Gay Rights in the White House
The National Coalition of Gay Organizations fell apart shortly after the Democratic and Republican conventions of 1972, but it was not long before a new national gay rights organization moved in to take its place. In 1973, Bruce Voeller, the instigator behind the NCGO meeting in Chicago, founded the National Gay Task Force (NGTF). Voeller’s new organization hoped to turn the dreams of the defunct NCGO into a reality by taking gay and lesbian issues into the halls of corporate and government power. NGTF also hoped to heal some of the rifts between lesbian feminists and gay men that had developed in the movement. To that end, Voeller made sure that lesbians made up half of NGTF’s board. Jean O’Leary, a lesbian activist, was named the co-executive director alongside Voeller, as well.
NGTF spent its early years pushing for various liberal causes. In an alliance with the feminist movement, the Task Force lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the legalization of abortion. Most of NGTF’s energies, however, were spent on gay and lesbian rights issues. In 1975, the Task Force pushed its allies in Congress to introduce a bill that extended civil rights protections to homosexuals. The legislation did not pass, but NGTF had greater luck in terms of cultural issues. Voeller, O’Leary, and the rest of the board received commitments from NBC and AT&T that they would not discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring practices. NBC also promised to show positive depictions of gays across its programming.
In 1977, NGTF scored another victory when they were invited to the White House for a meeting with Midge Costanza, President Jimmy Carter’s assistant to the president for public liaison. The Task Force had pushed for a meeting from almost the moment of Carter’s election, and Costanza finally arranged one for Saturday, March 26, 1977 at 1:00 p.m. Voeller and O’Leary selected fourteen people for the meeting. Each attendee gave a short presentation describing different types of discrimination gay men and lesbians faced. Chicago activist Bill Kelley spoke about the Internal Revenue Service policy of not granting homosexual groups tax-exempt status, for example. Other topics of discussion were discrimination against homosexuals in housing, the military, and immigration policy.
The fourteen chosen delegates gathered the night before the meeting in California senator Alan Cranston’s office to go over each presentation. The next day, the attendees met at the White House a little before the meeting for a brief tour. President Carter was not in the building that day, but the NGTF representatives were allowed to look at the Oval Office. Everyone then walked across the hall to the Roosevelt Room where the meeting was to take place. Originally scheduled for two hours, the conference ended up lasting for three. At the end of the meeting, everyone walked out of the White House to find reporters waiting. The meeting made national news and ended up generating more mail to the White House than any other issue in the entirety of Carter’s presidency. The NGTF had truly become a national force.
The 1977 White House meeting served as a sort of pinnacle for the gay rights movement in the United States. There was, of course, more work to do, but the conference in the Roosevelt Room marked the true conversation between a national gay rights group and the federal government that some activists had been striving for since NACHO. After working for over a decade to decide what gay rights might mean, activists had a chance to express that definition in the highest halls of power in the United States. Future efforts would only carry this conversation further.