by Scot Nakagawa, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Fight the Right Director
The issue of limiting civil rights, freedom of expression, and democratic participation has become the single most divisive and loudly debated issue of our time. A right wing movement, formed as part of a society-wide backlash against New Deal economic policies and the gains of the Civil Rights movement, has taken the lead in organizing against the most fundamental principles of democracy Q equal protection, equal participation, and self-determination. A central theme of this movement is that in post-Civil Rights movement America, minorities are claiming "special rights," signalling a need to return to "traditional family values."

The effectiveness of this movement can already be measured in terms of compromises in welfare and abortion rights; right wing takeovers of school boards; passage of "Official English" measures in Colorado and Florida; the Bush Administration's attacks against the 1990 Civil Rights Restoration Act; the ideological composition of our federal courts; and numerous other changes in the social, cultural, political, and economic life of our society. In every arena, all signs seem to point to the rising power of the right.

Throughout the country, much of the debate over democratic participation and equal protection has centered on the issue of gay and lesbian equality. The gay rights controversy has become the wedge issue of the right wing. Using this wedge as a point of entry, right wingers are infiltrating mainstream institutions, raising money, and building a base of power that will ultimately serve a much broader political agenda that only begins with dismantling many of the gains of the civil rights movement.

1992 was a critical year in the development of the right wing movement. In that year we saw the right wing launch a national test of a strategy for building institutional power by championing heterosexism. Right wing groups in Maine, Florida, Oregon, and Colorado put on a populist fade and organized ballot measure campaigns aimed at amending state and municipal civil rights codes to make gays, lesbians and bisexuals second-class citizens.

Portland, Maine

Right wing activist Jasper Wyman and the Christian Civic League of Portland organized the Concerned Portland Citizens "People's Veto" campaign. The goal of the campaign was to repeal a city human rights ordinance extending civil rights protection to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. The themes of the anti-gay campaign were "Stop Special Rights for Homosexuals," "Protect Your Family," and "Protect Your Freedom to Choose."

Concerned Portland Citizens argued that while Portland gays and lesbians made claims of widespread discrimination and violence motivated by anti-gay bias, "statistics do not indicate a higher incidence of homosexuals among the unemployed or homeless. Existing criminal laws protect all citizens from acts of violence. Homosexuals really seek special government endorsement of their sexual behavior."

Concerned Portland Citizens used a very typical right wing tactic of claiming that gays and lesbians use hyperbole, money, and exaggeration to manipulate government into granting "special rights." By making gays and lesbians out to be the ultimate tyrants of "Political Correctness," the right wing has tapped into populist rebellion against the specter of civil rights activists as "Big Brother."

Portland human rights activists responded by organizing the Equal Protection/Portland campaign which successfully defended the city's human rights ordinance. Using the theme "Vote No to End Discrimination in Portland," the group defeated the anti-gay measure in all but 8 of Portland's 28 precincts.


In Tampa, Florida three right wing groups operating under the names Take Back Tampa, the Lot Committee, and Citizens for a Responsible Tampa joined forces to support a general election measure to repeal a local ordinance extending civil rights protection to gays and lesbians. In spite of valiant opposition from the Say No To Hate PAC, the measure won by a margin of 58% to 42%.

A late start and lack of funding forced the Say No To Hate PAC to run a campaign which used three mailings and free media to move the message, "Say No To Hate." In contrast, the proponents of the measure outspent Say No To Hate PAC 5 to 1 to fund an aggressive broadcast and direct mail campaign that emphasized the slogans "No Special Rights," and "Sodomy is not a civil right."

Polls conducted in Tampa just after the election reveal that 85% of those surveyed oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, and 81% oppose discrimination in housing. Those who disagreed with the ordinance repealed in the election said they believed the ordinance would give homosexuals access to children and special rights.

Currently, the Human Rights Task Force of Tampa, formed following the election, has organized a "Buycott" of Tampa businesses. The task force has assembled lists of businesses that support equal protection and are providing the guides to conscientious consumers.


In Oregon, the religious right wing Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) led a multi-level and multi-issue assault on civil rights and community values. During the course of the campaign year, the OCA initiated several petition drives to place questions on Oregon state and municipal ballots.

The OCA petitioned to place a measure on the ballot that required a voter mandate of all tax and fee increases in Oregon. While the measure seems to democratize the system of taxation, it would, in reality, seriously damage local government. The initiative failed to receive enough signatures to qualify for placement on the ballot.

