(Originally printed in Frontiers, Sept. 7, 1988)
Whether they quietly lobby legislators in our nation's capital, challenge the government inside court rooms or express their righteous anger on the streets, the verdict of gay and lesbian activists from around the nation is that the policies and performance of the Reagan/Bush administration has been an unmitigated disaster for the gay and lesbian community.
Descriptions of the Reagan/Bush legacy come quickly, emotionally. Says Jean O'Leary, Executive Director of the National Gay Rights Advocates. "It's a legacy of death and destruction." "It's between disappointing and dismal," says Steven Schwadron, aide to U.S. Representative Gerry Studds. Says Bill Rubenstein, staff counsel of New York City's American Civil Liberties Union AIDS Project, "Their record is atrocious." And says Robert Bray of the New York-based Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF), "It's an eight-year legacy of shame."
Granted, few involved in the gay and lesbian movement had high hopes for the Reagan/Bush administration when they captured the White House in 1980, in a campaign that fused Reagan's economic conservatism with the social agenda of the Religious Right. In the days before the 1980 GOP convention, Ronald Reagan was honored by a group of fundamentalists in Dallas. With Reagan looking on, James Robison waved a Bible overhead, and told the roaring crowd, "Commit yourself to the principles of God, and demand that those parties and politicians align themselves with the eternal values in this book."
With Ronald Reagan at the party's helm, many believed the GOP had done just that. The party unveiled a platform which they touted as "pro-family"; it included a ringing condemnation of abortion and equal rights for women. And there was little doubt about the party's stand on homosexuality. It was articulated time and time again by the leaders of the Religious Right that had helped Reagan clench the nomination. Said Jerry Falwell, "God abhors the sin of homosexuality, and it will not go unpunished."
Under the Carter administration, the gay and lesbian community had begun to make progress on a variety of fronts, including migration and military service. Eric Rosenthal of the HRCF says the new administration did an immediate about-face--Reagan orchestrated a policy of "gay bashing" from the White House. Gays and lesbians were routed out of the military and blocked from jobs in federal agencies like FBI and CIA. In addition, the opening in immigration policy during the Carter yeas closed. Bray, who blames Reagan for the dismissal of Sgt. Perry Watkins on grounds of homosexuality, says, "Immigration and military policies are executive branch decisions. And the Pentagon is controlled by the executive branch..."
Appointments—from the Supreme Court to the cabinet, from mid-level bureaucrats to federal judges—have been a major failing of the Reagan/Bush administration, say gay activists.
Gay organizations joined with labor, women and minority groups, to defeat the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. While on the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court, the nation's second most powerful court, Bork rendered "horrible opinions," according to T.J. Anthony, who heads the Judiciary Project in San Francisco. In Padula v. the FBI, for instance, Bork supported the FBI's right to bar a lesbian from service based on her sexual orientation. In his opinion, Bork wrote that the discrimination was justified because homosexuals generate "dislike and disapproval."
Even without Bork on the Supreme Court, many feel that Reagan's appointees have, and will continue to stall gay and lesbian rights. Bray characterizes Reagan's court appointees as "your basic catastrophe." He notes that Sandra Day O'Conner, the much heralded "moderate," cast a deciding vote against the community on the Hardwick decision, upholding the Georgia sodomy laws. "It was our best chance," he says.
Anthony believes that the margin in favor of the majority has increased with subsequent Reagan appointees. Before being named to the court, another so-called moderate, Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled against Tony Sullivan in his battle to stay in the US. Sullivan, an Australian, based his claim to citizenship on the fact that he had married an American man in a ceremony in Boulder, Colo. During the proceeding, Kennedy actually coached the INS attorney from the bench, and then ruled against Sullivan.
Anthony says that aside from the highly publicized Supreme Court appointees, Reagan has also appointed a host of homophobic judges to the federal bench. "What people forget is when you elect a President, you elect a party. It's the party in power that decides who those federal judges will be." Among the offenders Anthony lists is Judge John P. Vukasin, who, as a California Public Utility Commissioner, upheld the phone company's refusal to accept a yellow page ad from a gay group because "homosexuals are perverts, and homosexuality is a perversion."
On a Federal Court Vukasin once referred to a litigant as "that faggot," and ruled against the Gay Olympics in their battle against the US Olympic Committee over the word "olympic." Anthony says that in Texas, Reagan appointees to the Federal Court overturned an early decision by Carter appointees and reinstated the Texas sodomy laws.
"Ronald Reagan has left a legacy of injustice and violence on the Federal Court," says Anthony and it will be a lasting legacy to boot. Anthony says that federal judges are lifetime appointees, and Reagan has appointed almost half of the sitting federal judges. Of those 360 federal judges, only 28 are women, five are black, and none are openly gay.
