Queer Responses to the American Religious Right
Indy Sobol | University of Oxford
In the early 1980s, LGBTQ newspapers offered their readers a dizzying range of content. Advertisements advised where to find everything from a city’s clubbing scene to a women’s retreat, an LGBTQ-friendly couples counsellor to a urologist, a sex shop to a carpet cleaner. For a standard price, a suggested donation, or “Free to Lesbians,” readers could gain access to publications that catered to a range of queer audiences. While the most obvious purpose of such newspapers was to connect members of the LGBTQ community, they were by no means entirely inward-facing endeavours. Many sought to inform as well as entertain, reporting on national and local current events that might be of interest to their audiences. In reporting on queer news, these newspapers also paid close attention to threats to the LGBTQ community. While newspaper contributors extensively covered right-wing homophobia, news and opinion pieces varied extensively as to how the LGBTQ community could effectively counter these attacks and advocate for queer rights.
The early 1980s offered plenty of material: the LGBTQ community was at once more visible than ever and facing newly concerted efforts to limit its rising political prominence. In 1981, for instance, the Washington D.C. city council decriminalised same-sex sexual activity; the move was then overturned by Congress. That same year, Congress also considered but did not pass the Family Protection Act, which would have restricted non-discrimination from including sexual orientation and denied federal funds to “any organization which presents male or female homosexuality as an acceptable alternative life style.”*
The leading proponent of such anti-gay moves, and the antagonist in the pages of LGBTQ magazines, was the emerging Religious Right, a political coalition primarily consisting of socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics. In the 1970s, LGBTQ newspapers had held up Anita Bryant as the face of homophobia in politics. A singer turned anti-gay activist, Bryant spearheaded the “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977 that successfully overturned a non-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida. The LGBTQ community had responded to Bryant’s campaign with a combination of traditional organising and creative counter-protests, including, famously, a boycott of oranges, since Bryant served as the face of the Florida Citrus Commission.
By the early 1980s, however, the growing anti-gay coalition included actors with even more political and cultural influence than Bryant. In 1979, prominent Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell entered the political arena with the “Moral Majority,” attempting to mobilise religious conservatives and shape Republican policy priorities. LGBTQ newspapers followed these developments with great interest, tracking the influence of figures like Falwell and providing their audiences with summaries of national and local developments. This coverage was frequently derisive, sometimes referring to homophobic religious figures as “zealots” or “fundy types.” At other times, however, articles provided striking insight into the workings of the Religious Right and how it used a range of grassroots organising and new technologies to capture Americans’ attention.
Sociologist and anthropologist Amy L. Stone has highlighted the historiographical disagreement “about whether or not the Religious Right has pushed the LGBTQ movement into more assimilationist or conservative tactics, identities, and strategies.” Within the newspapers of the early 1980s, an internal debate over this exact issue unfolded. Articles and letters to the editor asked how the LGBTQ community could counteract the growing power of the Religious Right, debating strategies for protests and news coverage as well as broader questions about how LGBTQ people should speak and act in public. Writers argued over whether responding to figures like Falwell simply gave them more publicity, if protests should be peaceful, and even why the Religious Right focused so much of its energy on demonising the queer community.
The different tactics for protesting the Religious Right illustrate the diverse range of approaches within the movement. Some of the counter-protests covered in the newspapers involved absurdity, parody, and irreverence. Beginning in 1979, for instance, the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence”—men in drag and dressed as nuns—appeared throughout the Castro District, a gay neighbourhood in San Francisco, in response to Christian evangelists who had started to preach in the area. This form of resistance defiantly doubled down on the flamboyance and norm-defying elements of the LGBTQ community decried by the Religious Right. Other forms of counterprotest were less flamboyant but similarly creative. Before Falwell could arrive in Hawaii in 1981, for instance, a local LGBTQ group registered under the name “Moral Majority of Hawaii” to frustrate Falwell’s attempts to form a group under the same name. A group in Australia attempted the same strategy two years later.
