The American Civil Liberties Union in late March tabulated that state legislators have introduced almost 250 bills limiting LGBTQ rights and expression in 2022 alone, with many proposals focused on school sports, curricula, and bathroom access. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Don’t Say Gay: A Queer History,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored the complicated history of sexual orientation in American life, from the acceptance of “Boston Marriages” in the late 1800s to the brutal discrimination of the McCarthy-led 1950s Lavender Scare. In 1982, a sparsely attended House hearing highlighted the long fight for LGBTQ equality in the classroom and beyond. 

On January 27th, 1982, the House Committee on Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Employment Opportunities convened in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill for a hearing on H.R. 1454, the Civil Rights Act Amendments of 1981. The bill proposed adding “sexual and affectional orientation” to the existing list of groups—race, color, sex, religion, and national origin—already protected from discrimination in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations. 

Various versions of the legislation had been circulating since 1974, when New York Representatives Bella Abzug and Ed Koch first introduced a virtually identical bill called The Equality Act. Abzug’s successor, Manhattan Democrat Ted Weiss—who had already taken principled stands against the neutron bomb and a massive New York highway project called Westway—took up his predecessor’s work, becoming chief sponsor of H.R. 1454. 

The issue of protections for LGBTQ teachers in particular hit the headlines in 1977, when Anita Bryant, a singer best known for her 1960 pop hit “Paper Roses,” launched a scorched-earth campaign, dubbed “Save Our Children,” against a Florida bill that outlawed firing teachers for their sexual orientation. 

Bryant successfully blocked the anti-discrimination initiative, but she unleashed a massive LGBTQ mobilization in her wake. In 1978, when a California State Senator named John Briggs tried to pass Proposition Six—which would have officially banned LGBTQ teachers in state schools and empowered children to levy accusations to school boards—a massive coalition led by Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, defeated the measure.  

The Proposition Six controversy reached the Oval Office. President Carter announced his opposition to the so-called Briggs Initiative on November 3rd, 1978, at the end of a pre-election stump speech for California Governor Jerry Brown. Former President Ford also came out against the Proposition.

And Ronald Reagan, just a year away from launching his own far-from-progressive bid for the White House, went so far as to write a scathing op-ed attacking the measure in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner days before the election. Reagan criticized calls that LGBTQ teachers would influence students’ sexualities: “As to the ‘role model’ argument, a woman writing to the editor at a Southern California newspaper said it all: ‘If teachers had such power over children, I would have been a nun years ago.’” 

Reagan went on to criticize rhetoric used by pro-Proposition Six forces comparing homosexuality to illness: “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”

Reagan’s fierce defense of LGBTQ teachers, however, did not stop the evangelical slice of his base from adapting Bryant and Briggs’s tactics after Reagan won the 1980 election. In advance of Weiss’s bill, the Christian Voice Moral Government Fund sent out a mass mailing suggesting the H.R. 1454 would “force every local school to hire practicing homosexuals as teachers, coaches and counselors; force every Christian church to hire a homosexual minister or other church employee; force every family business to hire sodomites.” 

Conservative activists were invited to testify at the H.R. 1454 hearing, but almost all declined. Gary Jarmin, the legislative director of the Christian Voice, said that the hearing was “nothing more than a media event to cajole the American people into believing homosexuals are a discriminated minority genuinely deserving of a special protected status under the law. We will not personally participate in this sham and thus give this pro-immorality hearing any more credit that it deserves.”

Republican Subcommittee members also largely skipped the hearing. Weiss, Subcommittee Chair Augustus Hawkins, and liberal Republican Millicent Fenwick were the only lawmakers who showed up. 

Fenwick was a former Vogue fashion editor who entered Congress at age 64 in 1974, representing New Jersey’s affluent 5th District. She quickly became a feminist firebrand, breaking with her party to support the Equal Rights Amendment. She smoked a pipe and inspired Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau’s elegant and opinionated comic strip character Lacey Davenport. 

Fenwick, however, had an unshakeable aversion to LGBTQ teachers. Her beliefs quickly led her into confrontation with the Subcommittee’s first witness, Jean O’Leary

O’Leary was an Irish Catholic who had entered a Pennsylvania convent in 1966. “I figured I had three choices,” she later told The Advocate. “I could get married, be an old maid, or go to a convent.” She privately accepted that she was lesbian while at the convent and left for New York in 1971. Within two years, O’Leary was a leader in the Gay Alliance of Brooklyn, and soon thereafter on the National Gay Task Force. She orchestrated the first ever meeting of gay leaders at the White House in 1977. “This is the first time in the history of this country that a president has seen fit to acknowledge the rights and needs of some 20 million Americans,” O’Leary said during her opening remarks at the summit.  

