GAY RIGHTS AND MORAL PANIC: THE ORIGINS OF AMERICA’S DEBATE ON HOMOSEXUALITY
by Fred Fejes. New York: Palgrave, 2008. 292pp. Hardcover. $79.95. ISBN: 9781403980694.
Reviewed by Susan Burgess, Department of Political Science, Ohio University. Email: Burgess [at] ohio.edu.
The drive for gay civil rights gained steam after the now famous rebellion at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969. As communities across the country debated gay rights, the LGBT community became more visible and well-organized, fostering the development of a national LGBT movement. Around the same time, the religious right became a force to be reckoned with, owing in no small part to its strong resistance to gay rights in the political sphere. GAY RIGHTS AND MORAL PANIC provides a detailed exploration of these developments, focusing on the high-profile debate on gay civil rights that occurred in Miami in 1977 and its immediate aftermath in various other localities. Fred Fejes argues that events in Miami serve as the origin of the ongoing debate about gay rights, reflecting important social, political, and cultural changes, including the emergence of a national movement for LGBT rights as well as the rise of an increasingly politicized religious right. This book focuses on the clash between these two groups in an effort to understand the political conflict over gay rights in the late 1970s, as well as in our own time.
Fejes sets the stage for the story by offering an interesting narrative of gay and lesbian life before Stonewall , relying largely on media accounts that unselfconsciously characterized homosexuals as perverted, criminal, and mentally ill. Respectable institutions typically did not cater to openly gay people at this time. Many states and localities had passed laws making it illegal for homosexuals to meet or work in state-licensed venues, including bars and restaurants. Institutions that did cater primarily to gay populations, such as the Stonewall Inn, were typically controlled by organized crime which paid off the police in lieu of obtaining formal liquor licenses.
Since many believe the modern LGBT movement began with resistance to such treatment at the Stonewall Inn, one might have expected New York City to be among the first to pass a gay civil rights law. However, two Midwestern college towns shared this honor in 1972, when both East Lansing (home of Michigan State University) and Ann Arbor (home of the University of Michigan) successfully adopted legislation that provided protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A number of cities and counties in various regions of the country followed suit, including communities with both traditionally progressive and conservative political cultures ranging from Berkeley, California to Columbus, Ohio. Around the same time, Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) introduced the first national gay rights bill to Congress in 1974. [*591]
While noting these developments, Fejes argues that the struggle that occurred in Miami in 1977 had a unique impact on the shape of the debate for years to come. Like many other localities in the late 1970s, the Dade County Commission passed a gay civil rights bill, protecting homosexuals from employment, public accommodation and housing discrimination throughout the greater Miami area. This development was not especially eventful in and of itself. However, when former beauty pageant queen turned religious and patriotic singer Anita Bryant began to lead the first movement in the country to repeal a gay civil rights law, her celebrity and the novelty of the repeal effort drew an enormous amount of national attention.
Anita Bryant became involved in opposing the Miami law at the behest of her minister, Rev. William Chapman. Head of a large Baptist church in the area, Chapman was part of a growing wave of politically oriented Christian fundamentalists who opposed gay rights as well as equal rights for women. Once Dade County passed the gay civil rights law, Bryant became the face of the campaign for its repeal. Fejes argues that this campaign set the terms of the debate about gay rights for the next three decades, as the religious right combined homophobia with broader fears about child safety and the future of the nuclear family to ignite a full blown moral panic in American society.
While opponents of gay rights had long argued that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach, Bryant brought a new fervency to the debate. Leading a group called “Save Our Children,” she claimed that homosexuals had to recruit converts from each new generation because they could not reproduce on their own. Playing off fears that parents would be endangering their children by approving gay civil rights laws, she argued that homosexuals were immoral and prone to pedophilia. Despite opponents’ compelling evidence that most child molesters are heterosexual, Bryant’s continued exploitation of this myth generated powerful support for her cause among fearful Miami residents. Bryant steadfastly maintained throughout the campaign that her opposition to gay rights was God’s work, and her high-profile activism was influential in encouraging the Florida Legislature to pass bills outlawing both gay marriage and adoption during the four-month Miami repeal campaign.