The OCA's "No On Hate" initiative to amend the state hate crimes law would have changed the protected category "sexual orientation" to "abnormal and perverse behaviors such as homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, and masochism." Their use of a slogan that was well known as the name of a local gay and lesbian organization was clearly intended to confuse voters. The initiative, which might have made the OCA the first group in U.S. history to sponsor a ballot initiative to make pedophiles a protected class under civil rights law, was abandoned.

In Portland, Oregon, the OCA petitioned for a measure aimed at repealing the city's civil rights ordinance that extends civil rights protection to gays and lesbians. The initiative failed in part because of a "Bigot Busters" campaign sponsored by the No On Hate campaign. The "Bigot Busters" picketed petitioners, and deterred potential signers with educational materials.

In Corvallis, Oregon, the OCA sponsored a measure in the primary election aimed at changing the city charter to exclude gays and lesbians from civil rights protection. The OCA used the theme "No Special Rights," and played heavily on backlash against affirmative action and fears of child molestation. Corvallis civil rights activists countered the OCA with a high visibility campaign emphasizing direct voter contact. Using the message "No On Discrimination," they mobilized 65% of voters in this town of approximately 30,000 to vote against the measure.

In Springfield, Oregon the OCA organized a successful campaign to sponsor an identical measure in the primary election. In spite of a courageous effort on the part of STOP-PAC activists to defeat the measure by asking voters to "Stop Hate," measure 20-02 was passed by a margin of 55% to 45%. Measure 20-02 changed Springfield's civil rights code to prohibit "promoting, encouraging, or facilitating" homosexuality, and from adopting or enforcing any laws requiring civil rights protection on the basis of sexual orientation. Since the election, attempts have been made to censor the Springfield public library, and the city lost its liability insurance.

In the general election, the OCA sponsored Ballot Measure 9, which attempted to change Oregon's constitution to declare homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse." The measure, crafted by a Heritage Foundation attorney, would have forced state and local governments to proactively discriminate against gays and lesbians, and deny some services to those "facilitating" homosexuality by enforcing internal organizational bans against anti-gay bias.

The No On 9 Campaign together with a massive statewide effort that included Republicans Against Prejudice, the Catholic establishment, and 14 rural political action committees defeated the measure by a margin of 57% to 43%. The Oregon campaign focused on creating an atmosphere in which it was possible for people who were strongly anti-gay to vote no on the measure by using the messages "no on discrimination," and "its a danger to us all."

The influence of anti-gay organizing in Oregon has extended far beyond the state's borders. Lon Mabon, Director of the Oregon Citizens' Alliance, took his grassroots bigotry on the road, appearing as guest of honor at conferences announcing the formation of the Idaho Citizens' Alliance and the Citizens' Alliance of Washington. In addition, he plans to travel throughout 1993 to spread anti-gay ill will across the nation.


Amendment 2, passed in the Colorado general election, is an attempt to change Colorado's constitution to exclude gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from civil rights protection. Amendment 2 was sponsored by Colorado for Family Values (CFV) which is tied to nationally-based right wing groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and Focus on the Family, which provided more than $8,000 worth of in-kind donations to CFV's Amendment 2 campaign.

In spite of efforts on the part of Equal Protection of Colorado to counter the anti-gay measure by arguing that Amendment 2 would legalize discrimination, right wing money and a homophobic campaign which used the "No Special Rights" message took 54% of the vote. The measure is the first statewide constitutional amendment to limit civil rights in the history of the U.S.

Amendment 2 demands that "Neither the State of Colorado, through any of its branches or departments, nor any of its agencies, political subdivisions, municipalities or school districts, shall enact, adopt or enforce any statute, regulation, ordinance or policy whereby homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall constitute or otherwise be the basis of or entitle any person or class of persons to have or claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected stat us, or claim of discrimination."

The amendment and the CFV campaign play very heavily on backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement and other efforts by "minorities" to win civil equality. Coupling the statement "claim of discrimination" with misleading and inflammatory concepts like "quota preferences" allows the right wing to continue its campaign of misinformation about affirmative action. Simultaneously, this allows them to skirt the issue of discrimination which a majority of voters strongly oppose.

