“RACIST, SEXIST, ANTI-GAY” : How the Religious Right helped defeat Iowa’s ERA

“RACIST, SEXIST, ANTI-GAY” : How the Religious Right helped defeat Iowa’s ERA

by Heather Rhoads

Arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly and long-time ERA proponent Ellie Smeal came head-to-head in Iowa last year, where “shocking” commercials of gay men embracing marked the shifting landscape in the century-old struggle for women’s equality.

“Homophobia defeated us,” concedes Harriet Trudell of the Feminist Majority Foundation, one of the several women’s organizations campaigning for the passage of the state’s Equal Rights Amendment. “People were terrorized by the whole litany that the Robertson Schlafly forces said would happen when ‘those degenerates’ took over.”

As the first public ERA referendum in the country in six years, Iowa’s vote rejecting women’s inclusion in the state constitution was a grim reminder of how easily the Right uses anti-gay sentiiments to block women’s liberation – and a signal that the feminist movement must confront homophobia both within its organizations and in the larger society if any real gains for women are to be made.

When the Rev. Pat Robertson sent out his now infamous fundraising appeal for the Stop ERA Committee last summer declaring that feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians,” the Iowa Women’s Equality Campaign hurriedly faxed copies of the letter to the national press, feeling certain that publicizing what they considered “absurd” accusations would help their cause.

But like the anti-gay fight in Colorado, provoking homophobic hysteria proved to be a winning strategy for the Religious Right. Although polls initially showed Iowa’s equal rights clause with more than 80 percent approval, by election day talk of gay marriages, adoption rights, and even “hiring quotas” under the ERA succeeded in catching the spotlight and stirring up enough fear to kill the referendum 52 to 48 percent, a difference of a mere 45,000 votes.

Same-Sex Marriages Under ERA? While the Stop ERA camps declared victory (and even sang “Ding dong the wicked witch is dead” at its Des Moines headquarters election night), feminist organizers pointed out that their share of votes increased substantially from the state’s last voter ballot on the issue-a 44 percent approval rate in 1980 – in some rural countries gaining more than eight percentage points. The pro-ERA forces did amazingly well considering Iowa is a major Christian Coalition stronghold- with a base built on Robertson’s primary win here in his 1988 Presidential bid. “We won handily in most of the major cities,” notes Women’s Equality Campaign organizer Cynthia Terrell. “Polls indicated that the majority of people voted against it simply out of uncertainty, not necessarily out of a belief in the rabid agenda of the Eagle Forum or Pat Robertson.”

Terrell asserts that the equality campaign tactic of presenting Iowans with personal stories of discrimination was quite successful. “Voters seem to have really responded to the material on the wage gap, the fact that a [male] high school drop-out makes more money on average than a female college graduate,” she says. “That kind of thing if we had more time and money we could have put out there more in the media and door-to-door canvasses.”

Still, the lesbian-baiting, along with charges that the ERA would “destroy the family” and lead to gays kissing in the streets, contributed significantly to its defeat, as Iowa feminists were either unable or unwilling to address those arguments. Officially attempting to keep the debate focused on discrimination against women, ERA campaigners assured voters “those things wouldn’t happen” but avoided challenging the misrepresentations and stereotypes of lesbians and gays.

“I was working with older women, and a woman at Meals-on-Wheels told me her minister said if they supported the ERA, homosexuals would take over her church,” Trudell recalled. “I certainly told her that would not happen.”

Many campaigners, she said, considered the whole anti-gay sideshow a’ ‘problem area.” Promoting gay rights through the ERA was seen as risky, and at the time legally suspect, Terrell noted: “There was no legal precedence for any gay marriage being legitimized by ERA, so intellectually we couldn’t say ‘Yes, this is going to help gays and lesbians.’ That created the tension.”

