Alice loves George: McGovern and the gays

by on October 23, 2012  •  In Elections, People
Toklas Club on McGovern 560
Toklas Club on McGovern

 LA journalist Karen Ocamb has posted a fascinating recounting of the little known connections between the late George McGovern and the infant gay civil rights movement. Much of it concerns the environs of the Democratic Party, circa 1972. During the presidential primaries, the Alice B. Toklas Club in San Francisco was a major force for McGovern in California, collecting enough signatures in gay bars to guarantee him the top spot on the primary ballot.

Then came the 1972 convention, with Ocamb quoting from journalist Rick Perlstein’s account:

[T]he “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…”

“We do not come to you pleading for your understanding or pleading for your tolerance,” [openly gay] San Francisco delegate Jim Foster pronounced during his ten minutes [at the podium]. “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.”

Five years later, David Mixner, who had been an aide to McGovern during the 1972 campaign, asked McGovern to keynote a gay fundraising event, a first for any well-known political figure.

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.”



One Response to Alice loves George: McGovern and the gays

  1. Jay October 24, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    In 1978, during the campaign against the Briggs Amendment, which would have barred gays and lesbians from being teachers in the public school system, McGovern headlined a fundraiser, thus becoming the first Senator to headline a political fundraiser on behalf of glbtq rights. McGovern was a very good man.

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