The Reagan cabinet has been a disaster, says Tom Stoddard, who heads the Lambda Legal Defense Fund. Cabinet appointees, like Secretary of Education William Bennett, and Attorney General Ed Meese have championed the social agenda of the Right. Before resigning under a cloud of scandal, Meese earned the special ire of gay activists and civil libertarians, for his crusade against pornography. After holding much publicized hearing in a half dozen cities, listening to testimony from witnesses, and even visiting porno shops, the commission concluded that there was a link between pornography and aggression. Its findings were diametrically opposed to those of a 1970 report of the Presidential Commission on Obscenity, and two members wrote dissenting opinions. Many, like the ACLU's Rubenstein, charged the commission had a double agenda: "It was an attack on sexuality. And its mere existence, and how it was staffed had a chilling effect on the First Amendment."
Indeed it did. More than 10,000 stores around the country, including 7-11 convenience stores, removed Playboy and Penthouse from their shelves, many after receiving a letter from the commission suggesting they might be cited for distribution of pornography.
On the legislative front, bills most important to the gay community have been stalled in Congress with opposition for the most part coming from the GOP. US Rep. Anthony Beilenson, co-sponsor of the Civil Rights Amendment Act and other gay rights legislation, says that he doubts real progress can be made legislatively while Reagan is in office: "We're all waiting for him to leave."
Also stalled in the House is Barney Frank's Immigration Reform Bill, and waiting passage in the Senate are two bills dealing with "hate crimes" against gays. Many note that a president more disposed toward gay rights could not only rally his forces in Congress behind such legislation, but could issue an executive order banning discrimination in Federal jobs. Instead, Reagan remained silent as most Senate Republicans voted to weaken the Washington DC Human Rights Ordinance which extended protection to lesbians and gays, and a Republican Senator Jesse Helms promoted his homophobic amendments to an AIDS appropriations bill. Says Ivy Bottini, co-chair of March On, it is "passive encouragement" for the President to remain silent.
The refusal to support the "Hate Crimes Bill" or condemn escalating violence directed toward gays is another failure of the Reagan/Bush administration. Eric Rosenthal said a Justice Department study showed that the gay community is the one most subject to violent attack. "By being silent in the face of so much violence [the White House] is, in effect, giving permission for it to take place." Adds Bottini, "How can he not know our community is involved in a life and death struggle?"
The chorus of condemnation of the Reagan/Bush administration is not confined to the gay and lesbian communities. Says Congressman Anthony Beilenson, "Gay people have to understand that we've all been disadvantaged; they've been a disastrous eight years, in many respects, for all kinds of people, and decent human interests."
Dady Blake, president of the L.A. Chapter of the National Organization for Women, says that the end of the Reagan era is "a cause for celebration." On a host of issues NOW has defined as important, Blake says, they have butted heads with the Reagan/Bush administration. "Reagan constantly and consistently assaulted women's reproductive rights. He appeared to take abortion on as a personal goal of his administration." Blake says that the GOP's support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been in the party's platform since 1940, was abandoned with the ascendancy of Reagan and the Religious Right.
NOW, like most gay organizations, came out strongly against the nomination of Bork to the Supreme court, says Blake. Furthermore, Blake says, that Kennedy, Scalia and Rehnquist, who the President elevated to Chief Justice, have "poor records on women's issues."
Another less visible way the administration has moved against women's rights was by instructing the Justice Department to stop filing class action suits challenging discrimination based on race or sex. "It's an atmosphere that is promoting discrimination," Blake says.
And as a part of the President's much-heralded effort to "streamline government and eliminate paperwork," Blake says Reagan examined 75 percent of the companies that have federal contracts from affirmative action requirements.
As an example of the administration's relationship with the black community, US Representative Mervyn Dymally says that during the last seven-and-a-half years the President has met only once with the Congressional Black Caucus, "and that was for a photo opportunity ... Reagan has taken the political position that blacks are not an asset to the Republican party, so we don't need to spend any time with them." On a list of a few administration-sponsored "disasters," Dymally cites the administration's opposition to the Voting Rights Extension Act, and its attempt to grant tax exempt status to all white schools.
So how do those who have levied so many serious charges against the administration see George Bush now that he, as the GOP standard bearer, is attempting to define his concerns and issues. Says Dymally, noting that Bush helped orchestrate some of the administration's initiatives, "It's impossible to separate George Bush from the Reagan/Bush legacy."
Tom Stoddard of Lambda Legal Defense says, "Bush's selection of Quayle as a running mate belies the suggestion that Bush will be better." And, says Bottini, noting that the pair again endorse the social agenda of the Right, "Just look at their platform." Adds HRCF's Lois Reckitt, "Many have told me to take a leap of faith and trust that Bush will be better. I don't know if I have that much faith."