A look back at the 1984–85 referendum.
by Dale Carpenter
Editor’s note: This essay is largely excerpted from Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, by Dale Carpenter. Copyright © 2012 by Dale Carpenter. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
The recent passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance by the city council, followed by an attempt to have it placed on the ballot to be repealed, recalls a momentous and divisive fight in this city three decades ago involving a far more limited antidiscrimination ordinance and an ensuing backlash.
By 1984, the gay civil rights movement in Houston was flush with success. Seven years earlier, community activists, led by people like Ray Hill, had loudly protested the appearance of Anita Bryant, an antigay crusader, at a downtown hotel event. The event sparked a movement. In 1979, the four-year-old Gay Political Caucus (now called the Houston GLBT Political Caucus), helped elect the first woman to the city council against an opponent who dismissed her supporters as “oddwads and homosexuals.”
In 1981, gay voters were seen as instrumental in electing the city’s first woman mayor, a liberal named Kathy Whitmire. Two years later, candidates lined up for the GPC endorsement, which helped install a progressive majority in the city council for the first time. Politicians who wanted to get elected to city office could no longer campaign openly on antigay platforms. It was without question the high point in the early phase of the city’s gay civil rights movement. Newsweek hailed the arrival of what it called “Gay Power in Macho Houston.”
A chain of events soon shattered any illusion, however, that gay men and lesbians might have become a political powerhouse. It would bring to the surface all of the enduring stereotypes that homosexuals were perverted and dangerous—in the end, child-molesting criminals.
On June 19, 1984, the city council passed two ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gay people in city employment by adding “sexual orientation” to sections of the city’s civil service code that already banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, age, disability, sex, and national origin.
A poll showed that Houstonians opposed discrimination against homosexuals by a nine-point margin. While the GPC did not initially push for passage of the ordinances (some leaders feared a political backlash), the group eventually had no choice but to support it. The vote in the council was 9–6 on the main nondiscrimination ordinance and 8–7 on a second ordinance that dealt with affirmative action. Mayor Whitmire supported both measures. The closeness of the votes foreshadowed the political controversy that would ensue. As the council debated the measures, a group of Ku Klux Klansmen stood outside the chambers and chanted, “Death to homosexuals.”
Passage of the ordinances enraged religious conservatives, who were beginning to coalesce into a local and national movement of their own as a response to what they regarded as attacks on traditional moral values. Within a month, they had gathered more than 60,000 signatures from voters for a referendum to repeal the ordinances. The referendum was set for January 19, 1985.
The winter of 1984–85 in Houston saw one of the most viciously antigay political campaigns ever conducted in the nation. City ordinances that protected, at most, a few hundred city workers became a symbol of the larger culture war being fought across the country. In Houston, the vote became a referendum on homosexuality itself.
Gay leaders foresaw a serious challenge. A meeting of community activists on July 11, 1984, mapped strategy for the coming six months. The planning group agreed that gay men and lesbians should remain largely invisible during the campaign. “It is essential that all spokespersons be from the non-gay community,” read the minutes of the meeting. A 15-member steering committee would “work in the background with a city-wide group of non-gays.” The main, public face of the campaign committee would “exclud[e] gay activists.”
At a time when they had supposedly reached new heights of political power, the city’s gay leadership, in other words, opted for a closeted strategy. They would try to hide during the campaign and let others take the public lead. Unfortunately, straight support never materialized in anywhere near the numbers, significance, or dedication the community hoped for.
With few exceptions, civic, religious, and business leaders were spooked by gay-rights opponents and remained on the sidelines or even joined the repeal drive. John Goodner, a council member who had previously sought and obtained GPC endorsement but was opposed to the antidiscrimination ordinances, formed a group called the Committee for Public Awareness (CPA) to promote a “yes” vote on the referendum. It immediately focused attention on the supposed danger of homosexuality itself, rather than on the question of whether city workers should be protected from job discrimination.
