[A shorter version of this post was published by The Ultimate History Project on November 4, 2012]
This coming Election Day may well prove to be a watershed moment in the long civil rights struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in the United States. At the top of the ticket, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hold starkly different positions regarding marriage equality, non-discrimination legislation, and other issues important to LGBT Americans and their allies. In Wisconsin, Representative Tammy Baldwin is in a neck-and-neck race for the open U.S. Senate seat; if elected, Baldwin would become the first openly LGBT Senator in the nation’s history. Additionally, eight Congressional races feature major-party LGBT candidates, many of whom have the opportunity to become pioneers in one way or another.
Of all the critical elections on November 6, none will reflect the growing support for LGBT rights as dramatically as the four statewide ballot measures on same-sex marriage equality. In Maryland and Washington, voters will decide whether to uphold the civil marriage laws passed earlier this year by the state legislatures and signed by the respective governors. Maine voters face the choice of whether to reverse their 2009 decision, when 53% of the electorate overturned the civil marriage law similarly passed and signed by the governor there. In Minnesota, a referendum asks voters whether the state constitution should define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Current polls suggest that marriage equality supporters may well win a historic victory – or several – on Election Day, with narrow but consistent leads in polling in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, while the forecast in Minnesota is far too close to guess. Even a single win will be a first victory at the ballot box for marriage equality advocates, after 32 consecutive electoral defeats on this issue dating back to 1996.
One can point to numerous reasons that this November may be different, from the Maine campaign’s three-year grassroots campaign to talk with as many state residents as possible to President Obama voicing his “evolving” support for marriage equality to the very public endorsement by numerous Washington-based corporations (including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and Nordstrom) for passing Referendum 74. More generally, national poll after poll shows soaring support for marriage equality, especially though not exclusively among younger Americans. Taking the long historical view, however, whether marriage equality advocates win this Election Day or down the road, they will owe a surprising debt to those very family values advocates who have organized in opposition to LGBT rights for more than thirty years.
Over the last four decades, conservatives – both everyday activists working from the grassroots up and elected officials working from the top down – have successfully placed family values at the heart of American politics. They promised, Robert Self writes, “to protect idealized families from moral harm,” whether from LGBT activists, feminists, or others who sought equal rights or radical reform of political and cultural norms. In so doing, conservative leaders build a triumphant movement that fused resistance to government interference in the private market with resistance to government interference in the private family sphere.
To understand the history of LGBT rights at the ballot box, it is critical to understand these underpinnings of family values politics. This history dates back to the early 1970s, when Boulder, Colorado residents voted overwhelmingly to recall the city’s 1974 ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation – and soon after, to recall both the mayor and the city councilor who introduced the legislation. The first major battle, though, of the culture wars over LGBT rights and family values came three years later in Miami, where in 1977, Anita Bryant successfully led the “Save Our Children” campaign to overturn that city’s gay rights law.
Bryant, a singer, evangelical Christian, former Miss Oklahoma, and spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, became the public face of the first campaign against LGBT rights to draw national attention. She declared that the antidiscrimination ordinance passed in Dade County “condones immorality and discriminated against my children’s rights to grow up in a healthy, decent community.” In so doing, she reframed the rights question as a matter of protecting her children and families across Florida, rather than the issue of ending the discrimination faced by an often-unpopular minority.
Save Our Children’s television ads played a key role in swaying local opinion, showing images of leather-clad men and drag queens from Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco as a warning of what would happen to Miami if the law was allowed to stand. Bryant further vowed to defend innocent children, arguing that “the recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality.” The poorly organized local LGBT community took for granted that a campaign to guarantee the civil and human rights of a minority group would naturally find sympathy from Miami-Dade’s generally liberal-leaning voters. They had no answer for how Save Our Children defined LGBT people as a threat to the family. Bryant’s crusade won a landslide victory, as nearly 70% of Dade County voters cast their ballots for repealing the ordinance. One of the leaders of the campaign to protect the gay rights law bemoaned that “a referendum is a lousy way to extend or expand the rights of a minority.”
Among those in attendance at Save Our Children’s election night victory rally in June 1977 was California State Senator John Briggs. The Republican legislator from Fullerton, Orange County (a center of grassroots conservative activism) had his eyes set on winning California’s next gubernatorial election. He decided that Bryant’s success could be replicated in the nation’s most populous state, and in turn, victory in that campaign would propel him to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.
Briggs dedicated himself to getting a ban on LGBT teachers in California classrooms placed before the state’s voters. It took most of the next year, but Briggs managed to get the 500,000 signatures required to qualify for a ballot initiative.
