The Culture Wars Live On Between The LGBTQ Rights Movement And The Religious Right

Jun 20, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 1:13 am

The protests surrounding New York City's Stonewall Inn, 50 years ago this month, were a seminal moment.

Following the uprising, spurred by police raiding the bar, activist groups began organizing to demand rights.

But the success of that movement in the years that followed saw a powerful backlash from the modern religious right. The two movements became opponents in a culture war that continues today.

The protests by LGBTQ activists that followed Stonewall remade the movement, known as the gay movement at the time. It spurred more lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans to come out to their families, their communities and actively push for LGBTQ civil rights. LGBTQ historian Lillian Faderman points to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front shortly after the uprising, and pride parades a year later to commemorate the protests. Those parades now span cities across the country and the world.

"Movements need icons. Movements need martyrs. Movements need heroes," said Faderman. Stonewall became that icon for the LGBTQ movement.

At first, the religious right ignored the LGBTQ civil rights movement as a blip that would never break into the mainstream, Faderman said — until it started making progress.

"As the gay movement succeeded and as various cities began to pass gay-rights ordinances usually to incorporate the term 'sexual and affectional preference' in existing nondiscrimination ordinances," Faderman said, "I think that woke the religious right up to begin to push back. The real beginning, I think, of the culture wars in earnest was in 1977."

That's when Anita Bryant, a pop singer and pageant queen best-known at the time as the face of Florida orange juice, began a public campaign to fight an ordinance passed in Miami-Dade County to stop housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Anita Bryant, a beauty queen and pop singer best-known as the face of Florida orange juice, became the face of the anti-gay movement.
YouTube

Bryant, a devout Baptist, spearheaded a campaign against the ordinance and triumphed.

Two to one, voters chose to repeal the ordinance.

"Because of her efforts on a national scale this became a national conversation in a way that it hadn't necessarily been," said Emily Johnson, a historian at Ball State University in Indiana. Her book, This Is Our Message, profiles female leaders in the modern religious right.

Bryant, she said, became an icon in the fight against gay, lesbian and bisexual rights, traveling across the country to oppose similar ordinances. She formed a homophobic group, Save Our Children, aimed at stopping the passage of LGBTQ protections in counties across the U.S. and stopping openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from teaching in schools.

At the peak of Bryant's homophobic activism that year, an assistant to then-President Jimmy Carter, Midge Costanza, made the decision to invite gay-rights leaders to the White House. It made national news, Faderman said, and Bryant and her supporters loudly protested against the meetings.

"As we trace this history from the '70s to the present we see very much not two separate movements that are each building their own agendas," Johnson said, "but two movements that are building their agendas and their talking points in relation to and in opposition to one another."

From the anti-discrimination ordinances of the '70s and '80s to the fight for marriage equality and today's battles over transgender people's right to use the bathroom of their identity or continue to serve in the military, each movement is strategizing to counter the other.

About 100 activists demonstrate at the NBC Building in Manhattan on Nov. 3, 1977, to protest the airing of a taped interview with Anita Bryant on the network's Today show.
CEH / AP

They are "perfect enemies," wrote journalist Chris Bull. That's the title of the book he co-authored on the religious right and the LGBTQ movement. And in the past couple of decades, the LGBTQ rights movement saw a string of victories.

"Today we have marriage equality; gay people serve openly in the military," Bull said. "Twenty states have protections in the workplace for LGBTQ people. This is an extraordinary change. I don't think anyone at Stonewall could have really imagined this happening so quickly."

Today, a majority of Americans favor LGBTQ rights, including many people of faith. It's no longer socially acceptable or politically effective, Bull said, to demonize queer people. But that doesn't mean this culture war is over, especially for transgender Americans.

"There are still many states where you can be fired for being gay, and perhaps most significantly trans people are really being targeted by the Trump administration for discrimination," Bull said. "He's put a ban on openly trans people serving in the military, and religious right activists are organizing at the grassroots level to make life harder for trans people, with bathroom bills and all kinds of legislation aimed at stemming the equality movement on behalf of trans people."

