If this all seems unhinged, it’s not unprecedented. In the 1960s and ’70s, conservative opponents of school integration, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights coalesced around a similar narrative. They wrapped concerns about social and cultural change in a grim warning that America’s children were the target of gay people who aimed to “recruit” and abuse them. In many cases, it worked. It set back LGBTQ rights in many states and localities and effectively stalled efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.
It’s a cautionary tale. Some conservative politicians and pundits surely know that they’re spinning fantasies in the service of scoring wins. But as the Comet Pizza shooting demonstrates, too many people believe those fantasies and are willing to act on them.
When conservatives targeted LGBTQ Americans in the 1970s, their intended target, ironically, was not always or necessarily gay people. The debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s is a case in point. Originally proposed by the National Women’s Party in the 1920s, the ERA cleared through Congress in March 1972, whereupon it was sent to the states for ratification. In its final version the amendment read simply that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Within hours, Hawaii became the first state to ratify the amendment, followed by Delaware, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Idaho and Iowa over the next two days. It seemed likely if not inevitable that the ERA would quickly win approval by the requisite 38 states and become a permanent fixture of American jurisprudence — until Phyllis Schlafly intervened.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Schlafly was a devout Catholic and prominent conservative activist with degrees from Washington University and Radcliffe College. In 1972 she founded STOP ERA (Stop Taking Our Privileges), a national organization that opposed ratification on a state-by-state level. A powerful speaker and talented political organizer, Schlafly found a sympathetic reception among millions of women who agreed that the traditional family was “the basic unit of society, which is ingrained in the laws and customs of Judeo-Christian civilization [and] is the greatest single achievement of women’s rights,” and that the ERA was “anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion.”
ERA opponents warned that the amendment would have far-reaching consequences, denying divorced women the right to alimony or subjecting women to the draft. But in language that seems eerily familiar today, they also claimed the law would compel schoolgirls and schoolboys to use the same restrooms — a charge that many feminists suspected of appealing to fears that white schoolgirls would be forced to use the same toilets as Black schoolboys. They claimed that women prisoners would be “put in the cells with Black men,” a situation that would inevitably lead to “the negro accost[ing] the white woman in the cell.”
Critically, children — and alleged dangers to children — lay at the heart of the anti-ERA movement. By making the amendment synonymous with LGBTQ rights, STOP ERA struck at fears of mixed bathrooms and “homosexual teachers.” The amendment would “legalize homosexual marriages and open the door to the adoption of children by legally married homosexual couples,” according to literature distributed by a state-level affiliate in Florida.
To the modern reader, the connection between equal gender rights and sexual predation in schools and prisons might seem an improbable leap. But opponents of the ERA knew what they were doing. They were creating a problem that did not exist to resist social changes that many white conservatives deeply resented.
Take, for instance, racial integration. In Florida, where the movement gained early traction, many activists associated with Women For Responsible Legislation (WFRL), the state’s leading anti-ERA organization, were veteran organizers against school desegregation and, in the 1970s, active participants in the anti-busing movement. In one breath, they warned that the ERA would create gender mixing in “gym classes,” “college dormitories” and “rest rooms.” In another breath, they portended grave consequences if Black and white children were bused between neighborhood schools in an effort to achieve desegregation. As Reubin Askew, Florida’s moderate Democratic governor, and a proponent of both busing and the ERA, observed, “Many critics of the Equal Rights Amendment have used the idea of ‘integrated’ restrooms to illustrate their fear of the proposed Amendment. The idea comes from the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.”
The anti-ERA forces continued to build on this well-established nexus between LGBTQ rights and school desegregation. In 1956, two years after Brown v. Board, the Florida legislature created the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee to stymie efforts to desegregate public schools. By the early 1960s the committee broadened its scope to probe the purported dangers that school children faced from gay men and, to a lesser degree, gay women. In 1964 the panel issued a lurid report, “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida,” complete with a glossary of gay slang and terminology, and photos of half-naked men kissing or bound up in ropes.
The report focused largely on schools, where closeted gay teachers supposedly harbored a “desire to recruit” young boys, as “homosexuals are made by training rather than born.” It described an unnamed “athletically-built little league coach in West Florida” who “lived at home with his mother” and “systematically seduced the members of the baseball team into the performance of homosexual acts.” Taking care not to “lump together the homosexual who seeks out youth and … child molesters,” the committee explained that “the child molester attacks, but seldom kills or physically cripples his victim. … The homosexual, on the other hand, prefers to reach out for the child at the time of normal sexual awakening and to conduct a psychological preliminary to the physical contact. The homosexual’s goal is to ‘bring over’ the young person, to hook him for homosexuality.”
