In 2016, no constituency of the Democratic Party has more reason to want to reaffirm and extend the legacy of President Barack Obama than LGBTQ Americans. What Lyndon Johnson was to black civil rights, Obama has been to LGBTQ civil rights. The breakthrough—including the fall of "don't ask, don't tell," the securing of marriage equality, and transgender-inclusive policies adopted by federal agencies—came faster than many expected. Yet the roots of this triumphant, if precarious, moment lie nearly half a century ago, during the 1972 presidential election—the first one after the Stonewall uprising—when the two major U.S. political parties first diverged on social issues.
That July, the Democratic Party allowed both a lesbian and a gay man to speak from the podium at its presidential nominating convention about being gay. Forty-four years and 11 presidential elections later, the Republicans last week made it halfway to that mark with Peter Thiel, who, though openly gay, actively minimized his sexuality in his address. Meanwhile, Democrats will make history again this Thursday with the first transgender convention speaker.
In 1972, on live national television, Walter Cronkite described Madeline Davis as “a 32-year-old communications worker from Buffalo, New York, who’s just identified herself as a lesbian.” Her powerful speech touched on themes familiar today. “We are here,” she said, “to put an end to our fears—our fears that people will know us for who we are; that they will shun and revile us, fire us from our jobs, reject us from our families, evict us from our homes, beat us, and jail us.” Unfortunately, not many people heard Davis’ speech, or that of San Francisco gay activist Jim Foster, because they occurred between 5 and 6 in the morning, near the end of a bitter fight over the party platform. But they did happen.
The two delegates spoke after a protracted debate over a plank that would have put the party on record in support of abortion rights. The gay rights plank on whose behalf Davis and Foster had spoken, by contrast, was dispensed with immediately and overwhelmingly on a voice vote, as they knew it would be. Nominee George McGovern had made it clear he wouldn’t allow this plank to be passed.
The previous February, in Chicago, gay activists had held the first-ever election-year national political strategy session to plan for the party’s conventions. In terms of primary endorsement options, many felt their best bet was Shirley Chisholm, the black congresswoman from Brooklyn and pioneering presidential candidate who was the only one in the race who seemed comfortable actually discussing gay rights on the campaign trail. But only one candidate, Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of the postwar best-selling how-to book Baby and Child Care, answered the group’s invitation to attend the deliberations.
Spock was running on the anti–Vietnam War People’s Party ticket. On an audio recording of the conference preserved in the New York Public Library, an activist asks Spock if he believes gay couples can be good adoptive or foster parents. Spock answers, “As a politician, I say yes. As a professional man, I want to discuss it.” Even this most radical of candidates hedged when it came to embracing gay equality. It would be almost two more years before psychiatrists removed homosexuality from their official list of disorders. The group ended up choosing not to endorse any candidate, but instead to issue a series of demands, including proportional representation among Democratic delegates.
Of course, 1972 is rarely remembered as a shining moment in the party’s history. It was, in fact, the second Democratic National Convention in a row to prove disastrous. The previous one, held in Chicago in 1968, had been disrupted by televised clashes between police and demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War.
Yet the 1972 convention may well have had more lasting consequences for mainstream progressive politics, as the historian Robert O. Self has argued. Gay activists secured a role there because, after Chicago, the party adopted new delegate selection rules in the hope of bringing the outsiders into the party. These new rules ceded significant ground to the insurgent social movements visible outside the 1968 convention hall and dramatically increased representation of three overlapping constituencies—black Americans, women, and young people—at the 1972 convention compared with 1968.
This new openness dealt a blow to the influence of white male power brokers, who didn’t take it lightly. Ominously, AFL-CIO leader George Meany withheld from McGovern the support that organized labor had traditionally afforded Democrats. In November, McGovern lost 49 states.
To be sure, having two queer people speak in the wee hours did not mean the DNC was ready to fully embrace LGBTQ issues. Madeline Davis said it best in her speech: “We are the untouchables of American society.” The treatment of gay rights by McGovern—who had surprised everybody by winning the nomination on an anti–Vietnam War platform, and was perhaps the most progressive nominee in history—proved her right. Desperate to avoid being linked with homosexuality, McGovern’s staff dispatched a Midwestern delegate to speak after the gay delegates. The tactic? Link their doomed proposal to child molestation. But as ever in politics, McGovern played both sides: His campaign purchased ad space in at least one gay publication, which activists saw as cause for celebration.
After 1972, the two parties’ divergence on abortion and gay rights grew. While Nixon’s re-election was a catastrophic defeat for women and gays, in January, 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in all 50 states in Roe v. Wade, going far beyond anything McGovern had contemplated.
While the 1972 Democratic National Convention was a watershed for their political participation, it is crucial to remember that lesbian and gay activists remained outsiders to the political process nationwide. It would be two more years, in 1974, before the path-breaking elections of out lesbians Kathy Kozachenko and Elaine Noble to a Michigan city-council and a Massachusetts state-legislative campaign, respectively. And, as New York activist Peter Fisher wrote in a book about gay life published early in '72, “We cannot expect an openly gay President today any more than we can expect a black one.”
In 1980, the Democrats finally added “sexual orientation” to their platform’s blanket endorsement of anti-discrimination protections while the Republican platform included a plank in favor of “the traditional American family.” Even in the Democratic Party, though, gayness was still largely “untouchable.” The first openly gay members of congress were visited by scandal, with Gerry Studds outed in 1983 over his own relationship with a 17-year-old House page and Barney Frank acknowledging his gayness in 1987 after a disgraced former Republican congressman published a book mentioning Frank's appearance at a gay pride parade. (Two years later, Frank was involved in a scandal of his own involving a former roommate who had used Frank's apartment as a base for sex work.)* Meanwhile, the AIDS crisis breathed new life into congressional homophobia.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton became the first president to appoint an openly gay person to an administration post, and he ultimately nominated 150, including the first openly gay U.S. ambassador. But he caved to conservatives in his own party when he reneged on a promise to end the military-service ban and later signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet as Democrats began to come around on LGBTQ equality in the late ’90s and 2000s, Republicans became even more implacably opposed to gay and later transgender rights. Indeed, the GOP platform adopted in Cleveland last week is more anti-LGBTQ than ever.
*Correction, July 26, 2016: This post originally implied that Barney Frank was outed during a scandal in 1989. In fact, he came out of his own volition in 1987. Additional clarifying information has been added.