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Right's reaction.

The overwhelming defeat of gay antidiscrimination measures in a citywide referendum in Houston illustrates the drawbacks of using direct democracy to resolve social conflicts when privilege and power are at stake. Houston's gay community has had some recent success as a voting bloc for liberal candidates, but it remains an unpopular minority, with few allies and no social legitimacy. Against it were arrayed the rich and powerful of the Texas boomtown: the banks, the Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party and the fundamentalist churches, which use homosexual and women's rights as a focus for their campaigns against earthly evil. Almost 30 percent of the electorate came out to vote in the January 19 referendum--an extremely high percentage, as local initiatives go in Houston--and the majority worked its will by a margin of 4 to 1. "We think we were lucky we weren't run out of town," a lesbian activist said after the enormity of the loss became clear. She might have added, "yet."

The events that led to the vote began last June, when black City Councilman Anthony Hall introduced an amendment to an antidiscrimination ordinance, adding "sexual orientation" to the list of proscribed reasons for denying city jobs. That measure and a similar amendment to the affirmative action section of the ordinance were narrowly passed. Significantly, all four black

Council members voted for the amendments protecting gays. Mayor Kathy Whitmire, whose election victory in 1981 had been credited to energetic black and gay support, also backed the amendments.

The reaction set in immediately. A conservative councilman and the head of the local Republican Party began plotting repeal by referendum. The chair of a big ank kicked off the campaign with a $50,000 donation. Religious leaders--Jews and Catholics as well as Protestant fundamentalists--joined an antigy axis that included the Ku Klux Klan and black Baptist ministers.

The "antis" put out gruesome literature showing a homosexual about to murder a child with an ax, and they accused gay men and lesbians of kidnapping, molesting and killing children. The Chamber of Commerce said gay rights was bad for business. Mayor Whitmire continued to support the ordinance but without the sense of urgency and fervor that might have organized wider liberal support for the referendum. After the vote, she said her administration would not discriminate against gays in municipal employment; presumably, future mayors might bash as they please.

Gays are taking a beating in several sections of the country. New York City's Archbishop John J. O'Connor, the Savanarola of St. Patrick's, refuses to abide by a local rule against discrimination when filling jobs at municipally funded Catholic educational and welfare agencies. Mayor Edward Koch, who has enjoyed gay support in both his mayoral elections, has failed four times to use his vaunted political power to get a gay antidiscrimination ordinance through the City Council. At the national level, the Supreme Court has just heard arguments in a case from Oklahoma, where gays are barred by law from "advocating" their sexual preference in public schools. A U.S. Court of Appeals declared that law unconstitutional. There's not way of knowing what will happen, but the Supreme Court could devastate free speech and sexual freedom in a single blow by reversing that decision.

There's also a bright spot. Residents in West Hollywood, California, which until November 6 was an unincorporated neignborhood of Los Angele County, voted to become a city. Although homosexuals are densely settled in West Hollywood, they were significantly helped in the November election by a liberal and left coalition that was concerned with issues besides sexual politics. Their victory points up the necessity of developing strategies for power, rather than simply making appeals to compassion, where the rights of minorities are in contention. The City Council that was elected when the incorporation referendum passed has a lesbian and gay majority and a commanding progressive presence. Of course, sexual activists aren't automatically liberal on other issues, and vice versa. The coalition in West Hollywood brought both forces to power, and it also keeps them honest on each other's priorities.

Among its first acts, the City Council passed an antidiscrimination ordinance as well as moratoriums on rent increases and condominium development. Soon afterward, Barney's Beanery, a macho chili parlor on Sunset Strip and a progenitor of the jalapeno-margarita craze sweeping young urban culture, was forced to abide by the ordinance and take down from behind it sbar a wooden paddle that had hung there for a half-century, emblazoned with the words: "We Don't Serve Faggots." So much for machismo when it loses its majority status.

Elsewhere, gays, feminists, blacks and Hispanics will have to work hard during the next four years to build political coalitions that can withstand the battering blows from the New Right and its partners in social aggression. As Rosalind Petchesky points out in the following editorial, the reaction against recent modest gains by women and minority groups operates through grass-roots movements. With help from President Reagan and his kind, such movements can win votes and influence people in state legislatures and local councils. But there is a potential force of equal or superior strength in opposition, and it must be organized to bid for the power it deserves.
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Title Annotation:gays must develop strategies for power to win against the right
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Feb 2, 1985
Previous Article:Contempt of court.
Next Article:Bombing feminism.

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