In 1972, gay people spoke at the Democratic National Convention for the first time

In 1972, gay people spoke at the Democratic National Convention for the first time
Out delegate Jim Foster in sunglasses - Montage by Michael Bedwell

As another presidential candidates town hall on LGBTQ issues approaches – with the first out major candidate – let us remember when not only were there no out LGBTQ elected officials, but no out gays had ever been allowed to speak from the podium at a national political convention.

That changed at the July 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami thanks to candidate George McGovern. It seems a tiny step today but was huge given the times.

Related: The night Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, the Castro exploded

Homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. President Eisenhower’s 1953 ban on gay employees was still government policy. Only three cities had passed nondiscrimination ordinances, and two of them applied only to municipal employees. The first effort at a federal gay rights bill was two years away.

Fledgling attempts for marriage equality had been quickly smothered by the courts. In March that year, when gays demonstrated at Quantico, Virginia, for an honorable discharge for an 18-year old Marine, a gunnery sergeant was heard saying, “I wish I had a grenade. I’d drop it right in the middle of them.” Forty-six states still criminalized consensual, private same sex acts.

And the FBI, continuing to spy on gay rights groups and give credence to crackpot informants, issued a secret internal report warning that gays were “planning violent actions at the [Miami] convention with firearms . . . 12 handguns, two automatic rifles, various kinds of mace which are very damaging to facial structures.”

Meetings involving some 200 representatives from 85 different groups across the country – and at least one FBI spy who reported everyone’s name and address back to the agency – began in Chicago that February at the Armitage Avenue United Methodist Church to plan a united strategy for the summer convention and create a “Gay Rights Platform.”

They called themselves the National Coalition of Gay Organizations.

After heated debate, the majority agreed to call for Democratic Party support of a list of demands including marriage equality, bans on gay discrimination in employment, repeal of all laws regarding private sex acts, and release of all gays in mental institutions against their will or in prison for “sex crimes” for which there was no “victim.”

Some of its goals, particularly “Repeal of all laws governing the age of sexual consent,” are frequently quoted by the antigay industry as proof of an evil “gay agenda.”

Asked for their positions in a questionnaire from Bruce Voeller of New York’s Gay Activists Alliance, most Democratic candidates, including McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Shirley Chisholm, Gene McCarthy, and John Lindsay replied with some expression of support for gay equality. Democrats Edmund Muskie and George Wallace and Republican President Richard Nixon did not. The sole response was: “Mr. Nixon has nothing to say to the homosexual community.”

McGovern’s statements were the strongest, earning him early support.

Many in the Party did not share his intentions. The month before the Convention started, an unnamed Democratic Party official was quoted by a Chicago Daily News columnist asking: “Can you imagine what the [Miami] convention will look like when the TV cameras zoom in on a group of lavender-shirted homos clamoring for a gay lib plank in the platform?”

Two weeks before the Convention, the Democratic Platform Committee rejected the “Sexual Orientation” plank. But Party rules allowed for a vote during the convention by all delegates, and the Coalition’s plans were reported by mainstream newspapers including their prediction than six to ten thousand gays would descend upon Miami for demonstrations including a kiss-in in front of the Convention hall.

Republicans, who held their convention in Miami that August, also let Coalition organizer Frank Kameny address the GOP Platform subcommittee on human rights and responsibilities. But its chair left the room when Frank spoke, and they refused to even discuss the gay rights plank he’d proposed.

On the first day of the Democratic Convention, an Oklahoma newspaper, describing the variety of groups protesting at the convention smirked: “The Gay Activists have been very vocal and tell everyone who will listen that ‘America’s homosexuals are angry’. So far nobody has been hit with a purse.”


Jim Foster

As a reward for helping McGovern win the California primary, 37-year-old out delegate Jim Foster, cofounder of San Francisco’s pioneering Society for Individual Rights in 1964 and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in 1971, the nations’ first registered gay Democratic group, was given permission to address the Convention about the gay rights plank.

In his remarks, he did not mention his own experience of rabid homophobia. At Fort Holabird, Maryland, in 1959 he was interrogated by two Army Criminal Investigation Division agents every day for two weeks.

 “We know you’re a queer. You could end up in jail. Make it easy on yourself and admit it.” “Just give us some names and we’ll make sure you get a general discharge. We’ll see that you’re treated fairly.” “You stupid fairy. Your one chance to make it better for yourself is to give us names of other faggots. They’d do the same to you. They already have.”

They threatened to call Jim’s father, a proud Army veteran. Did he know his son was a fairy? And his aunt, a retired WAC. Did she know he was a queer?

They asked him about people in his address book: “Sarah Whiteside, is she a dyke?” “That’s my eighty-four-year-old great-aunt.”

“And this one. Is she queer, too?” “That’s my grandmother.”

He was given an Undesirable discharge.

McGovern’s support for change was sincere, but his senior operatives, one of which had been known to comment privately about “prancing” homosexuals, were already running scared from Republican incumbent Vice President and Attack-Dog-in-Chief Spiro Agnew having branded McGovern as “the Triple A Candidate – Abortion, Amnesty, and Acid.” They weren’t willing to take the same chances he was.

So they made certain that, despite gavel-to-gavel live coverage by CBS and NBC news, few viewers would likely still be watching when, following an all-night candle vigil by gays outside the hall, Jim began to speak at 5 a.m. Eastern time. But everyone inside and Americans still awake at home witnessed the historic moment when he said:

“Mr. Chairman, Assembled Delegates. My name is Jim Foster. I am here tonight representing the twenty million gay women and men who are looking for a political party that is responsive to our needs. . . . We do not come to you pleading for your understanding or begging for your tolerance. We come to you affirming our pride in our lifestyles, affirming the validity of our right to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships, and affirming our right to participate in the life of the country on an equal basis with every other citizen. . . .