But a recent ailing by Hawaii’s Supreme Court that the ban on gay marriages violates the state’s ERA could “change the whole landscape of the debate,” says Ronnie Podolefsky, coordinator of the Northeast Iowa National Organization of Women. The 3-1 decision calling marriage a’ ‘basic civil right” could have implications beyond Hawaii, since each state recognizes marriages performed in other states. “It won’t matter if a state has an ERA because lesbian and gay couples will be able to go to Hawaii to get married,” she notes.

More importantly, the decision finally shows that ERA-backers cannot continue to deny the connection, much like how the 1986 Connecticut case upholding state funds for abortion legally linked equal rights for women to reproductive rights. While the women’s movement has faced homophobic attacks for decades in its struggles for everything from pay equity to ending sexual harassment and abuse, middle-of-the-road feminists have historically been reluctant to openly embrace lesbian and gay rights, and have even worked against having abortion and gay rights “lumped together.”

In fact, Iowa legislators wording the ERA amendment attempted to avoid the gay rights debate by referring to equality based on “gender” rather than “sex.” But Evan Wolfson, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund working on the Hawaii case, argues that an ERA should provide protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, since gender discrimination is one of the forms heterosexism often takes.

Podolefsky admits that the pro-ERA forces haven’t “tackled the issues” well enough. Feminists who are afraid of muddying up the waters and who think they don’t understand lesbian and gay realities have “tip-toed around” too much. “This same thing has been fought over and over again, and people knew that arguments were going to be used against it,” she points out. Adds Terrell: “We needed to have a more creative, positive response.”

Last year’s Colorado and Oregon campaigns against anti-gay ballot measures have come under similar criticisms. Colorado’s Equal Protection Only campaign decided not to respond to such inflammatory condemnations as gays being “promiscuous pedophiliacs” leading a “diseased lifestyle,” fearing the accusations would become the campaign’s focus. Oregon’s “No on 9” campaign worked to create an atmosphere where people who were strongly anti-gay could still vote against the measure by promoting the messages “no on discrimination,” and “it’s a danger to us all.” In $l million worth of media advertising, the campaign never used the words “lesbian” and “gay,” because polls showed they couldn’t win as a lesbian and gay issue.

“This gave the appearance that we had much to hide, that we were afraid to talk about real issues,” notes Suzanne Pharr, author of Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. “What you have to do is education: You have to change the hearts and minds of people so they understand that it’s about gay men and lesbians, and it’s about democracy, and it’s about civil rights for everyone, and it’s about attacks against affirmative action, and it’s also about attacks against reproductive choice.”

The Rising Right Iowa’s ERA defeat is a perfect example of how the Religious Right’s intensifying crusade against lesbians and gays is a strategy to advance their broader agenda-abolishing reproductive rights, ending affirmative action programs for people of color and women, maintaining Eurocentrism in academia and an “English-only” society, cutting funding for public education and libraries, censoring books and art, mandating prayer in schools and government, and teaching only abstinence and creationism.

The New Right has recast itself as the new oppressed minority; its leaders as revolutionaries seeking to recreate the world they imagine existed before feminism and the civil rights movement.

“While gays and lesbians represent a wedge for the Religious Right to penetrate the mainstream and to build their official entities and institutions, the point of that wedge is racism and sexism,” asserts Scot Nakagawa, organizer of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Fight the Right campaign.

When fundamentalists talk about upholding “traditional family values,” he says, “they’re talking about the battery of women in their homes, about incest, about child abuse. They’re attacking reproductive rights, public support for childcare programs, parental leave, and equity for women.”

The Religious Right now occupies a particularly good position to attack the gains of the women’s movement, the lesbian and gay movement, and the civil rights movement through its political ascendancy in important second- and third-tier governing levels throughout the country. Christian conservatives have won hundreds of seats on school boards, neighborhood advisory committees, city councils, and state legislatures, establishing key power bases state by state. Already, school systems from New York to California are throwing out multiculturalism, sexual development courses and evolution.

Even Republicans are feeling the Religious Right’s growing control within the party. In addition to taking strong anti-ERA and anti-gay positions last year – marking a shift from the party’s century of official silence on such issues – the GOP adopted the toughest antiabortion platform plank ever, even forbidding ending pregnancies due to incest or rape.