In many places in the United States, you can still be denied housing or lose jobs over your sexuality and gender identity. And, Bull said, the culture war is being fought through the courts and state legislation. Groups on the religious right now say this is a freedom of speech and freedom of religion issue for some people of faith. The argument is that when cake-makers or photographers comply with nondiscrimination laws by serving LGBTQ people at their businesses, they are going against their faith.

"The Supreme Court hasn't really determined a position on this notion yet," Bull said.

If the court decides there are exemptions to civil rights law, Bull said, "it puts gay people in an awkward position of not knowing where or what kind of businesses they can use and [at] which ones they're not welcome. ... Right now is a pivotal time for LGBTQ rights."

The battles between the two movements, Bull said, is ongoing, but the lines of that culture war have been redrawn.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the uprising at a New York bar that gave rise to the movement for LGBTQ civil rights. But the success of that movement brought a powerful backlash from the modern religious right. NPR's Leila Fadel reports that for decades, the two sides have been counteractivists in a culture war that continues today.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The police raid and the protests surrounding the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969 were a seminal moment.

LILLIAN FADERMAN: Movements need icons. Movements need martyrs. Movements need heroes.

FADEL: That's Lillian Faderman, an LGBTQ historian. Stonewall, she says, is that icon.

FADERMAN: It's not, though, the riots themselves that account for the progress that we've made in recent years. It's what followed the riots. Groups began to organize to demand rights. Eventually, allies were on our side and helped us fight for the battle for rights.

FADEL: She points to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the first pride parades in several cities a year later to commemorate the uprising. And at first, Faderman says, the religious right ignored these events as blips. But then...

FADERMAN: As the gay movement succeeded and as various cities began to pass gay rights ordinances, that woke the religious right up to begin to push back. The real beginning, I think, of the culture wars in earnest was in 1977.

FADEL: That's when Anita Bryant, a pop singer and pageant queen best known at the time as the face of Florida orange juice...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANITA BRYANT: (Singing) Orange juice with natural vitamin C from the Florida sunshine tree.

FADEL: ...Began a public campaign to fight an ordinance that passed in Miami-Dade County to protect gay, lesbian and bisexual people from housing and employment discrimination. It captured the national media's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Extremely religious, she says she feels that God has single her out to spearhead a crusade to prevent admitted homosexuals from teaching her children.

FADEL: Two to one, voters chose to repeal the ordinance.

EMILY JOHNSON: Her celebrity - because of her efforts on a national scale, this became a national conversation in a way that it hadn't necessarily been.

FADEL: That's Emily Johnson, a historian at Ball State University in Indiana. Her book, "This Is Our Message," profiles female leaders in the modern religious right. Bryant, she says, became an icon in the fight against gay, lesbian and bisexual rights, traveling across the country to oppose similar ordinances.

JOHNSON: As we trace this history from the '70s to the present, we see very much not two separate movements that are each building their own agendas but two movements that are building their agendas and their talking points in relation to and in opposition to one another.

FADEL: From the anti-discrimination ordinances, the fight for marriage equality to today's battles over transgender people's rights to use the bathroom of their choice or continue to serve in the military, each movement is strategizing to counter the other. They are perfect enemies, wrote journalist Chris Bull. That's the title of the book he co-authored on the religious right and the LGBTQ movement. And in the last couple decades...

CHRIS BULL: What we saw was really an amazing string of victories by the LGBTQ rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Don't Ask Don't Tell is history. That was the military's policy governing gays and lesbians.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry no matter where they are.

FADEL: Today a majority of Americans favor LGBTQ rights, including many people of faith. It's no longer socially acceptable or politically effective, Bull says, to demonize queer people. But...

BULL: There's still many states where you can be fired for being gay. And, perhaps, most significantly, trans people are really being targeted by the Trump administration for discrimination.

FADEL: Groups on the religious right now say this is a freedom of speech and freedom of religion issue, from cake makers to photographers who don't want to serve LGBTQ people and comply with nondiscrimination laws. The battles between the two sides, Bull says, continue, but the lines of that culture war have been redrawn.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

KELLY: And we'll have more coverage of the Stonewall riots as the anniversary approaches next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF BURGER/INK'S "ELVISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.