Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Activists mark 30th anniversary of White House meeting


Attendees at the 1977 meeting, clockwise from center: Midge Costanza, Robert Maulsom, Jean O'Leary, William Kelley, Betty Powell, Charles Brydon, Charlotte Spitzer, Myra Riddell, Cooki Lutkefedder, Ray Hartman, Pokey Anderson, George Raya, Frank Kameny, Reverend Troy Perry, Charlotte Bunch, Elaine Noble, Bruce Voeller, and Marilyn Haft.
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Thirty years ago on March 26 the White House opened its doors for the first time in U.S. history to 14 out gay and lesbian leaders from across the country to discuss a broad range of federal discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens.

The results of the three-hour meeting in the Roosevelt Room ignited a seismic but quiet shift in federal policies that altered the lives of gays and lesbians.

In 1977, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force was a small organization known as the National Gay Task Force led by the late Jean O'Leary and the late Bruce Voeller. The two agency co-founders initiated the meeting with Margaret "Midge" Costanza, then-adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

To commemorate the historic event, NGLTF brought together nine of the activists who attended the event, including Costanza; Marilyn Haft, then-deputy director to the White House Office of Public Liaison; Pokey Anderson, co-founder of the Houston Gay/Lesbian Political Caucus; Charlotte Bunch, founding director of the Public Resource Center; Frank Kameny, co-founder of NGLTF; Elaine Noble, the first out lesbian elected to a state legislature; Bishop Troy Perry, founder and first leader of the Metropolitan Community Churches; George Raya, California legislative advocate; and Matt Foreman, executive director of NGLTF.

"It's an incredibly important opportunity to reflect on the proud history of our movement and to look at how far we've come and how far we still need to go," said Foreman. "My sense is we have made extraordinary progress in changing public opinion and shaping attitudes around LGBT people, but we have not made the progress that people thought would have expected – particularly at the federal level."

Looking back

In 1977, the LGBT movement, then known as the gay and lesbian movement, was a youthful 8 years old (using the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 as a marker). LGBT leaders seized the momentum built from the civil rights, women's liberation, and anti-war movements. The meeting in the White House symbolized the sign of the times that the gates for civil liberties had opened.

Costanza, a feminist and activist, was the first female director of the Office of Public Liaison at the White House. Her office was next to the Oval Office. Seeing an opportunity to initiate effective change, she organized many controversial meetings before she resigned from her position on July 31, 1978.

Costanza told the Bay Area Reporter that she felt strongly about educating Carter, who publicly admitted that he didn't know much about discrimination against gay and lesbian people, but was willing to learn.

"It was a result of determination that the White House is everybody's White House and the federal government belongs to everybody, so why would you exclude gays or lesbians who paid taxes and voted just like everyone else?" said Costanza. "Once you raise an issue there and it has been acknowledged, many doors open up."

In 1977 there were no laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. To address these issues each attendee took responsibility for a federal agency that had significant influence on queer people's daily lives and presented briefings about discrimination in those organizations to Costanza.

Expectations about the meeting were skeptically optimistic.

"I expected virtually nothing from this meeting at the White House 30 years ago," said Anderson. "I did not expect to be really heard or welcomed, but we were both heard and welcomed."

Then and now

The meeting caused an earthquake that opened doors that were previously closed. According to Costanza, during the subsequent months, a shift in federal policies began to take effect almost immediately. By June 1977, the Internal Revenue Service began issuing tax-exempt status to LGBT organizations and by 1978, regular discussions began to initiate policy changes in six major federal agencies.

"We did receive funding for hepatitis research," said Raya, who focused his briefing on hepatitis. He recalled that he received a great deal of criticism for discussing sex at the White House. "I got into trouble because I talked about sex. They sounded like the old biddies we have in the White House now: 'Oh, no, we can't talk about sex. We have to talk about prevention. We can't talk about condoms. We got to talk about no sex.' Well, honey, we are homosexuals. You are going to talk about health you're going to talk about sex. You're going to talk about disease."

Costanza recalled that anti-gay activist Anita Bryant called for her resignation.

"More mail was generated from that meeting than any other issue while Jimmy Carter was in the White House," said Costanza.

Thirty years later federal legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination still hasn't been obtained. Foreman pointed out that for 20 out of the past 30 years the White House doors have been "slammed tight." But significant progress has been made on local and state levels and in public opinion.

"I imagined we would be further along today on the issues we presented that day, including on LGBT immigration rights," said Bunch. "It is also true that I did not imagine some of the forms that progress has taken in terms of changes in families and personal attitudes. Perhaps most of all, I did not expect the kind of organized political use of our movement by the conservatives that we have seen since."

Despite the conservative environment that has been present for most of the years since the first LGBT White House meeting, those who attended expressed hope for the future.

"A pendulum swings, and just because we've had to take a few steps back, as we have recently, doesn't mean that we won't keep trying," said Noble.

Raya added, "We need everybody to come out. That's what's holding us back. Do you know how much further we would be along?"

Foreman expressed a great deal of hope with Democrats in control of Congress and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-San Francisco) strong record supporting social justice issues and the LGBT community. He pointed out that there is a possibility that the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2007 and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been repeatedly introduced to Congress since the mid-1970s, will pass this year.

"They are really the floor of our agenda," said Foreman. "They are certainly not the ceiling. As significant as these votes are going to be, we still have a very long way to go to see equality from coast to coast."

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