By the time of the hearing, O’Leary was serving as Director of the National Association of Business Councils, a professional LGBTQ advocacy group. In her opening statement, O’Leary highlighted the inevitability of queer teachers: “Let me lay to rest one major myth about the legislation. The passage of H.R. 1454 will not put gay people in the schools. There are gay and lesbian teachers in the schools across this country, and there will continue to be gay teachers whether this legislation passes or not.”

O’Leary also recited a bevy of statistics showing the discrimination that LGBTQ educators faced, including that 45% of sociology department heads at colleges said that they would not hire a queer professor. “I challenge any opponent of this legislation to tell the millions of gays in the work force who live in fear of their jobs that discrimination is not a problem. It is, and it requires legislative action.” 

Fenwick chimed in shortly after O’Leary finished her statement. “I would like to ask if there was any way of getting advice as to how we could do something useful in this field without involving employment in our schools.” 

O’Leary shot back: “I think it would be improbably. I do not think it would be anything that we would want to accept from our point of view.” O’Leary then invoked Reagan’s op-ed. “He agreed that ‘role model’ would not be a problem in our schools.” 

“You are not helping me,” Fenwick chastised O’Leary. She then brought up the possibility that known LGBTQ activists could be teachers. “The thing that I worry about is the proclaimed homosexual, and if we could somehow frame the legislation so that this would be an impossibility, that nobody could parade in a small town on Sunday for homosexual rights and expect to teach in the classroom on Monday. Or such as I saw, ‘I Like Boys’ on someone’s lapel. That is intolerable in a public school.” 

O’Leary tried to pick up Fenwick’s point, arguing that sexuality should indeed not impact the quality of teaching. “I do not believe that you could agree that what somebody does outside the classroom for political reasons or whatever should have an impact on what they do inside the classroom.”  

Fenwick, however, repeated her perspective more forcefully. “I am saying that we cannot have proclaimed homosexuals teaching in our schools because people will not put up with this.” 

O’Leary offered an exasperated reply. “It is so hard to hear this. You cannot have it both ways. People say that homosexuals are so bad and terrible—” 

“I am not saying that,” Fenwick clarified. 

“People are so afraid that children are going to be influenced to follow this lifestyle,” O’Leary continued. 

“They are right…People suffer because they know half the population does not approve,” Fenwick concluded. 

Fenwick’s time for questions soon expired and O’Leary gave way to other witnesses. Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, a bill proponent, cited studies suggesting that 16% of LGBTQ professionals experienced employment problems because of their sexual orientation. United Church of Christ President Avery Post took a stand in favor of the proposal, arguing that “love for God and for our neighbors impels us to cherish the life and liberty of all men and women. Gay New York Police Department Sergeant Charles Cochrane testified, “I am very proud of being a New York City Policeman. And I am equally proud of being gay. I have always been gay.” 

After the hearing, however, the showdown between Fenwick and O’Leary lingered, even as H.R. 1454 stalled in Congress. In October 1982, Washington Post columnist and peace activist Colman McCarthy penned an op-ed called “Gay Rights and Gay Acceptance.” McCarthy noted that Democratic presidential frontrunner Walter Mondale spoke at a Human Rights Campaign Fund event in New York and that almost all the legislators who had supported H.R. 1454 were returned to Congress in 1982. 

McCarthy reflected on Fenwick’s hearing objections as an example of continued prejudice amid the gains: “For all of the political advances that have been made, the country still suffers cultural homophobia—an irrational intolerance or fear of homosexuals. Even someone as intelligent as Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), who generally supports civil rights for homosexuals, retreats on the issue when it involves gay teachers…Fenwick was in thrall to the gay-as-wicked-predator myth. No evidence exists that homosexuals are compulsive recruiters to their orientation, much less obsessive seducers of children.”

Forty years after McCarthy’s placement of Fenwick’s prejudice, sexual orientation is still excluded from the Civil Rights Act; The Equality Act, a contemporary version of H.R. 1454, has been languishing in the Senate for more than a year. Amid the torrent of new anti-LGBTQ legislation, McCarthy’s rueful recognition of Fenwick’s block takes on almost prophetic air. 

For more on the long road to equality for LGBTQ teachers, read Jackie M. Blount’s 2006 Fit to Teach Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century

And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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