“These people are diehards,” warns Ann Stone of Republicans for Choice. “They are well-organized, and all they do is fight. We have to get people to understand that unless they want a church state, they’re going to have to get out there and fight back. Forget about gay rights and abortion rights in the kind of society they have in mind.”

The Religious Right’s resurging success vindicates the 1988 decision by the Christian Coalition – Pat Robertson’s $13 million, 725 chapter, 400,000 member political empire – to shift its drive from presidential to local elections. Joining forces with other right-wing “family” groups such as the Eagle Forum, the Traditional Values Coalition, and Citizens for Excellence in Education, the fundamentalists have created a religious junta to mount their escalating attacks on lesbians, gays and feminists – which Robertson calls the “Second Civil War.”

As much as a third of the U.S. public is evangelical Christian, and the far right is working hard to convert their “worship” into active political participation. In Iowa, it was simply a matter of the Religious Right turning out large numbers at precinct meetings to take control of the state’s Republican committee and platform, thereby making it the most reactionary in the country. This, in turn, greatly influenced the ERA, local races, and the Iowa state legislature-which is now stacked with Christian Coalition candidates.


Like the graphic fetus pictures of the
antiabortion movement, Religious Right
forces are now using increasingly
sophisticated and harmful propaganda in
their declared “holy war” against lesbians
and gays. “Shocking” footage from gay
pride parades – and scientific vilification
by “experts” – is featured in commercials
and videos appearing in every state facing
pro- or anti-gay legislation.

Religious Right leaders sent one particularly
virulent anti-gay video, “The Gay Agenda,”
which portrays homosexuals as
“disease-infested child molesters,” to every
member of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of
Staff within days of Clinton’s pledge to lift the
ban on gays in the military. That tape was
remarkably effective in Colorado and Oregon,
where anti-gay organizers mass distributed
more than 10,000 copies to local churches,
teachers, community activists, legislators,
neighborhood members.

Fundamentalists are now nationally broadcasting
“The Gay Agenda” and have delivered it to almost
every legislator in the country. Touring with the
tape town by town, leaders of “family values”
organizations have easily convinced millions of
Americans that “gay power is growing” – and it
must be stopped.

Realizing the desperate need for a reply tape,
media professionals in collaboration with national
social justice and civil rights advocacy groups formed
the Gay Lesbian Emergency Media Campaign in
January to counter the escalating fear and violence.

GLEMC’s newly released “Sacred Lives, Civil Truths”
is a one-hour educational tape exposing the
fundamentalists’ far-reaching political agenda and
libelous hate propaganda and offering positive images
of gay and lesbian youth, families, violence and
religious communities.

Activists “fighting the right” across the country have
now jumped on the video bandwagon, vying for cable
access and coordinating “town meetings” to view and
discuss the tapes. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation is distributing its 19-minute tape,
“The Fundamentalist Obsession,” to “show Middle
America the truth.” The tape rebuts the Religious Right’s
stereotypes and lies and is “clean enough for the local
PTA.” And a group of Hollywood producers have compiled
“Support and Defend: Homosexuals’ Role in the Military,”
available through the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Even MTV is doing its part, airing public service
announcements from the National Anti-Violence Campaign
on gay bashing and hate crimes. “As more copies of “The
Gay Agenda” and other hate propaganda are circulated, the
number of lies and distortions increase throughout the nation,”
notes GLEMC director Ann Northrup, a former CBS news
producer. “We must meet the Religious Right on the
media battleground.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s 120-page
“Fight the Right” Action Kit lists addresses for the above
organizations as well as many other resources.
Contact NGLTF, 1734 14th St., NW, Washington,
DC 20009, (202) 332-6483. – H.R.

The fundamentalists’ fire-power lies in their basic political organizing: Identifying supporters, registering them to vote, and even taking them to the polls, explains John Buchanan of People for the American Way. They typically organize through churches, leafleting Sunday parking lots and prompting ministers to back candidates from the pulpit. Detailed campaign “war maps” at Oregon Citizen’s Alliance attest to a vast network of genuine grassroots backing throughout the mostly-rural state. “It is the goal of the Christian Coalition to do that all over the country,” warns Buchanan.