In contrast, some supporters of the new law argued that gay rights should be understood as one part of a larger drive for universal human rights, while other supporters viewed gay rights as a key component of the sexual revolution that was increasingly at the forefront of 1970s popular culture. Despite these compelling counterarguments, the media accounts that Fejes analyzes regularly focused the majority of attention on the celebrity of Anita Bryant and her persistent claims about pedophilia and moral corruption.
In June 1977, Miami area residents voted to repeal their gay civil rights law by an overwhelming 2-1 margin, making Dade County the first locality in the nation to do so. Although the loss was a significant blow for the LGBT community, several movement leaders said that Anita Bryant had done gay men and lesbians a favor by uniting them in a national campaign against public [*592] prejudice and discrimination, noting that people who had never been involved publicly in gay rights came out of the closet due to the fierce bigotry that was regularly on display in Miami.
The impact of the Miami campaign was substantial. On the night of the Miami vote, an apparently spontaneous protest march emerged on the streets of New York City, with an estimated crowd of 5,000, while the White House received written protests from as far away as The Netherlands. Politicians across the country including Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco and Rep. Edward Koch of New York stated that they were disappointed in the Miami outcome, as did many national and local leaders of LGBT groups. Leaders on both sides of the issue presciently agreed that this was only the beginning of a larger national debate on gay rights that would continue for years to come.
Miami’s repeal of its gay civil rights law led to similar campaigns in several cities, even as others continued to pass new laws protecting the rights of homosexuals. Fejes focuses on the former, grouping the post-Miami anti-gay initiatives into two separate chapters. The first set includes St. Paul, Minnesota and Eugene, Oregon both of which voted to repeal their gay civil rights laws by a 2-1 margin, as well as Wichita, Kansas which did so by a whopping 5-1 margin. The second set includes a state-wide initiative in California, a local repeal effort in Seattle, and a new vote on gay civil rights in Miami. California’s Proposition 6, or what came to be known as the Briggs Initiative, proposed the mandatory firing of all public school teachers who were homosexuals or who advocated homosexuality. This initiative failed by a 58-42% margin in the November 1978 elections with somewhat surprising opposition arising from conservative stalwarts such as Ronald Reagan and the state chapter of the John Birch Society. Repeal efforts also failed in Seattle, which resoundingly supported its gay rights law in a 63-37% vote. However, the Miami proposal to protect gay rights went down with 58% opposed.
Fejes argues that these events led LGBT communities across the nation to create what Benedict Anderson has called a unified “imagined community” held together by a shared social and political affinity, rather than physical proximity. Shortly thereafter, that virtual community became at least temporarily proximate during the first gay and lesbian march on Washington in 1979, attended by over 75,000 people.
In the wake of her divorce a few years later, Anita Bryant retreated, at least somewhat, from her hard line stance against gay rights, claiming to adopt more of a “live and let live” strategy. Be that as it may, Fejes amply demonstrates that the moral panic strategy that she adopted in the Miami campaign has a continuing legacy in contemporary debates about gay rights. He concludes: “After the dramatic campaigns of 1977 and 1978, the battle between gay rights activists and social and religious conservatives settled into a kind of cultural trench warfare that has continued over the next quarter of a century” (p.228).
This clearly written book offers an excellent analysis of the development of gay and lesbian civil rights laws. It is [*593] chock full of interesting details and anecdotes that are essential to understanding the complex politics of this issue. The conflict over gay civil rights laws is a topic that is frequently overlooked in casebooks on law and sexuality, perhaps because court cases are not central to the story. This book would work well as a supplemental book in such classes, particularly for those wishing to move away from a court-centered syllabus. It would also be useful in undergraduate and graduate classes on civil rights or LGBT politics, as well as in courses on politics and religion or politics and the media.
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Susan Burgess.
Labels: Vol. 19 No. 8