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Senator George McGovern’s Role in the History of Gay Rights

Senator George McGovern’s Role in the History of Gay Rights

by Karen Ocamb on October 21, 2012

George McGovern, a principled, outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and the 1972 Democratic candidate for president, died Sunday morning in a Sioux Falls, South Dakota hospice where he had been admitted last week. He was 90 years old.

Steve Hildebrand, the openly gay spokesman for the family, said in a statement:

“At approximately 5:15 am CT [6: 15 a.m. ET] this morning, our wonderful father, George McGovern, passed away peacefully at the Dougherty Hospice House in Sioux Falls, SD, surrounded by our family and life-long friends.

“We are blessed to know that our father lived a long, successful and productive life advocating for the hungry, being a progressive voice for millions and fighting for peace.

“He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer.”

As divided as America is today, it was perhaps even more deeply divided in the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s when 18 year olds were drafted to fight the war in Vietnam and the undeclared wars in Cambodia and Laos. The wars were so ugly and so far away, straight guys were pretending to be gay to escape the draft, despite the permanent mark on their record. At anti-war demonstrations, Republican “hard hats” would throw tomatoes and eggs at antiwar “hippie Communist” protesters (like me), yelling: “America: Love it or Leave it!” It was an intense time of heroes and villains with each side firmly believing they were on the side of the angels.

History built up to this great divide. Just like the film The Wizard of Oz, America changed into color with the election in 1960 of President John F. Kennedy, besting black and white Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon. But while the counter-culture was full of music, love, peace and hope, a dark shadow started creeping across the land with the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in June 1963, followed in November by the unimaginable assassination of JFK. Hope popped up again when Lyndon B. Johnson took office, signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and launched the War on Poverty. But Johnson surrendered that war in favor of ostensibly stopping the Communist “dominos” from falling – first in Vietnam, and then throughout Southeast Asia.

By 1968, a number of liberation movements had sprouted up in conjunction with the civil rights and antiwar movements with Sen. Eugene McCarthy and JKF’s brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy their leading presidential candidates. Sen. McGovern had declined to run in 1967 but when RFK was assassinated in June 1968 after winning the California Primary, McGovern – who had spoken with RFK just minutes before his murder – entered the race, giving RFK’s convention delegates a place to go. Vice President Hubert Humphrey wound up winning the Democratic presidential nomination amidst violent chaos created by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s, whose cops were cracking down with impunity on anyone – from national reporters like Dan Rather televising live on the convention floor to antiwar protesters in the streets. McGovern called the tactics “police brutality.”

The chaos at the 1968 Democratic Convention prompted a call for a resolution to create a Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection.  McGovern was selected chair the following year. The commission was intent on reducing the role of party bosses who could make backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms to pre-determine the nominating process. The commission wanted more democracy and to open up the process to minorities, women and especially youth who demanded representation if they were going to be sent to war to die! That lead to the greater importance of primaries and years later, to the Inclusion Rule written by openly gay DNC Super Delegate Garry Shay to require LGBT delegate goals for each state Democratic party.

By an accident of fate, antiwar activist David Mixner, then a closeted gay man, was appointed to McGovern’s commission. Mixner had met McGovern during the convention when the senator spoke to McCarthy supporters. In his book Stranger Among Friends, Mixner says he felt a strong obligation to young people and all those who had been beaten and arrested by Daley’s goons. He told the commission that in order to heal from the 1968 convention, Daley had to be publicly confronted in a commission hearing.

“I intend to ask Mayor Daley to apologize foe the violence by the police at the convention and to support amnesty for all those arrested by his police, including The Chicago Seven,” Mixner said.

The commission panel freaked. UAW representative Bill Dodds pointed out that Daley might not hear what Mixner – and by extension, the antiwar youth of the nation – would be trying to say if Mixner asked the question. Perhaps someone else could.

Mixner writes:

McGovern turned to me. “If I ask the question for you, will you out of respect for Senator Stevenson [who wanted Mixner kicked off the commission] remain silent during the whole hearing?

Knowing that McGovern needed my cooperation now and that his presenting the question to Mayor Daley would be a thousand times more effective than my asking it, I said, “Senator, of course I will agree to that.”

Everyone was surprised when Mixner passed up the opportunity to talk. “Then McGovern kept his word and asked my question about the demonstrators and amnesty. Daley’s face turned purple. He erupted into a tirade against the demonstrators who had attempted to wreck the Democratic Party at his convention.”

(Chicago Mayor Richard Daley during the 1968 Democratic Convention)

That commission hearing, his interaction with McGovern, and his participation in the report that would forever change the way the Democratic Party operated made Mixner a political star. The following year, in October 1969, McGovern was a key speaker at the massive Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which Mixner helped organize, and an even larger protest organized by the Vietnam Moratorium in November at the Capitol.

