NYC’s Gay Rights Silver Anniversary

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BY ANDY HUMM | It’s the silver anniversary of the passage of New York City’s gay and lesbian rights bill. The City Council adopted it 21-14 on March 21, 1986, and Mayor Ed Koch signed it into law on April 2.

A quarter of a century ago sounds like a long time in the past, but New York was actually one of the last big American cities to pass such a bill, even though the concept of adding “sexual orientation” to non-discrimination laws was dreamt up here by the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in 1971.

The bill was on the verge of passage in 1974, but after a vicious smear campaign by New York’s Catholic Archdiocese and the firefighters union, it became the first measure in the Council’s history to clear committee only to lose on the floor, when even some sponsors voted against it.

The bill was subsequently kept from seeing the light of day by Council Majority Leader Tom Cuite of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, the right-wing head of the Catholic War Veterans. During his 1977 run for Mayor, Koch told a group of gays whose support he sought that any mayor who couldn’t pass that bill within six months of taking office was incompetent. He got elected, but it took nine more years.

1977 was also the year that Anita Bryant in Miami led the first referendum battle against a gay rights ordinance. That law was overturned by a 2-1 margin, sending shock waves through the gay community nationwide. In New York, the blow led to a renewed effort to pass the gay rights bill, led by a new 50-group Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights (CLGR) formed principally by GAA, Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL), and the Church of the Beloved Disciple, an early gay-led congregation. In those days, I represented the gay Catholic group Dignity in the Coalition and subsequently became its spokesman.

CLGR pressed the fight for the bill relentlessly, though it was defeated ten times in the General Welfare Committee led by an infamous bigot, Aileen Ryan of the Bronx. Our persistence led some in the community to condemn our strategy as delivering too many defeats; that critique took on added force in 1981 when AIDS began dealing its own losses. Our response was that we were defeated every day we lacked basic protections for our rights, but that our efforts were smoking out councilmembers on their positions and improving our vote total from one tally to the next.

In 1978, Larry Kramer wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing, “We are not ready for our rights in New York. We have not earned them” as they had in San Francisco. That assessment was an insult that failed to take note that ours is a city vastly larger and more conservative than San Francisco — one that has five times since elected the Republican nominee in mayoral elections.

Indeed, it was only with the emergence of significant gay political organizations in the more conservative outer boroughs that prospects for passing the bill became viable. Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats was instrumental in making theirs the only borough outside Manhattan to deliver a majority vote for it in 1986.

The measure came close, in fact, to winning support from Brooklyn’s Catholic Diocese, whose auxiliary bishop, Joseph Sullivan, said the diocese would drop its opposition in return for some innocuous face-saving language that would not alter the bill’s legal meaning. Cardinal John O’Connor, head of the more influential New York Archdiocese across the East River — with the backing of the Vatican — bullied Brooklyn Bishop Francis Mugavero, often rumored to be gay, to reiterate the diocese’s opposition. The New York Post headlined the development a “Gay Rights Shocker.”

The retirements of Ryan and Cuite from the Council by 1985 also played a critical role in making success possible. Though Cuite’s successor as majority leader, Peter Vallone, Sr., of Queens, opposed the bill, he committed to allowing a floor vote in order to cobble together the votes to win his post.

Ruth Messinger, then a councilwoman from the West Side who cast the vote that put the bill over the top, said, “It is exactly the kind of legislative story from which people in any field can learn a lot. It took a ridiculous amount of organizing and strategizing in what people regarded as a progressive city. It required lots of people to make tough decisions and be more public than they might have to convince legislators” to move on the bill.

Messinger went on to become Manhattan borough president and the 1997 Democratic nominee for mayor. Opponents of the bill tended to have more dead-end political careers. Noach Dear, who led the fight in the Council to stop the bill, tried for several elective offices and failed, though he now serves as a Civil Court judge. At the end of a debate with me on “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee,” he leveled the canard that gays would next try to protect “bestiality.” Off camera, I shouted at him, “The only one who is into bestiality, Noach, is your wife.”

Steve Ault, a CLGR spokesman and co-organizer of the 1979 and ‘87 gay and lesbian rights marches on Washington, said the lesson he drew from the 15-year struggle was, “You don’t give up and you keep struggling and you may win.”

Allen Roskoff, a GAA vet who was CLGR’s legislative director, said, “In the ‘70s the gay rights movement was a progressive movement. We fought hard for real social change. We were part of a progressive struggle and broad coalition. Our community has changed. Gay moderates now dominate and progressive thought is no longer the norm.”

Joyce Hunter and Jim Levin, as members of the city’s Human Rights Commission (as well as CLRG spokespeople), got the Commission to accept reports of sexual orientation discrimination so a record could be compiled, even though no official redress was yet authorized. That record proved a potent lobbying tool in the push for passage in 1986.

“We’ve made a lot of strides since then, but we still have a long way to go,” Hunter said, citing the failure of federal legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Some critical players in making the 1986 passage possible tragically had too little time left in life to savor the victory. Actor and activist David Summers, who movingly testified for the bill, was dead of AIDS complications within months. Phil Zwickler, who, along with Jane Lippman, made the documentary “Rights and Reactions” about the fight for the bill, died of AIDS in 1991. Tom Stoddard, who as executive director of Lambda Legal, wrote the explanatory preamble to the legislation, also succumbed to HIV disease in 1997.