In much the same way that conservatives today see a far-reaching conspiracy to groom and traffic schoolchildren, a special investigator who cooperated with the committee lamented that “the homosexuals are organized. The persons whose responsibility it is to protect the public, and especially our kids, are not organized in the direction of combatting homosexual recruitment of youth.”
Ten years later, as they organized against the ERA, conservative activists in Florida and elsewhere well understood how to crystalize opposition against school integration and LGBTQ rights into grassroots opposition to women’s equality. They understood it because so many of them were pioneer organizers in all three efforts.
Florida was hardly the only state to give rise to anti-integration, anti-ERA or anti-LGBTQ activism. Boston, the cradle of liberty, was arguably the poster child for the anti-busing movement, and in 1978 California nearly passed a ballot initiative that would have barred gay teachers from employment in public schools. On a visit to raise support for the referendum, the conservative evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell informed his followers that “homosexuals often prey on the young. Since they cannot reproduce, they proselyte [sic].” It was only when former Governor Ronald Reagan — a conservative Republican, but also a former Hollywood actor who had more than a few gay friends and business associates — spoke out against the initiative that support for it began to collapse.
But Florida seemed always at the center of the fight. In 1977, country and western singer Anita Bryant, a resident of Miami, Florida, spearheaded a successful effort to pass a referendum overturning a city ordinance extending standard civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. In just one month, Bryant, a devout Southern Baptist and mother of four, managed to gain 60,000 signatures to place her referendum question on the ballot. Thus began several months of ugly provocation. “If homosexuality were the normal way,” she told supporters, “God would have made Adam and Bruce.” Enjoying support from prominent Christian televangelists like Jim and Tammy Bakker of the PTL Club, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club and Jerry Falwell of the Old-Time Gospel Hour, Bryant denounced a “life style that is both perverse and dangerous” and won plaudits from other conservative Christian leaders for her efforts to “stop the homosexuals in their campaign for equal rights.”
Critically, children — and made-up threats to their safety — were at the heart of Bryant’s campaign. Her organization, after all, was named Save Our Children (SOC). Claiming a fundamental threat to her right to dictate “the moral atmosphere in which my children grow up,” she presaged today’s activists in portraying schools as the front line of the era’s culture wars. “God gave mothers the divine right … and a divine commission to protect our children, in our homes, business and especially our schools.” Unsurprisingly, many of SOC’s leaders were veterans of the state’s anti-busing and anti-school desegregation movement.
SOC played heavily into nationwide fears of a child pornography epidemic. The hype was purely fanciful, but it proved resonant. “SCAN THESE HEADLINES FROM THE NATION’S NEWSPAPERS,” a typical leaflet urged. “—THEN DECIDE: ARE HOMOSEXUALS TRYING TO RECRUIT OUR CHILDREN?” The organization denied any intention to discriminate against gay people, as long as they lived their lives quietly, and out of public view. “Homosexuals do not suffer discrimination when they keep their perversions in the privacy of their own homes,” it insisted. As for Bryant, she held that gay people “can hold any job, transact any business, join any organization — As long as they do not flaunt their homosexuality.”
In the end, Bryant’s referendum passed with overwhelming support. And the Florida legislature declined on several occasions in the 1970s to pass the ERA.
Americans in the 1970s experienced profound social and cultural change, as women and people of color came to enjoy greater freedoms and opportunities, the LGBTQ community more actively asserted its fundamental right to live equally and to be left alone by the state, and traditional hierarchies began to give way to a less certain societal order. It’s little wonder that conservative activists, most of whom were probably sincere in their beliefs, were successful at creating a bogeyman that focused the fears of many middle-of-the-road voters. That bogeyman was the child predator — gay, prurient and dangerous. He turned schools and libraries into recruitment (aka, “grooming”) forums. And he had to be stopped.
That’s roughly where we are today, as local and state governments from Tennessee and Idaho, to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to Ohio and New York, seek to ban or restrict public drag shows, remove books addressing LGBTQ-related topics from schools or restrict what teachers can say about sexuality or race in the classroom. As in the 1960s and 1970s, the voices warning of predatory grooming are often the same ones opposing other bogeymen, like “Critical Race Theory.” Then as now, the opposition nexus unifies broader concerns about the pace and nature of social change.
History does not inevitably repeat itself. This moment could prove fleeting. But conservative success in the 1970s in fabricating threats to children, then rallying people to organize around them, offers cold comfort to those who view this form of retrenchment with a worried eye. And as Comet Pizza should have taught us, when you play with fire, people can get hurt.