With such a strategy, assisted no doubt by the $2-billion broadcasting ministry, the Religious Right will become “the most powerful political force in the nation by the end of this decade,” declares Robertson: “Our mission is to mobilize Christians one at a time until we once again are the head and not the tail.” Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay…

It is vital that feminists see the connection between women’s equality, reproductive freedom, and lesbian and gay rights, for the fundamentalists surely do. Like it or not, anti-woman forces will continue to portray feminists as “men-hating baby killers,” and ignoring the issue will not make it go away.

The dramatic similarities of the Stop ERA campaign and the Colorado and Oregon anti-gay initiatives – and the thinly-veiled racism underlying all the rhetoric-reveal just how the Religious Right ties die issues together.

In Iowa, Stop ERA leaflets declared that the “militant feminists” were “so rabid about passing die ERA” because they want to “teach homosexuality in sex education classes without any indication it is wrong;” “force landlords to rent to [lesbians and gays] homes or apartments;” and get “taxpayer funding of homosexual groups on college campuses .” Women already have equal rights, ERA foe Phyllis Schlafly declared, but the “femi-Nazis” want “special protections” and are “recruiting” women from their loving husbands.

In Colorado and Oregon – and now throughout the country – anti-gay brochures assert it is the “militant homosexuals” who want “special rights” to all these things, even though their “average income” is $55,000 and they ‘re ” 13 times more likely” than straights to be Frequent Fliers. Even worse, according to the Right’s most bigoted distortion, they are “targeting children.”

Many of these same scare tactics also led to the demise of the last ERA referendum. In 1986 in Vermont, the “ERA Gay-AIDS connection” slogan and dire warnings of homosexuals’ blood in blood banks played on the same fears as are now being used against gays in the military.

The Right has also banked on unfounded threats of veterans losing their benefits under both the ERA and lifting the gay military ban.

Such “holy war” tactics are particularly effective in channeling working-class discontent and raising funds for the far Right’s broader agenda by positioning feminists, lesbians and gay men as scapegoats for the “moral and financial deterioration” of society. The Religious Right’s current propaganda campaigns have clear parallels to Nazi stereotypes of Jews as rich, greedy merchants and harken to the 1950s’ lynch mobs and racial slurs against African-Americans also wanting “special rights.”

Pharr points out that the Right’s careful use of phrases evokes lingering racial fears in white Americans. “It’s not that people in this country are afraid that one, or 10, or 50 percent of us are going to take their jobs,” she explains. “Their terror is about people of color and affirmative action, and women and affirmative action, which also linked to that racist fear.”

Cloaked in soft-sell homophobia and anti-feminism for the 1990s are the deep roots of the Religious Right’s ideology. The fundamentalist “dominion theology” spearheading the current political attacks are based in the “Reconstructionist” movement, which seeks to “rebuild American government” with laws derived from a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Under the legal system envisioned by Reconstructionists, lesbians, gays and physicians who perform abortions would be subject to the death penalty. And even heterosexual “adulterers” – anyone who has sex outside of marriage – would be imprisoned.

On the national level, Christian Coalition leaders are already gearing up for 1994 mid-term elections, expecting even lower voter turnout and lighter press scrutiny to help their cause. Their candidates and organizers typically obscure their fundamentalist affiliations and avoid public appearances and debate, admitting that secrecy is their best weapon. So while the Religious Right claims its far ranging conservative agenda represents the true American “mainstream,” its leaders in fact realize that most Christians are unaware of the extent of their plans.

Anti-gay ballot measures have drawn open support from hard-line white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan has rallied to “get all the gays out of Colorado,” and Aryan Nation skinheads are urging “death for homosexuals” in many states. Although gay-bashing has skyrocketed, the more extremist rhetoric is hurting the Religious Right’s cause overall, notes Amy Divine of the Colorado Springs based Citizens’s Project. “Groups like Colorado for Family Values are working hard to separate themselves from that,” she says. “It’s the moderate tone that is so dangerous and winning.”