Two great lesbian leaders of CLGR also died long before their time, of other causes — Betty Santoro in 2005 at 67 and Eleanor Cooper in 2008 at 68.

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CLGR’s organizing for the bill was always done in open community meetings that were often contentious but managed to engage thousands of activists citywide to lobby for it through petitioning, rallying, and demonstrating. In the days leading up to the vote in 1986, masses of people turned out for rallies, including one organized by the recently formed Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The opposition also had huge public rallies, mostly populated by Catholics and Orthodox Jews from New York’s religious right.

Fernando Ferrer, then a Bronx councilman, recalled being preached against from Catholic pulpits “for four Sundays in a row.” He got calls from constituents saying, “We’re going to come after you,” but went on to serve as Bronx borough president and win the 2005 Democratic mayoral nomination.

Christopher Lynn, who was counsel to CLGR, recalled Councilman Wendell Foster, a minister from the Bronx, voting for the bill but saying in the debate on the floor that “gays made him sick to his stomach.” Foster’s daughter, Helen, is on the Council now.

Father Bernard Lynch, one of the few Catholic priests to stick his neck out for gay rights in those days, recalled the “relentless homophobia” of Cardinal O’Connor, who was the most prominent voice against the bill and was also successful eventually in getting Dignity barred from meeting in Chelsea’s St. Francis Xavier Church.

“This scandalous behavior was very destructive of people with HIV/ AIDS’ relationship with God,” Lynch wrote in an email, recalling the AIDS ministry he led in New York at that time. “This at a time when there was very little chance of survival, and everyone from the most devout to the most skeptical was hoping against hope… I had little choice but to testify.”

As a result of his public stand, Lynch was barred from using archdiocesan facilities to practice his priesthood, and, at the behest of Church officials, was later persecuted by the FBI on false charges ultimately thrown out of court.

Since we were the street activists, Koch was loathe to deal with us and we depended on insiders like Ethan Geto, an activist who also ran a successful lobbying firm, to do a lot of the political work behind the scenes that led to the bill’s passage.

Tom Smith, then a Metropolitan Community Church representative to CLGR and later a Coalition spokesman, remembered “finding out that deals had been made behind our backs from people we thought we could count on,” including Brooklyn Councilman Sam Horwitz, who in 1986 chaired the General Welfare Committee. Two months after passage, the Council tried to amend it to exempt four-family housing units, when all other human rights categories offered exemptions only for two-family houses. The Council chose not to override Koch’s veto of that amendment — though it had the votes to do so — but it took a public hearing appearance by the iconic African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, an out gay man, to convince the mayor to hold the line.

In those days before the Internet, Smith said he was constantly amazed at Cooper’s ability to rally hundreds using a rolodex and working phones that were sometimes tapped. On occasion, she gave out false information to mislead the police.

Few celebrities spoke up for New York’s gay community in 1986, though a March 11 hearing included stirring testimony from Joe Papp of the Public Theater, some union leaders, Catholic Sister Jeannine Gramick, and Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore. Koch testified and was heckled by Hasidim protesters. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau gave sobering testimony about the need for the bill so that crime victims from our community would feel safe to come forward to police.

And Harvey Fierstein, who had already won three Tony Awards (for “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage Aux Folles”), told a harrowing tale of a young man, whose parents found out he was gay, returning home to find his belongings burning on the lawn and his family sitting shiva inside. “This is love and pro-family?” he testified.

The other side had a motley assortment of street preachers and nuts like radio host Bob Grant, who actually did a lot to advance our side’s arguments with their bigotry.

The day the bill passed, there was an enormous evening rally in Sheridan Square. Herb Rickman, the mayor’s gay liaison with whom we often butted heads, said to me, “We’re brothers tonight,” to which I replied, “Herb, we’re always brothers.” The next day’s Daily News headline was, “GAYS YES, CONTRAS NO,” as a Democratic Congress voted to defund President Reagan’s aid to Nicaragua’s right-wing rebels. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, then on the Council, recalled going home and celebrating late into the night with her chief of staff, John Wade, an out gay man who died earlier this year.

The new law wasn’t perfect. It took another 16 years before the Council added “gender identity and expression” to city human rights law, and eight months longer than that for New York State to add just “sexual orientation” to the categories protected by anti-discrimination law.

The three months immediately following the bill’s enactment proved particularly dispiriting. First, we had to return to the streets to beat back the housing amendment aimed at weakening it. Then, in late June, the US Supreme Court hit us with the infamous 5-4 Bowers v. Hardwick decision upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws — in a decision that termed our claims to sexual privacy and freedom “facetious.” Angry, even in our despair, we turned out 10,000 people in Sheridan Square for a July 4 march downtown where hundreds of thousands were celebrating the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial with a parade of Tall Ships.

A year later, spurred by a speech by Larry Kramer at the LGBT Community Center, ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was founded, and everything, as it had to be, was now about the epidemic. But on a cold night in March 1986, a beleaguered community got to celebrate a victory won at the grassroots in a fashion today’s top-down movement could learn a lot from.

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