Briggs knew that the rights-based argument had not only failed in south Florida but in St. Paul, Minnesota, in Wichita, Kansas, and in Eugene, Oregon as well. Voters in all three cities repealed local gay rights laws in spring, and Briggs presumed Save Our Children’s warnings of threats to the family would prove equally convincing in California. In one pamphlet, Briggs linked Proposition 6 to his other major campaign, an initiative to expand the use of the death penalty: “You can act right now to help protect your family from vicious killers and defend your children from homosexual teachers.” His Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Deviants Threaten the American Family,” the state senator described homosexuality as “a direct assault on our most significant social institution, the family … a public harm” that is “antilife as well as antifamily.”
California’s LGBT communities, with a longer and more sophisticated political history of organizing than Miami’s, were determined not to repeat the mistakes that helped Save Our Children win its landslide victory. Community members went door to door throughout the state to share their stories and give a face to the issue at stake – not only in relatively safe cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, but deep into the conservative rural Central Valley. Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s openly gay city supervisor, went head-to-head with Briggs in a series of debates.
One critical factor in turning California popular opinion against Proposition 6 was that LGBT activists reframed the issue at stake as a matter of privacy. Briggs penned an amendment so broadly that teachers could lose their jobs for supporting LGBT rights, or for being presumed to be gay, regardless of their own sexual orientation.
Campaign leaders recognized how this would offend the sensibilities of those conservatives opposed to government interference in everyday life. Their political masterstroke came through lobbying Ronald Reagan with this very point. After a meeting with campaign leaders, the former California governor issued a strong statement opposing Prop 6. Reagan warned of “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy” that the Briggs Initiative would bring, especially if students tried to get their teachers fired by accusing them of homosexuality. The privacy argument, in combination with the statewide grassroots organizing, led 58% of voters to reject the proposal to ban LGBT teachers from California classrooms.
Today’s marriage equality movement clearly builds on the language and tactics of 1960s activists calling for equal rights. But just as clearly, the movement draws upon the language of family values free from government interference seen in Dade County in 1977. From organizational names (e.g.,Minnesotans United for All Families) to YouTube videos showing four generations of a Maine family sitting around a table, the grandparents wanting to see their lesbian granddaughter and her partner “get married legally – we want for her what we have, a marriage,” the language of protecting families has shifted.
Looking back, the success of Anita Bryant and Save Our Children unequivocally helped enshrine family values at the center of modern conservativism, and eventually at the heart of American politics for decades to come. In turn, however, those victories paved the way for increasing numbers of heterosexual Americans to see the challenges facing LGBT families and to support legal protection for those families through marriage equality. Without a doubt, the most unexpected legacy of the rise of family values politics in the 1970s is the success of today’s movement for marriage equality and protecting LGBT families.
 This slate includes two Democratic incumbents, Jared Polis (CO-2) and David Cicilline (RI-1), as well as six challengers. The LGBT challengers and candidates for open seats include Richard Tisei (MA-6), who is taking on scandal-plagued John Tierney, and if elected would become the first non-incumbent LGBT Republican elected to Congress; Mark Takano (CA-41), who may become the first out LGBT person of color in Congress; and Kyrsten Simena (AZ-9), the first openly bisexual candidate for Congress. The other LGBT Congressional candidates include Mark Pocan (WI-2), campaigning for the seat that Rep. Baldwin is vacating in heavily Democratic Madison, and Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) and Nicole LeFavour (ID-2), Democratic challengers running against incumbents in Republican-leaning districts.
 An October 2012 report from the Third Way think tank challenges the conventional wisdom that young Americans are the primary supporters of marriage equality. Analyzing data from 98 reports from 2004 through 2011, based on more than 128,000 responses, the report authors find that support for equal marriage rights has risen 16 percentage points since 2004. 75% of said growth comes from Americans changing their mind, a group that includes people “in every political, religious, and age group.” Whether subsequent data will support this broad-based evolution in popular opinion remains to be seen. Gregory B. Lewis and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, “The Big Shift: Changing Views on Marriage for Gay Couples,” October 2012, http://www.thirdway.org/subjects/11/publications/600, accessed October 26, 2012.
 See Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York: Hill & Wang, 2012), especially pp. 3-14. Quote from p. 4.
 Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (New York: Simon & Schuster), p. 297.
 Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 303.
 Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 311.
 Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 381.
 John V. Briggs, “Deviants Threaten the American Family,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1977, p. H5.
 Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 387. The privacy argument also proved critical in Seattle, where voters similarly rejected a measure to repeal the city’s new gay rights law by an even larger margin.
 “Yes on 1: Mainers United for Marriage, “The Gardner Family of Machias,” http://www.mainersunited.org/videos/entry/yes-on-1-mainers-united-for-marriage-the-gardner-family-of-machias/. It should be noted that opponents of same-sex marriage also continue to invoke the threat to “traditional” families and the specter of government interference. For example, see Preserve Marriage Washington’s television ad, “Schools Could Teach, warning that local schools would teach same-sex marriage to elementary school children, as allegedly occurred in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage equality. http://youtu.be/-yWmSwLk9MA