Guest Opinion: In 1980, South Bay voters adopted anti-LGBTQ ballot measures

  • by by Ken Yeager
  • Wednesday August 23, 2023
Share this Post:
Ken Yeager's "RUN! My Story of LGBTQ+ Political Power, Equality, and Acceptance in Silicon Valley." Photo: Courtesy Atmosphere Press
Ken Yeager's "RUN! My Story of LGBTQ+ Political Power, Equality, and Acceptance in Silicon Valley." Photo: Courtesy Atmosphere Press

When the gay rights movement was gaining steam across the country in 1977, Anita Bryant, a Miss America runner-up and Florida orange juice pitchwoman, entered the scene. Building on her friend Phyllis Schlafly's anti-Equal Rights Amendment work, Bryant founded an anti-gay group, Save Our Children Inc., which led a highly publicized campaign to repeal a Miami-Dade law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The campaign was based on conservative Christian beliefs about the sinfulness of homosexuality and the perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation. Bryant stated, "What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life. I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before."

As the number of jurisdictions that outlawed similar discrimination grew, Bryant began traveling across the country, spreading her anti-gay message. "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children," she stated.

Indeed, the campaign she initiated resulted in a conservative backlash, setting the tone of LGBTQ+ rights battles for years to come and turning the tide against the advancement made to destigmatize homosexuality. It also launched the careers of evangelists Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim and Tammy Bakker, among others.

The Save the Children campaign arrived in San Jose and Santa Clara County two years later when county supervisors first discussed a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance. There would be six hearings and more than 25 hours of public testimony before final adoption.

The first meeting provided a good indication of what was to follow. According to official transcripts of the meeting, speakers who opposed the measure included Rick Harrington, a 28-year-old Mormon who led the group Concerned Citizens Against the Sexual Orientation Ordinance and Rev. Marvin Rickard of the Los Gatos Christian Church. Rickard is quoted at the hearing as saying he was "against the ordinance because it protects homosexuality, which is an immoral practice." Another speaker said the ordinance denies his rights because, if it passes, he must hire gays, who may offend his customers.

Forty-five years later, these remain the dual arguments used by religious conservatives against granting LGBTQ+ people the same protections against discrimination as others. They were key arguments in the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop and the 2023 web designer rulings that allowed businesses not to serve customers based on claims of free speech and free exercise of religion.

The final hearing on August 6, 1979, is mainly remembered for the hundreds of religious protesters in attendance, the disruption of a 6.0 Richter scale earthquake, and the scores of opponents who broke out in song when the jolt occurred, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Amazing Grace." As reported in the Mercury News, one ordinance opponent who addressed the board said, "That earthquake we had is just an example of what will happen in Santa Clara County if this ordinance is passed."

On August 6, 1979, nearly two months after it was first considered, the supervisors adopted the ordinance. Following the 4-1 vote for passage, Rev. Rickard held an impromptu press conference and said an attempt would be made to place the issue on the ballot to overturn the decision.

With far less fanfare, the San Jose City Council approved the ordinance on a 6-1 vote on August 28 after only two hearings.

Anita Bryant's aide and campaign manager in the Dade County campaign, Mike Thompson, arrived to help run the Santa Clara County campaigns. When asked by a Mercury News reporter why he was coming to San Jose, Thompson said, "It's an important issue. The encouragement of homosexual activity is a detriment to society. They [homosexuals] should be treated humanely, but also should be made to realize their lifestyle is not desirable."

The "No on A and B" campaign used the same playbook as in Miami: "Vote NO for the sake of our children." Literature headlines read: "Enough is Enough," "Don't Let it Spread," and "Keep it Private."

Their main mail piece, when fully opened, made their position very clear. Under a capitalized, enlarged headline of "WHAT'S AT STAKE" were pictures of partially clad men. Each section emphasized a particular stereotype of gay men as sexual deviants and child molesters who wanted their behavior legitimized.

In one section, the opponents claim that gays argue that "all they want is privacy." But then they counter that by saying, "[Gays] have the compulsion to flaunt their sex in public. A public washroom is frequently their stage for sex in public. Bus stations, parks, and bowling alleys are haunted by gay guys. Random and reckless selection of partners is the trademark. The fact that the stranger is likely to be a policeman, sadomasochist, or syphilitic never seems to occur to them. This is the core of homosexuality."

The election result was devastating. Fundamentalists defeated Measures A and B by a three-to-one vote. With 70 percent opposing in San Jose and 65 percent in the county, this wasn't just a loss — it was a slaughter.

The repercussions were immediate. The nascent LGBTQ+ rights movement vanished in San Jose. Gay activism came to a dead stop. Most local political leaders backed away from gay rights issues. It would be five years before members of the LGBTQ+ organization I co-founded would again appear before the Board of Supervisors.

A final note about the religious right's entry into local politics came in June 1988 when the pastor of the Los Gatos Christian Church, Marvin Rickard, resigned after confessing to his congregation that he conducted a liaison with a woman who was not his wife. Rickard called the relationship "a friendship that became an infatuation that lasted about 11 months, and that shouldn't have happened."

I was quoted in the article as saying, "What a hypocrite; I'm glad to see him go. He has let loose so much bigotry in the past that the valley is well rid of him."

Ken Yeager, Ph.D., a gay man, is a former Santa Clara County supervisor and San Jose city councilmember. He is executive director of the BAYMEC Community Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee. This excerpt is from "RUN! My Story of LGBTQ+ Political Power, Equality, and Acceptance in Silicon Valley," published by Atmosphere Press and used with permission.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.

Featured Local Savings