Measures A and B. Anita Bryant. Rev. Marvin Rickard. The Los Gatos Christian Church.
When you say these names today you get blank stares. But in 1980 they were at the center of a battle for local policies protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public services.
The measures were referenda on gay rights ordinances approved in 1979 by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors (Measure A) and the San Jose City Council (Measure B) to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. They were placed on the ballot by the religious right.
Back then, the battle for anti-discrimination protections was fought largely at the city or county level because there were no federal or state laws. California’s first such law wasn’t signed until 1992.
One of the first measures was in Miami-Dade County in 1977. Opposition came swiftly from Anita Bryant—a Miss American runner-up and Florida orange juice pitchwoman. Bryant founded Save Our Children, which led a highly publicized and successful campaign to repeal the ordinances.
Two years later, pro- and anti-gay forces collided in Silicon Valley when the Board of Supervisors took up the matter. Serving on the board were supervisors Dominic Cortese, Rod Diridon, Dan McCorquodale, Gerry Steinberg and Susanne Wilson.
Opposition quickly emerged. Led by Rev. Marvin Rickard of the Los Gatos Christian Church, hundreds of vocal opponents attended each of the six public hearings, far outnumbering supporters. The vote was 4 to 1 for the ordinance, with Cortese voting “no.”
With far less fanfare, the San Jose City Council then voted 6 to 1 for a city ordinance.
Opponents wasted no time gathering signatures to stop the ordinances from taking effect. The measures were placed on the June 1980 ballot. A “yes” vote meant you favored the protections; a “no” vote signified you wanted them repealed.
The campaign was ugly, with opponents getting funding and advice from the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant’s campaign. “Vote ‘no’ for the sake of our children,” read their literature, adding “Don’t let it spread.”
The election was a blowout, with 70 percent of San Jose voters and 65 percent of county voters rejecting the ordinances. The message was clear: gays not wanted.
I was always curious how this could have happened in our progressive community. Did the supervisors not know that across the country such measures were being overturned? Did they not expect the religious right to come out in force to oppose them?
To answer these questions, Terry Christensen and I got the supervisors together for a special one-hour show on Valley Politics.
In brief, they said they were surprised at the fervent hostility the ordinance generated because they saw the issue as one of basic human rights, much like other matters at the time. Moreover, labor, the Democratic Party and liberal churches were in support.
Despite growing opposition, the supervisors never considered rescinding their vote because, as Supervisor McCorquodale said on the show, “it would be too disheartening to too many people.”
Listening to the supervisors’ conversation, I felt proud of their legacy. They put their careers on the line to make sure that I and others had legal protections.
Whether gay rights in the 1980s or immigrant rights today, supervisors remain leaders for the underrepresented and disenfranchised, often ahead of public opinion–knowing that in time, the public will catch up.
By Ken Yeager who is completing his final term on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors this year. Previously a San Jose City Council member, he was the first openly gay elected official in the county. He wrote this for The Mercury News.
[The San Jose Mercury News came out strongly in favor of the anti-discrimination laws. “If the voters vote ‘no,’ they will be saying, explicitly, that homosexuals in this community do not have legal recourse when they suffer discrimination.”]