Progressive activists are realizing the potential of exposing the far Right’s stealth and true agenda. “They are like cockroaches,” said veteran prochoice Republican Eileen Padberg, who helped oust Christian Coalition school board members in California. “When you shine a light on them, they scurry back into the woodwork.”

Calling All Clinic Defenders! The women’s movement has much to learn and gain from the growing lesbian and gay liberation movement. Likewise, feminists survivors of the 1980s’ backlash and abortion wars can contribute important insights to die current struggle against the Religious Right.

Perhaps realizing defeat on die abortion front, Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry has begun shifting his focus primarily to attacking lesbians and gays. Antiabortion activists have long singled out “militant homosexual groups” such as ACT UP and Queer Nation as top enemies, and clinic defenders are no strangers to lesbian-baiting.

In his first solely anti-gay action, Terry mailed out an election-time appeal to Christians to vote against Clinton, citing scripture at length but mentioning nothing about abortion. Declaring Clinton the “Anti-Christ,” Terry recently joined forces with the Christian Coalition in a movement he calls “the Resistance” to hold public anti-gay demonstrations across the country.

Just as the Stop ERA campaign very effectively mobilized Iowa’s vast prolife network to distribute its anti-gay propaganda, on a national basis the Religious Right has already enlisted abortion foes in its full-force campaign against lesbians and gays in the military. With Terry coming into the anti-gay “movement,” many activists predict Operation Rescue-style protests against lesbians and gays. “The sense of moral outrage is growing, and that’s going to lead to more extreme and visible activity,” says Divine. In mid-March, key OR player Pat Mahoney and other Christian Defense Coalition leaders held a “war council” in Washington, DC to map out their “political terrorism” against lesbian and gay rights.

Reproductive rights activists familiar with the prolifers’ tactics, strategies and networks throughout the country can use this knowledge in countering the Right’s latest attack on lesbians and gays. During her work in Oregon, Pharr realized that our side, too, has an existing network in almost every state – the Battered Women’s Coalition. “What other group is represented in small towns or cities all over the country and has a 15year history of work against sexism, racism, and homophobia?”

One of the strongest organizing tactics to come out of the Oregon campaign, Pharr’s outreach to shelters across the state helped create “Human Dignity” organizations in 33 towns which are still working for justice and standing up against the Religious Right. Likewise, the women’s movement has been strengthened in many ways by the Iowa ERA defeat, as feminists are challenging their own homophobia and realizing more and more that open support for lesbians and gays will ultimately help the cause.

Pharr asserts that progressives of all stripes must now come together like never before. “We have to focus on building a movement, which means we have to stop responding crisis to crisis,” she says. “We have to stop putting out brush fires, seeing them as isolated incidents rather than being pieces of something connected with a vision, and learn how to use those crises, that kind of publicity, all over the country.”

The Colorado Citizen’s Project, Divine notes, a predominantly heterosexual, pro-gay group, often has an easier time doing grassroots education and reaching out to the mainstream than lesbian- and gay-identified groups. “People look at us and say ‘Why are you involved with this?’ That’s a natural platform, because it’s not vested interest based on personally being persecuted, but vested interest in civil rights.”

And heterosexuals are most needed in helping to create a positive climate for lesbians and gays to come out, so they can begin breaking down the lies and stereotypes. “I’ve certainly always supported the rights of gays and lesbians, but I never made it a part of my conversation at cocktail parties with a mission, as I did for the civil rights movement,” says Trudell. “Lesbians and gays must stand up for their rights, but heterosexuals must also stand and say ‘for shame.’ I really believe that, and I’m now practicing it. I came out of Iowa with that as an absolute mission. That’s what Schlafly did for me.”

Heather Rhoads has covered the Religious Right for The Progressive. She writes regularly about women’s issues and activism for the alternative press.