The CPA brought Nebraska psychologist Paul Cameron to Houston to speak. Cameron’s efforts to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals and his shoddy and distorted research on the allegedly harmful effects of homosexuality had caused him to be expelled from the American Psychological Association. Cameron exploited the public’s fears of AIDS, which was just then entering the national consciousness as a major health threat. Speaking at a prayer breakfast of the predominantly black Concerned Pastors and Ministers of Houston, Cameron advocated a quarantine of all gay people to prevent the spread of AIDS. Unless homosexuals were removed from society, Cameron told the ministers, mankind’s very existence would be imperiled. “By this time next year very close to all of them [homosexuals] are going to be infected. It’s bad enough our boys are being raped” by homosexuals, he said, “but to have them die because of the rape is worse.” Even though Goodner later distanced himself from Cameron, the invidious tone was set.
CPA campaign coordinator Judi Wilson, a veteran of Anita Bryant’s successful effort to repeal a Miami antidiscrimination ordinance in 1977, said that the goal of homosexuals was not equality, “but to have control.” In a letter to voters, the CPA warned that Houston was in danger of becoming “another San Francisco or New York City—a haven for the ever increasing number of avowed homosexuals that will move to our City.” Houston, she charged, “has been selected [by national gay rights organizations] as the site of what amounts to the critical battleground in the national war on traditional family values.” The letter closed with a quote from Annise Parker, who was then a young GPC leader, saying that “a victory [in the referendum] would be a signal that it is time to press ahead for other goals.”
Another pro-repeal group, Campaign for Houston, invited voters to a screening of a sensationalistic 1980 CBS documentary called Gay Power, Gay Politics just 11 days before the referendum. In its letter to voters, Campaign for Houston said the documentary revealed that in San Francisco “children may not safely play in the parks without being exposed to [sic] by men who are meeting men for ‘anonymous’ sex in full public view; sadomasochistic parlors have proliferated; the city’s mayor is a pawn of the radical homosexuals; the public schools are mandated to teach homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle to the children; and more.”
The city’s business establishment, represented by the Houston Chamber of Commerce, publicly supported repeal. Led by former mayor Louie Welch, business leaders said they feared that protecting gay people from discrimination could hurt the city economically, driving away commerce and tarnishing the city’s image.
Lawyers at prominent Houston law firms and the president of the Houston Bar Association also announced support for repeal. Harvard-educated Scott Brister, a partner at the respected Houston-based law firm Andrews Kurth L.L.P. (and later a justice on the Texas Supreme Court), warned that the ordinances would “protect persons whose sexual practices might be unhealthy, perhaps violent, or sometimes abhorrent to the particular citizens whom they are to serve.”
In the midst of an epidemic that threatened the public with a deadly, sexually transmissible virus, medical opinion played a major role in the campaign to repeal the ordinance. Campaign for Houston sponsored advertisements in which local allergist and religious-right activist Steven Hotze warned that homosexual men were the “primary carriers” of AIDS and that Houston would “become a homosexual mecca if we permit laws that encourage more homosexuals to settle here, increasing the threat to your health…. Enough is enough.”
Religious leaders also played an important part in the repeal. Roman Catholic bishop John Morkovsky said those who supported the ordinances were “perverts.” Edwin Young, pastor of the Second Baptist Church, predicted the ordinances would promote “pedophilia, necrophilia, and other sexual perversions.”
The Harris County GOP strongly backed repeal. The county party’s chairman, Russ Mather, cautioned that if the ordinances stood, homosexuals would become police officers as a way to have sex with children. “I’ve heard that the first thing homosexuals do when they join the force is try to infiltrate the juvenile division,” he said, evoking age-old fears of gay conspiracies to molest and recruit children. “When you have a homosexual patrolling Montrose, is he a cop first or a homosexual first?” asked Mather. Not surprisingly, given the decades-long animosity between the gay community and law enforcement, the Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union endorsed the repeal.
Antigay forces saw an opportunity to split the coalition of racial minorities and progressive white voters. Before the ordinances passed, Goodner had warned they would weaken affirmative action for blacks and other racial minorities because they would be “pitting born minorities against minorities by choice.” He predicted gay men and lesbians would win that contest, leading to more discrimination against blacks and Hispanics.
