Gay Rights and the 1972 Election

NACHO’s demise cast the fate of a national push for gay rights into doubt. Despite this concern, gay visibility increased in the early years of the 1970s. In 1970, the same year as the last NACHO meeting, the first pride parades occurred in the United States in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. The idea for the pride parades came from a November 1969 meeting of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (formerly ECHO).

The following year, 1971, Frank Kameny became the first openly gay person to run for Congress when he campaigned to be D.C.’s nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives. Although he ultimately lost that race, his electoral showing demonstrated the political power the gay vote could exercise in the U.S. capital.

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Literature from Frank Kameny's congressional campaign.

This desire to insert gay rights issues into federal politics accelerated during the 1972 election. That year, Bruce Voeller, an activist from New York, called a convention of gay rights groups from all over the country. The goal of the meeting was to produce a clear vision for what gay men and lesbians could demand from the Democratic party at the 1972 convention later that year. In response to Voeller’s idea, over one hundred gay rights activists gathered in Chicago on the weekend of February 11-13, 1972. The Chicago Strategy Session, as it came to be called, was sponsored by both the Chicago Gay Alliance and New York City’s chapter of Gay Activist Alliance.  

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A poster distributed in Chicago by Advocates for Gay Action during the 1972 election.

Delegates met at the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church in Chicago. The church was old and lacked heating, but the cold air did not stop passionate debate from taking place. People argued over whether to endorse any candidates in the upcoming elections before ultimately deciding not to do so. A spirited debate about proper protest tactics also took place. One attendee even suggested nominating a gay person for president at the upcoming Democratic Convention, although this suggestion was ultimately dropped. The delegates also decided to call themselves the National Coalition of Gay Organizations (NCGO). Despite these debates, the assembled delegates did pass a gay rights plank they hoped to include in the Democratic Party Platform at the nominating convention in Miami Beach. Although it was initially rejected by the Democratic Party Platform Committee, the NCGO managed to get their demands included in the convention schedule as Minority Report #8 thanks to a signature drive. The text of the Minority Report called for a new Democratic administration to:

  • Urge repeal of all laws, federal and state, regarding voluntary sex acts involving consenting persons in private, laws regulating attire, and laws used as a shield for police harassment;
  • Enact civil rights legislation which will prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, and public services;
  • Eliminate sexual orientations or preference as a criterion for employment by all public and governmental agencies, in work under federal contract, for service in the United States armed services and for licensing in government-regulated occupations and professions;
  • Eliminate sexual orientation as a criterion for obtaining loans, insurance, and bonding;
  • Upgrade to honorable all less-than-honorable military discharges previously given solely because of sexual relations between consenting persons or because of allegations relating to sexual orientation; and
  • Seek release of all persons incarcerated in prisons and mental institutions for victimless sex acts.

This plank argued for many of the rights gay and lesbians had been demanding for since the days of NACHO. Issues like security in employment and honorable military discharges had appeared in documents going back to the Janus Society’s 1966 Statement of Purpose. At the same time, the NCGO’s work advanced these calls for rights to new areas, such as its demand that sexual orientation should have no bearing on loans and insurance. Furthermore, since the plank was debated at the Democratic Convention, it announced the goals of gay rights to one of the widest audiences for the movement up to that point. NCGO was a national organization, at least in name. The convention provided a national stage to share its views.          

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George McGovern was the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 1972.

Gay and lesbian activists did not just bring a platform plank to the convention. They also campaigned to be delegates. One such candidate was Michael Bergeron of the Chicago Gay Alliance and Advocates for Gay Action. At age twenty, Bergeron vigorously campaigned to be selected as the gay rights delegate to the convention. He later said that he sent mailers out to potential voters every two to three days. Despite this effort, he was not elected as a convention delegate, but he is believed to be the first openly gay person to run for public office in the state of Illinois.    

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The letterhead that appeared on Michael Bergeron's campaign mailings.

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Michael Bergeron, circa 1972.

Two elected gay delegates, California’s Jim Foster and New York’s Madeline Davis, were chosen to speak on behalf of the plank at the convention. The idea two openly homosexual people would be speaking on national television for gay rights buoyed the spirits of NCGO members. Jim Foster spoke to the convention hall at 5:00 a.m. the morning of July 12, 1970. Davis followed with her speech at 5:10 a.m. Despite the hour, both delivered powerful rebukes against the discrimination they had long faced as homosexuals. Nonetheless, the convention hall voted down the plank by voice vote.

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Front page coverage of the 1972 Democratic National Convention in The Advocate.

The failure of the 1972 gay rights plank hardly mattered to activists. Indeed, many of the NCGO’s own members believed it would fail. What did matter, however, was that gay rights issues reached a national audience through the convention coverage. National politicians were starting to take notice of these activists, as an historic meeting in 1977 would further demonstrate.