Thirty years ago this month, Right-to-Life activists in Boulder, Colorado - scurrilously egged on by the local, chain-owned daily newspaper - challenged one of the nation’s earliest tendrils of what they called the “gay agenda.”

Then, as now, the gay agenda was a quintessential American agenda - the acquisition of equal legal protection by yet another group of our country’s second-class citizens. At issue in Boulder was not gay marriage or civil union, but another basic right: non-discrimination in employment. Shortly before Christmas, 1973, the nine-member city council - with its two-year-old liberal majority at the helm - passed one of the first four or five such ordinances in the U.S. Some gay activists and progressives to the left of the council had wanted something more: a clause proscribing non-discrimination in accommodations.

The legislation was initiated by Mayor Penfield Tate II, elected by the unpaid council as the first black mayor in Colorado history, chosen in a city with less than 2% African-Americans. A lesbian acquaintance told Tate she had been fired specifically because of her sexual orientation. Tate knew about injustice first-hand. And he saw the matter quite simply: an abrogation of the constitutional right of every American not to be legally diminished for background or belief or biology.

Let it not be said that we have not come far. In that February three decades ago, there was a gay man on the council. His name was Tim Fuller. Those closest to him knew he was gay. Most people did not because his political career depended on not being out. Openly gay public officials had yet to come on the scene except in a very few places. He had spoken firmly but quietly for the gay discrimination ban to the city’s Human Rights Ordinance, which already banned such behavior on the basis of race, sex, creed, color or national origin.

In a four-month froth of indignation, the Ridder-owned newspaper’s editorials claimed the law was immoral, said it might cause child-molesting in city recreation programs and linked it to the Corll killings in Houston.

After months of venomous, numbing debate, the council held its final public hearings for the second reading and final passage of the ordinance. Four hundred citizens showed up, with the anti-gay contingent connecting the new law to pornography and Satan: one woman warned council members not to turn Boulder into “Lesbian-Homoville.” With one defector, the council voted 5-4 for equal rights.

Under pressure, they put the matter to the citizens in a referendum. For every Boulderite who favored the law, two voted against it. Just about what the polls say today about gay marriage.

The fallout went further. The rightwing activists who had spearheaded opposition to the ordinance had more on their mind than denying gay people the right to be themselves. They decided to recall Tate and Fuller, and replace them with conservatives who would be more amenable to doing their bidding on matters like zoning the nonprofit Boulder Valley Abortion Clinic into limbo.

Fuller pondered whether to announce he was gay, but chose not to. Nonetheless, the recall campaigners made clear with winks and smirks and limp-wristed mimes that Fuller just wasn’t “normal.” Tate kept his seat. Fuller lost his.

Today - since 1987, in fact - Boulder extends equal rights to gays in employment and accommodations, just as the “radicals” had sought in 1973. The current law went to referendum, too, and won by a 3-1 margin. Today, of course, Boulder is only one of hundreds of cities with such ordinances, and gay elected and appointed officials are, if not in plethora, at least not rare. Coloradans did try to destroy those rights with Amendment 2, which won on referendum but was gunned down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans (1996)

So what does all this reminiscence have to do with anything today? It seems to me a microcosm of today’s fight over gay marriage (and, really, every fight for equal rights since the founding of the Republic). Always on one side are those who say that tradition, common-sense, scientific studies, public order and divine revelation all dictate that the second-class group remain unequal, not quite legally human, and therefore subject to laws that nobody else is and unshielded by laws that everybody else is.

On the other side are two groups: gradualists and maximalists. Every civil rights movement - every social movement in America - has included a tug-of-war between them. Almost always, the gradualists concede that they agree with the maximalists in principle: They know there’s no such thing as half-equal, you either are, or you aren’t. But politics is the art of the possible, the gradualists say, and reform takes time.

True enough. But gradualism can’t mean spinelessness.

In 30 more years, I think most Americans will look back on the reluctance to extend equal rights to gays – including marriage rights – as another unfortunate discrimination consigned to the benighted past, and evidence once again of America’s wonderful ability to perpetually transform itself into comprehensively fulfilling its ideals.

To get there, however, requires what always has been required, grassroots warriors and elected politicians who edge forward little by little if that is only way progress can be made, but who never retreat without a fight and never lose sight of the ultimate goal.

I know that many Democrats – both posters here and people who’ve never heard of a Web log – would like the dispute over gay marriage to go away. They fear it will sabotage our chances to put George Bush back into the private sector to continue the free-loading at which he is so adept. But this won’t go away. It can’t go away. Because it’s not about gay marriage. It’s about civil rights. Equal rights. Everybody’s rights. Not a luxury. Not an add-on. Bedrock, bottom-line, fundamental.

I don’t know how long it will take to persuade the 46% in our party who still resist this truth. I do know the time will not be shortened if our party leaders go mealy-mouthed every time the subject comes up.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Fri Feb 13, 2004 at 07:07 AM PST.

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