In a 2008 book called “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” author Rick Perlstein writes about the 1972 Democratic Convention that nominated McGovern to run an ill-fate campaign against President Richard M. Nixon. So many things went wrong. The  “Yippies” were celebrated, for instance, and the convention ran so long to accommodate so many that McGovern gave his televised acceptance speech at 2:45am to an audience of around 3 million. Perlstein writes:

Plenty more had been watching hours earlier during the vice-presidential roll call, when two men wearing purple shirts reading gay power kissed in an aisle. Television cameramen have an eye for the peculiar. Though the vast majority of conventioneers looked utterly conventional, they dwelled on the likes of Beth Ann Labson, an eighteen-year-old California delegate, walking around without shoes. (“By 1976,” wrote Abbie [Hoffman] and Jerry [Rubin], “the convention will be held in a meadow.”) Larry O’Brien delivered a speech at the podium while, twenty feet below, Allen Ginsberg sat cross-legged, chanting mantras. Denim and tie-dyed T-shirts and peasant dresses; men carrying babies in papoose boards—and, the Post recorded in its article on the abortion floor debate, “girls in patched jeans and no bras.” A black man and a white woman kissing on camera. Interracial marriage had been illegal in some southern states until a Supreme Court decision only five years earlier.”

And then came the roll call, during which, Perlman writes, the McGovern side pulled some political parliamentary tricks that ended up “selling out were feminists” and creating wedge issues. The McGovern Commission’s requirement of “affirmative steps” toward “reasonable representation,” Perlman writes, led to resentment

“as the “women’s libbers” came to be considered and came to consider themselves vanguardists in pushing the boundaries of liberal consciousness. Abortion politics was one catalyst; women were beginning to claim “abortion on demand” as a right. Gay rights was another cutting-edge issue. Some feminists still considered both outrageous; Betty Friedan labeled the lesbians organizing within the National Organization for Women the “lavender menace.” It came to a head at Democratic platform-committee meetings in March. Shirley MacLaine confronted Gloria Steinem at the elevators: “If you people had your way, you’d have George support everyone’s right to fuck goats.”

Here was another development to warm the cockles of Richard Nixon’s heart: wedge issues within the New Politics coalition itself.

After considerable machinations, Perlstein writes, “[t]he word shot across the convention hall that McGovern had clinched the nomination—and also that he had done it by selling out reform.”

The next day, the convention voted on the party platform. Perlstein writes:

McGovern operatives begged the women’s and gay liberationists to drop their demand for floor votes on their planks to moderate the Democrats’ image for TV. These operatives ruefully discovered that political purists could also act like ward bosses, extracting their own pounds of flesh. The gays reminded them of how McGovern would not have won the coveted spot at the top of the California primary ballot if it weren’t for a last-minute signature drive in the gay bars of the Castro by the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club.

“We do not come to you pleading for your understanding or pleading for your tolerance,” San Francisco delegate Jim Foster pronounced during his ten minutes. “We come to you affirming our pride in our lifestyle, affirming validity to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships, and affirming our right to participate in the life of this country on an equal basis with every citizen.”

The TV lights made his light-colored linen jacket with its patchwork of thick lines look particularly garish. Then delegate Kathleen Wilch of Ohio went to the podium on behalf of McGovern. She asked delegates to vote against the gay rights plank: It would “commit the Democratic Party to seek repeal of all laws involving the protection of children from sexual approaches by adults” and force “repeal of all laws relating to prostitution, pandering, pimping”—and “commit this party to repeal many laws designed to protect the young, the innocent, and the weak.”

McGovern’s convention rejected gay rights in a landslide. Be that as it may, one week later, George Meany officially announced the AFL-CIO wouldn’t be endorsing a presidential candidate that year. At a steelworkers’ convention in September, he explained why: The “Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like johns.”

Not reported by Perlstein was that gays were so outraged by Wilch’s comments that McGovern issued a letter  in response:

“Her views in no way reflect my views on the subject… I have long supported civil rights of all Americans and have in no way altered my commitment to these rights and I have no intention of doing so.”

In the remembrances of McGovern this Sunday, many might note that McGovern’s Democratic Convention featured the first ever gay speaker – Jim Foster – at the podium. They may not, however, note that his letter responding to Wilch was the first time a major political figure posited gay rights within the broader context of civil rights.

Most obits will also note that McGovern lost that 1972 election to Nixon in a landslide. Nixon subsequently announced the end of the draft in 1973 – though war dragged on until 1975. In 1974, Nixon became the first President in US history to resign from office – a result of illegal political dirty tricks at the Watergate during Nixon’s run against McGovern.

(David Mixner, left, with George McGovern and Mixner’s partner Peter Scott. Photo courtesy David Mixner)

Years later, in 1977, after Mixner had come out and was working on the antigay Briggs Initiative with a group called the New AGE (New Alliance for Gay Equality), Mixner asked his friend Bob Shrum, who had been a member of McGovern’s staff – to set up a meeting so they could ask the senator to keynote a fundraiser open to the press. Mixner writes:

“A United States senator had never attended an openly gay and lesbian fund-raiser before. Moreover, he was facing reelection in his rural home state of South Dakota in 1980, where conservative factions were strong. But Bob made a strong case for the importance of standing up against tyranny, especially when it is unpopular to do so, and with his usual courage, McGovern agreed to come…..

McGovern spoke movingly of the battle for human dignity and his wiliness to stand by our side. It ws a memorable evening, not only because we raised critical funds but because it was a big step toward the community’s being accepted by mainstream politicians.”

In his remembrance Mixner writes of McGovern: “Even among the great, he was a giant.”

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