, I can not promise the intense attempt at neutrality that’s appeared in most of my other posts. I will re-read them at least twice before posting in hopes of catching any and all political commentary, but I make no promises. Having said that, however, I don’t mean to intentionally offend or attack anyone’s political or religious beliefs….I have a straight up love is stronger than hate policy, so no judgement happening. Having said THAT, feel free to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments, I promise I don’t offend easily.]

[Film Note: There is a movie called Milk, which starred Sean Penn, about Harvey Milk. Go. Watch. No questions, just do! I resisted the urge to write more about Milk, but if you’re curious, I can do a film history post. Also, Randy Shilts wrote a biography on Harvey Milk which you should also read…but be warned, Randy Shilts does not write easily so, to prepare yourself for his Milk biography, and my next blog post, read And the Band Played On.]

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