In the wake of the passage of Amendment 2, Coloradans have responded with a legal initiative which may prove Amendment 2 unconstitutional under Colorado law. The success or failure of efforts to "undo Amendment 2" will have a profound effect on the tactical viability of the right's current anti-gay strategy. However, a course has already been set for the right wing movement which is unlikely to change soon.

The Fight Back

The success of these campaigns in building right wing institutions has sent a signal to national right wing leaders. National leaders of the religious right have called for efforts to target at least 12 states for measures to constitutionalize discrimination.

Already, the right wing's strategy to mobilize against gay and lesbian civil rights has unleashed a torrent of activity on the part of reactionary groups all over the country. In states where citizens cannot sponsor initiatives, the right wing is stepping up its attacks against gays and lesbians in state legislatures, school boards, PTA's, labor unions, neighborhood associations, and community task forces.

In those states where citizens can sponsor initiatives, the right is attempting to sponsor measures in Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Washington, California, Florida, and Michigan as of March 1993.

Christian Right commitment, sacrifice, and audacity is already quietly paying off in terms of public policy changes affecting education, health care, taxation, schools, welfare, the arts, gender and racial equity, and environmental protection. Their latest tactic of attacking gays and lesbians may give them the fund raising capacity and mainstream base to achieve their further goals.

The continued success of the gay and lesbian liberation movement will largely depend on the ability of gays and lesbians to stave off right wing attacks successfully. The fight back will require changes in the way we think and organize that will fundamentally change the character of our movement.

First of all, success will require an acknowledgement of the political landscape in which we are fighting for our freedom.

In the 1960's the leadership of the African American led civil rights movement used civil disobedience and legal strategies to bring state and local governments operating in violation of federal civil rights policies into compliance. In the 1990's gay and lesbian civil rights activists find themselves facing a situation in which the reactionary nature of the new judiciary, along with the electoral and legislative nature of the right wing attacks against us signal a need to find new strategies and tactics.

We need to develop a strategy for targeting very broadly defined constituencies in and outside of the gay and lesbian community in order to defeat the right wing. This project of expanding our constituency calls for coalition building, which in turn calls for involvement in a process of negotiation and power sharing with many diverse groups. To respond to the immediate threat of the right wing, we need to build tactical coalitions that include every group in society that recognizes the right's threat not only to society as we would like it to be, but to society as it is currently configured.

As we build coalitions of this type we must understand that we can't expect to borrow power from other interest groups and institutions. Nobody loans out power without extracting a price, and the price we may be expected to pay could eventually divide our communities. For this reason, we need power, and in order to build power we need to build and support our community-based institutions as never before. Then we can enter into these coalitions with real and unified bases of grassroots support.

In service of our longer-term struggle for full equality, we must begin the process of building another kind of coalition between oppressed groups both within and outside of our community. Entering into this type of coalition will extract a very different kind of price from our movement. The payment will include creating a movement that genuinely values multi-racial democracy, gender equity, and other community values.

The two types of coalitions are not the same, nor will they serve exactly the same purposes. The first is tactical, and the second strategic; one is based on shared fear, while the other is based on shared needs, hopes, and dreams, and a shared experience and analysis of oppression which understands that equality doesn't emerge from an absence of discrimination, but rather in the presence of justice.

The second type of coalition will require that we build strength in our community institutions by both building funding bases and acquiring tools and technological know-how, and by changing the way in which we define our constituencies, our issues, and our organizing practice. It will require recognizing the leadership of people of color. It will mean designing and implementing real and meaningful affirmative action policies that can take us beyond "diversity" to multi-racial and gender equal democracy.

Already the right wing is attacking other oppressed groups in order to build institutions that can attack us. In Colorado, there is a direct link between the sponsor of Amendment 2 and the sponsor of the Official English measure passed by Colorado voters in 1990. If we had stopped them then, when they were attacking the rights and the dignity of people of color, the right wing in Colorado might not have had as strong a base going into the Amendment 2 campaign.

At the same time the right wing attacks gay and lesbian people, they attack people of color, women, the poor, and the very concept of civil rights and human equality. They say gays are trying to take something away from the majority community while simultaneously popularizing the notion that whatever it is "militant homosexuals" are after, women better not be exposed to it, and people of color already have it. The attacks, and the oppression that results, are connected. If the right has given us anything, it is this recognition of our mutual interdependency.

This is the challenge being placed before us by the rise of the right wing. This action kit is intended to be just one small resource as we begin to fight back.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.