Other advertisements and columns in the newspapers organised readers into more orthodox forms of activism. One 1981 issue of feminist newspaper Big Mama Rag, for instance, offered a calendar of events that included a protest of Falwell. Local groups also advertised their protests against the Religious Right along with organisers’ contact information. Journalists highlighted the political power LGBTQ activists could wield through traditional channels by using the press and lobbying groups to put pressure on politicians. In a 1982 article describing how the LGBTQ community could combat Reagan’s nomination of conservative minister B. Sam Hart to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, for instance, a Philadelphia Gay News columnist traced how reporters from LGBTQ newspapers brought national attention to Hart’s homophobia by drawing upon their connections to mainstream news outlets and LGBTQ lobbying groups. This form of conventional political power does not inherently clash with the tactics of groups like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, but it did represent activism that attempted to co-opt traditional politics rather than acting from the outside.
The LGBTQ community needed to be united, but united around what? The different emphases of critiques of the Religious Right point to larger divisions within the LGBTQ community. Lesbian newspapers certainly decried Falwell’s homophobia, but they also drew more attention to his support for traditional gender roles and his vehement opposition to feminism. In 1981, Big Mama Rag published several articles about Falwell’s attempts to censor or ban Our Bodies, Ourselves, a women’s health book written by a feminist collective. Falwell appeared in the pages of Big Mama Rag as a threat to gender equality in addition to a homophobic religious zealot.
Many journalists did try to describe the Religious Right as a threat to a coalition of marginalised people or even to Americans as a whole. The Religious Right was portrayed as an ally of capitalism. For instance, one columnist explained that supporters of Falwell’s Moral Majority desired a return to “the Eisenhower Era, when blacks and women weren’t crowding the job market.”** Journalists expressed a hope that straight Americans would realise that the Religious Right would not stop at the oppression of sexual minorities. But the question of how to make the rest of the country understand this danger remained. Columnists wondered if writing about people like Falwell just amplified their message. They asked if peaceful protests simply made themselves easier targets. They questioned what kinds of LGBTQ people mainstream Americans would care about protecting. They worried that the LGBTQ community had turned its attention away from activism at the exact moment when it faced the most powerful threat.
Sandwiched between these articles and bright advertisements lay hints at oncoming tragedy. Articles reported on unusual numbers of Kaposi’s sarcoma cases and wondered at the high prevalence within the gay community. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, although not yet named, had already begun. It would pose an existential threat to the LGBTQ community, showcasing governmental apathy and bringing not just devastation by disease but also a new series of blistering attacks from the Religious Right. Falwell and other conservative religious leaders responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis by doubling down on their homophobia. Proclaiming the disease was a punishment from God, Falwell argued that the United States and the world were suffering because they had not done enough to disavow LGBTQ people.
The already high stakes of the debate over resistance mounted still further. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, articles and letters to the editor worried that each internal division or each improper way to pursue activism could spell disaster for the entire community. A debate about lesbian childrearing practices might simply offer the Religious Right more ammunition to take away lesbians’ children. Writing articles about sex could play into stereotypes of LGBTQ people as lascivious and perverted. Being LGBTQ in the ‘wrong’ way could be dangerous for everyone, some opinion writers explained, yet others reminded readers that the movement would surely fail without solidarity.
Did writers really care about the perceptions of the Religious Right, or were they using the spectre of their political enemy to advocate for their own internal agendas? The answer seems to be a bit of both. Readers viewed the Religious Right as a cultural opponent as well as a serious threat to LGBTQ policy priorities like antidiscrimination legislation, and newspapers accordingly spent a great deal of space on the issue. Yet, determining how to organise against the Religious Right involved both practical and ideological considerations. In 1980, one columnist remarked that divisions within the Religious Right over ideological purity versus policy outcomes echoed conversations within the LGBTQ community itself. Marriage equality and trans rights would later recall these debates over movement-building. While incomplete, these early conversations shed light on the ways in which LGBTQ people actively shaped their movement to respond to both the outside world and to themselves.
*"H.R.311 - 97th Congress (1981-1982): Family Protection Act." Congress.gov, Library of Congress, 10 March 1981, http://www.congress.gov/.
**Robert Patrick, “Primal Scream: The Nifty Fifties,” Philadelphia Gay News 6, no. 11 (March - April 1982), 14.
● J. Bell, Beyond the Politics of the Closet: Gay Rights and the American State Since the 1970s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
● M. Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
● T. Fetner, How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
● G. Chauncey, Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate over Gay Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
● A. Stone, “The Impact of Anti-Gay Politics on the LGBTQ Movement,” Sociology Compass 10, no. 6 (2016): 459-467.
Indy Sobol is an MPhil candidate in History based at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the intersection of religion and politics in the post-war United States. She is also interested in queer history and the Religious Left.