Nondiscrimination Legislation Historical Narrative

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Narrative: The Task Force’s commitment to ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans has a long history

The beginning

Bruce Voeller, Dr. Howard Brown, Ron Gold and Nath Rockhill conceived and founded a new kind of political organization on Oct.15, 1973, in New York City. Called the National Gay Task Force, it was to be a national political force to end the oppression of homosexuals by securing positive change in social policies and practices within the federal government and major public institutions. With strong leadership and professional staff, the National Gay Task Force set about to abolish governmental discrimination against lesbians and gay men. In collaboration with U.S. Reps. Bella Abzug and Edward I. Koch, both Democrats from New York, the National Gay Task Force leaders initiated a project to enact nondiscrimination law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation.

Abzug and Koch introduced the Equality Act of 1974 on May 14, 1974, a sweeping federal bill to ban discrimination against lesbians, gay men, unmarried persons and women in employment, housing and public accommodations. Abzug and Koch’s bill stands as the first-ever national legislative proposal to end discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Abzug, Koch and Task Force leaders, including the legendary Frank Kameny, had good reason to be optimistic about the bill’s prospects in Congress.

Five years after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, gay rights issues received unprecedented media exposure and the organized opposition, although noticeable, was even more embryonic than that era’s gay rights movement. The Task Force was not yet a year old, but already it had scored a major victory when the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. A strong push to win employment rights for lesbians and gay men in the U.S. Civil Service system was under way. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a crowning achievement of the black civil rights movement, provided equal access to public facilities and to private businesses serving the public and prohibited discrimination in the work place based on race, sex, religion or national origin. The Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the federal constitution stating that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," had been passed by Congress and sent to the states for approval in 1972. The momentum of social justice movements seemed unstoppable and the aspirations of gay rights activists for federal protections on the basis of sexual orientation seemed destined to rise on this incoming tide of equality under the law

But their hopes for swift passage of a simple proposal for equal justice came to naught. Unforeseen by the activist leaders, three social and political dynamics converged to create a perfect storm that swamped this early optimism:

  • increasingly well-organized antipathy towards LGBT people
  • the AIDS crisis into which a critical mass of LGBT political energy was necessarily diverted
  • the takeover of the federal government, beginning in 1994, by a Republican Party beholden to socially conservative people who demand opposition to equality claims of LGBT people, women, racial minorities, and immigrants in exchange for their votes

Thirty-three years after Abzug and Koch introduced the first version of a federal bill to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, only modest progress has been made toward the enactment of federal protections. This, despite steady and persistent work to build support, despite the tailoring of the bill to narrow its scope in hopes of broadening its base of support, despite ever-increasing levels of public backing for LGBT equality in employment, despite the greater capacity in our movement and its organizations, despite the enactment of nondiscrimination laws in 17 states and the District of Columbia and nearly 150 cities and towns.

Through dogged determination and uncompromising vision, the Task Force has built the political power of LGBT communities from the ground up, challenging the immorality of discrimination and violence against us. Beginning with the introduction of the Abzug and Koch bill, we have advocated not only for passage of federal nondiscrimination protections, but also for a full, national response to the AIDS crisis, to the ongoing tragedy of bias-motivated harassment and crime, and to the plight of LGBT youth rejected by their families. We have fought back against attacks on our communities by all three branches of the federal government in five successive presidential administrations. For more than three decades, we have insisted that the dignity and value of LGBT people be recognized and acknowledged by our national government.