It was October 24, 1985. Staunch conservative Republican Louie Welch, who was running for Houston Mayor against the progressive incumbent Kathy Whitmire, was prepping for an interview with Channel 13, in which he was planning to unveil his four-point plan to fight the AIDS epidemic. AIDS had hit Houston hard, much like other American urban centers, and Welch made an issue out of Whitmire's alleged inaction. Welch had a plan, all right. And what he really felt was about to be made known to the entire City of Houston. While informally discussing the points of his plan before the interview began, he remarked, probably only half-joking:
One of them is to shoot the queers.Little did Welch know that the newscast was live and the cameras were rolling. An estimated 146,000 people heard his comment. Calls were made to Channel 13. But the interview continued as if his nonchalant remark about murdering gay people was nothing more than a hiccup or unexpected gas.
Later in the day, Welch claimed to have "pulled a Reagan," referring to Reagan's 1982 gaffe about bombing Russia. He added:
I apologize, but I don't think I had the gay vote anyway.He was right. He didn't. And for good reason.
After making the remark, Welch actually benefited financially, raising almost $70,000 in one day. On the other side, shirts with the phrase "Louie Don't Shoot" quickly became popular within Houston's gay community.
Clever joking aside, the "gaffe" cannot be viewed without context. Welch and his slate of anti-gay politicians running for City Council, the self-proclaimed "Straight Slate," made the entire 1985 mayoral race about the moral shortcomings of Whitmire, who had publicly supported--in word and deed--Houston's gay community. But in order to understand the anti-gay backlash unleashed by the Straight Slate, we need to go back in time and look at one of the most important events in Houston gay history: the 1985 anti-gay referendum. Follow me below the fold.
NOTE: Some that follows is based on unpublished work that has been done on this topic in-depth. I thought it would be beneficial to bring this story to Remembering LGBT History, especially in light of the recent Amendment One passage in North Carolina, as a historical perspective on anti-gay referendum campaigns.
The beginning of the 1980s was, in many ways, glorious for Houston's gay community. In 1982, with the backing of the Houston Gay Political Caucus (GPC), the progressive, gay-friendly Kathy Whitmire--who had served previously as City Comptroller--won the mayoral race and became Houston's first gay-supportive Mayor. The election also proved the strength of Houston's gay voting bloc, in addition to showing that support from the gay community would not result in a certain defeat. Houston's gay community had reached political maturity.
With Whitmire's election came a certain level of respect that Houston gays and lesbians had not previously received. It became a practice in City Hall not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation against city employees. Houston, like many cities, was moving forward, albeit slowly, in the area of basic gay civil rights. Even the Houston Police Department, which had previously been the target of gay anger, was beginning to become a little more sensitive to gay concerns, and Police Chief Lee Brown even held meetings with concerned members of the gay community. Make no mistake--the harassment and the raids on gay establishments continued. But, on the whole, the City of Houston was becoming more progressive on gay issues.
In 1984, all of this began to change. Along with the increasing intensity of the AIDS epidemic, which many saw as God's punishment for homosexuality, gay civil rights were about to enter the city spotlight. The combination of an epidemic, a focus on gay civil rights, and a newly-energized Moral Majority was lethal. The backlash that was about to ensue would be brutal (but not irrecoverable).
In June of 1984, City Council Member Anthony Hall proposed an ordinance that would make the City's practice of non-discrimination toward gays and lesbian employees permanent. The ordinance would simply add sexual orientation to the list of classes not discriminated against by the City. It was a well-intended move--and one that conservatives in Houston apparently weren't ready for. Immediate backlash came from conservative Council Member John Goodner:
What they do in their own communities is their business, I suppose, I just don’t want homosexuals working in city jobs where they could be role models for our children.That was only the beginning. Despite proponents of the bill, including the GPC, steering away from the "gay rights" frame and emphasizing employment non-discrimination, the backlash from the right wing and from the Moral Majority crowd was constant. Finally, in July, despite the anti-gay rhetoric permeating Houston's political atmosphere, City Council voted to cut off debate and approve the ordinance. Citing the need to avoid an expensive campaign, City Council also voted against holding a public referendum on the issue.