On the day of the referendum, which coincided with celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the Committee for Public Awareness ran a large ad in the city’s black newspaper, The Informer and Texas Freeman. The ad, endorsed by the black Baptist Ministers Association of Houston, warned that the ordinance was “the FIRST STEP in a calculated scheme by homosexuals to gain political power and to force their dangerous lifestyle on our city and nation.”
Another CPA-sponsored ad, this one in the Houston Chronicle, featured pictures of six prominent black ministers urging repeal. “Let’s not forfeit our hard-won rights to an artificial minority!” the ad warned. “This is a moral issue…not a discrimination issue. This is a gay power issue…not a civil rights issue.”
Not all black leaders agreed. Former U. S. representative Barbara Jordan, the first black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives from the South, openly opposed the repeal of the ordinances.
Repeal advocates distributed slick brochures with photographs of schoolchildren exiting buses that thundered, “No matter what anyone says, no matter what they promise or deny or cross their hearts about, you know what the next step is: protecting the rights of homosexuals to teach their lifestyle in the classroom.”
But perhaps the most inflammatory material of all was a brochure distributed during the campaign by Cameron’s own Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality (ISIS). The front cover of “Murder, Violence and Homosexuality” depicted a young girl cowering and screaming in a corner, her hands attempting to shield her body, as a (presumably gay) man wielded a hatchet over her head. The ISIS brochure claimed gays were unusually likely to commit “sex murders,” abuse alcohol and drugs, and even have automobile accidents. It closed with this:
In these and countless other ways homosexuals increase the collective risk of living. And to what advantage? What do homosexuals do for us that makes up for the damage they do to us? Nothing, nothing at all. There are no benefits associated with homosexuality, only liabilities—for them and for us…. Do we need this grief? Do our children need to play in a more dangerous world to satisfy the quirks of those given to kinky sex? No. Enough. Homosexuality ought to be suppressed with all deliberate speed, lets [sic] get on with it.
Supporters of the repeal effort staffed a 200-person phone bank on the eve of the election to remind like-minded people to vote, compared with only 45 phones for the pro-ordinance group. And the repeal campaign raised and spent tens of thousands of dollars more than its opponents.
All of this activity overwhelmed gay-rights advocates.
The results of the January 1985 referendum were devastating. Voters opted to repeal the antidiscrimination ordinances by a stunning margin, 80 percent to 20 percent. The repeal won handily in every section of the city except Montrose.
A pall hung over the gay community and its organizations. Just a year before, local gay leaders thought they were the new power brokers in the city; now nobody would return their phone calls. The ferocity of the repeal campaign proved that homosexuals were still pariahs after all. The campaign had given full voice to a deep-seated bigotry, and voters had overwhelmingly validated that hatred and disgust.
A columnist in the local gay newspaper noted that even otherwise progressive voters could not be counted on to stand up for gays. “We deluded ourselves. We believed our ‘progressive coalition’ we thought we belonged to would pull in behind us…. It didn’t.” Homophobia, not job discrimination, was “the real issue in this campaign.”
Just a month after the referendum, 59 percent of Houstonians told pollsters they opposed equal rights for gays. In the next election, not a single candidate for municipal office—not even Mayor Whitmire—sought the GPC’s endorsement.
“The fallout from that [referendum] was that the community bubble had been burst,” remembered Parker. “We weren’t all-powerful and were shown to be mostly smoke and mirrors.” The GPC was $10,000 in debt, its membership fell, and AIDS itself started to take a serious toll, both by killing leaders in the community and by diverting talent and energy toward dealing with the immense health crisis. While things gradually improved for the community, it would not soon regain the perceived influence on city politics it enjoyed in the golden years between 1979 and 1984.
The memory of the antidiscrimination ordinance repeal echoes across three decades. It’s a history worth remembering both for its similarities and dissimilarities to the controversy over the HERO ordinance and other efforts to end invidious discrimination. It tells us a lot about what’s changed and what hasn’t. And it reminds us that progress toward equality is neither inevitable nor unilinear. As the past slowly escapes our grasp, we take hold of the future. That future isn’t something that just happens to us. It is what we make it.
Dale Carpenter is the Distinguished University Teaching Professor and Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. A former Houstonian, Carpenter was the author of the “OutRight” column for OutSmart magazine from 1994 to 2009.