We urge the Democratic Party to enact this gay rights plank. But, regardless of whether this convention passes this plank or not, to our millions of gay brothers and sisters as well as to the Democratic Party, we say, ‘We are here. We will not be stilled. We will not go away until the ultimate goal of gay liberation is realized. That goal being that all people can live in the peace, freedom, and dignity of what they are’.”

Audio of his full speech can be heard, beginning at the 3:53 point, here with the balance here.

Courtesy of Madeline Davis

Lesbian delegate Madeline Davis, 32, spoke next. She was a cofounder and officer of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, was also an editor of the group’s newspaper, The Fifth Freedom, lobbied against raids of bars by Buffalo police and the publishing of names of people arrested by the Buffalo News. She was also a pioneer teacher of university classes about lesbians.

“My name is Madeline Davis. I am an elected delegate from the 37th Congressional District, Buffalo, New York. I am a woman. I am a lesbian. We are the minority of minorities. We belong to every race and creed, both sexes, every economic and social level, every nationality and religion. We live in large cities and in small towns, but we are the untouchables in American society. We have suffered the gamut of oppression, from being totally ignored or ridiculed, to having our heads smashed and our blood spilled in the street. Now we are coming out of our closets and onto the convention floor to tell you, the delegates, and to tell all gay people throughout America that we are here 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. And for what? Because we have chosen to love each other.

I am asking that you vote yes for the inclusion of this minority report into the Democratic platform for two major reasons. A government that interferes with the private lives of its people is a government that is alien to the American tradition and the American dream. You have before you a chance to reaffirm that tradition and that dream. As a matter of practicality, you also have the opportunity to gain the vote of 20 million Americans that will help in November to put a Democrat in the White House.”

Audio of her full speech is here.

What campaign operatives had planned next was worse than the near-dawn starting time. Terrified of the remotest chance the plank might pass and seriously damage McGovern’s chance of winning the election, they arranged for a 21-year-old, married, straight woman delegate from Ohio to speak after Foster and Davis.

She said that the plank would “commit the Democratic Party to seek to repeal all laws involving the protection of children from sexual approaches by adults. . . . laws designed to protect the young, the innocent, and the weak. It would be a political disaster of monumental proportions for this party to adopt such a report.”

Audio of her full speech is here.

When the vote was called, the assembled delegates roared “No!” the session was adjourned, and some of the activists that had been outside the hall were allowed in.

Rev. Troy Perry gathered them in a circle next to the stage, hand-in-hand or arms around each-other’s shoulders. “A few began to sing softly ‘We Shall Overcome.'” Some of the delegates had stopped to watch this strange display, and a few snickered at the scene.

After these humbling days of going from caucus to caucus asking for a moment to make a case for gay rights, lesbian activist Barbara Love felt suffocated by defeat, and she turned to the hecklers.

“‘All we want,’ she said, weeping softly, ‘is the right to have a job.’ At that, a few of the delegates around them turned their eyes to the ground and walked into the morning light.” – Out for Good, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney.

An intense backlash followed in the community with some of those who had praised McGovern now reviling him. Voeller invaded his New York headquarters and chained himself to their main telephone. The naive delegate from Ohio released an apology for the incendiary words penned for her, and McGovern denied they represented his beliefs.

Foster, while disappointed, remained practical, calling out those seemingly willing to let a ruthless dangerous enemy be reelected simply because the candidate who’d done more to dignify gay rights than any other in history to that point was imperfect.

Ultimately, McGovern lost in a devastating landslide, losing the popular vote to Nixon 61 percent to 37 percent, and the Electoral College 520 to 17. 

Having supported gay visibility and at least a debate on our rights was probably far down on the list of reasons. But, just flirting, so to speak, with gays, was one of the reasons powerful AFL-CIO president George Meany gave for the union not endorsing him unlike so many previous Party candidates.

He had his numbers wrong about the “people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like Johns [who want to legalize] marriage between boys and boys, and also girls and girls.” The New York delegation did not have “six open fags.”

The only “open fag” delegate besides Foster in the entire Convention was alternate Lowell Williams, 20, from Minnesota. In addition to delegate Davis, there were two out lesbian alternates from New York: Danece Covello, 26, and Renée Cafiero, 28, who had participated in the first organized gay rights protest eight years before.

Despite the heartbreak at the first Convention to even mention our rights, gays soon picked themselves up, and began organizing harder and smarter with each successive Convention, increasing the number of out delegates year after year even as the Party resisted endorsing any explicit gay right time after time.

At the 1972 Democratic National Convention there were two out gay delegates; five if you count the alternates. At the 2016 Convention there were some 515.

The bitterest irony for the good man who had first cracked open the Party closet door for us was that McGovern’s ongoing political career in the US Senate was killed in 1980 by a self-loathing gay Republican named Terry Dolan, one of the pioneers of using uncontrolled fundraising and demagoguery to poison political campaigns just as others all along the Kinsey Scale continue to do today.

Jim Foster, who told Democrats in 1972: “We are here. We will not be stilled. We will not go away until the ultimate goal of gay liberation is realized,” passed from complications of AIDS in 1990. Lesbian rights legend Phyllis Lyon was one of his pallbearers. I am certain of nothing more than that no one would be prouder of Pete Buttigieg than he would.


 “Remember your roots, your history, and the forebears’ shoulders on which you stand.” – Marion Wright Edelman.

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