The celebration did not last long. The Committee for Public Awareness (CPA) was soon mobilized to force a public vote on the ordinance. Committee members descended on Houston's businesses and churches to collect signatures. On July 20, the CPA delivered 63,800 signatures to City Hall. The referendum was on.
Gay activists quickly organized. In addition, Citizens for a United Houston (CUH), chaired by a minister and civil rights activist, took on the cause, becoming the primary organizing vehicle in favor of the ordinance. Proponents of the ordinance took a pragmatic approach, downplaying "gay rights" and focusing on convincing Houstonians that legalizing employment discrimination would be an image problem for the City. Several businesses, churches, and professional organizations lined up behind CUH to support the ordinance.
On the other side, an unholy alliance formed between the CPA, the Republican Party, fundamentalist churches, and yes, the Ku Klux Klan. Aforementioned conservative Council Member Goodner led the CPA in the fight against the ordinance. Opponents of the ordinance stressed that it would promote the "gay lifestyle" and turn Houston into San Francisco (horrors). Goodner expressed his concern over a gay takeover in Houston and his fear of Houston turning into the Texas version of San Francisco, remarking:
...gays are effectively in control of a heck of a lot of the destiny of San Francisco.The Chamber of Commerce Executive Board, the leading business voices in Houston, also came down on the side of anti-gay discrimination, even though the ordinance had nothing to do with the private sector. The Chamber pressured Whitmire to withdraw the ordinance or it would push against the ordinance in the referendum campaign. Whitmire, noting the Chamber's "hate and venom," declined to sell her soul. The Chamber officially joined the anti-gay coalition, bringing big bucks to the campaign.
The CPA used scare tactics to build public opposition to the ordinance. AIDS was often invoked. In one pamphlet titled "Vote Against both Homosexual Propositions" (referring to the non-discrimination ordinance as well as an ordinance that would block record-keeping on the hiring of gays and lesbians), the claim was made that "Incurable and Other Diseases are Transmitted by Homosexuals to the General Public." Irrational as it was, it resonated with many Houstonians in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.
Finally, after enduring untold fear-mongering and anti-gay hysteria, Houstonians went to the polls. Voter turnout was at a record high for a single-issue election. Both ordinances were defeated, by a 4-to-1 margin.
The effects on Houston's gay community and city politics at large were profound. Houston gays and lesbians had once again become political pariahs. In the 1985 general election, Whitmire did not even seek the GPC's endorsement.
In the meantime, anti-gay right-wingers were mobilized like never before. Using the momentum from the referendum campaign, they organized the Straight Slate, the group of anti-gay City Council candidates who campaigned by reminding Houstonians: "You Don't Have to Vote Pro-Homosexual!" They ran alongside Welch, who made moral issues a focus of the mayoral campaign. Adopting the music from Bonanza as their theme song (seriously), the Straight Slate proposed a number of regulations aimed at restricting people with AIDS. They sought to close down "sexually oriented businesses" such as bathhouses in Houston. They also proposed to require food service workers to prove that they had tested negative for AIDS.
Whitmire, keeping the referendum behind her and focusing on non-gay issues, eventually prevailed against Welch and the Straight Slate. She and all of her City Council allies were reelected and served into the early 1990s.
But the repercussions for Houston's gay community were felt for quite some time after the election. The community turned its attention to AIDS, which had been all but neglected by the City during the ugly anti-gay campaigns of the mid-eighties, where it remained into the nineties. But that's the subject of a completely different diary.
Gay political clout would gradually be rebuilt. And I think we know all where the story eventually takes us:
As demonstrated by the 2010 mayoral election of openly lesbian Annise Parker, Houston's gay community recovered from its stinging defeat in 1985. Today, gay, lesbian, and transgender city employees are protected from discrimination. And the LGBT community, represented primarily by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus (the GPC was renamed a few times), now enjoys considerable political clout.
I guess the moral of the story is that we LGBT people will recover, no matter what anti-gay backlash we might receive on the road to full equality. As our beloved weatherdude said in his diary after the Amendment One vote:
You can vote us down, but we'll never go away.Indeed.
Get over it, bigots. You're throwing toothpicks at a boulder rolling down a mountain.
We'll always be here.