In the 1980s, even liberal Silicon Valley cities voted against LGBTQ+ rights.
In the mid-1970s, being openly gay often meant facing prejudices in facets of everyday life, from housing to employment. A handful of cities and counties began granting protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, in the absence of any state or federal laws. Regrettably, passage of those ordinances in places like Miami, Florida in Dade County created a backlash, leading to the rise of the Moral Majority, a conservative religious political organization, and setbacks for the emerging gay rights movement.
This is exactly what happened in Santa Clara County in June 1980, when Measure A, a countywide ordinance, and San Jose’s Measure B each failed by a three to one margin. The defeats sent a chill through the local LGBTQ+ community: Voters overwhelmingly said that LGBTQ+ residents should not have any legal protections whatsoever.
The only bright spot was Palo Alto, whose residents nearly passed the initiative—49% to 51%, compared to 30% to 70% elsewhere. Activists concluded a better approach would be to try to pass ordinances in liberal cities, thus turning the tide against the religious right.
A local group called the Palo Alto Coalition for Equal Rights (PACER) began the process in 1980 to get the city council to enact anti-discrimination policies. First, they brought it before the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission, which recommended the city council place it on the November 3, 1981 ballot. The city council agreed in a 6-3 vote.
According to a July 17, 1981 Stanford Daily article, the dissenting votes came from councilmembers Gary Fazzino, Fred Eyerly, and Anne Witherspoon.
Eyerly and Witherspoon claimed there was no compelling need for such a law in Palo Alto, the Daily later reported in October, citing that “only 100 gay individuals reported experiences of discrimination in Palo Alto, a city of 56,000 with an employment base of 100,000.”
“I think it’s a lot more widespread than the 100 who reported it,” said Rhio Hiersch, a spokesperson at the time for Stanford’s Gay People’s Union. “You have to consider gay people who don’t want to go public what the fact that they’ve had trouble because they’re gay. There are a lot of people who are undoubtedly not reporting their problems.”
The Daily also reported “Witherspoon pointed out that considerable hardship could be experienced by anyone accused of discrimination and sued for damages,” as well as shredded the proposal was “very nebulous.”
“A person could be trapped by the terms of the ordinance into an unintentional and unknowing discrimination,” she said. “Each judgement on discrimination would be very subjective. It is a very bad law that allows a person to be taken to court for discrimination when he did not intend to discriminate.”
This is what is known as a “legislative initiative.” Unlike a “voter initiative,” which gathers signatures to successfully put an ordinance on the ballot, legislative initiatives are put before the voters by the governing body. According to San Jose State University Professor Terry Christensen, this usually happens when the members don’t want to approve something outright but are willing to move the legislation along.
As gay leaders found with Measures A and B, opponents were able to organize people to attend public hearings and then to collect signatures to prevent legislation from becoming law, months before the actual campaign even began. The LGBTQ+ community had been out maneuvered and out organized.
The 1981 strategy didn’t allow opponents to take this approach, and by going straight to the ballot as opposed to a vote of adoption, Palo Alto’s measure uniquely and successfully avoided the pitfalls of previous attempts.
The November election coincided with the race for Palo Alto City Council, where 5 of 9 seats were up for election. One candidate was Doug Winslow, a gay man who served on the Palo Alto Human Rights Commission during the hearings of the proposed ordinance. At a candidates’ night before he urged support for the ordinance.
As quoted in the Lambda News, he said, in part, “I feel very strongly about this ordinance; I’m in favor of it, as well as all human rights concerns of the local government. If we don’t have legislation on the state and federal level, I think it is the responsibility of the community to protect people in something as simple as housing and employment.” He then went on to encourage other candidates to state where they stood. “I think it’s essential that we get honest answers out of people and not be too scared of controversy.”
Having helped organize the Measures A and B campaigns the previous year, many of the local bar and business owners made donations or held fundraisers. The Santa Clara Valley for Human Rights contributed $2,500 from leftover funds from the Yes on A and B campaign, and the Watergarden, a gay bathhouse in San Jose, made a substantial donation of $3,000.
Watergarden General Manager Sal Accardi said, “Palo Alto is part of our county, and the outcome of the campaign is going to affect all of us. If Palo Alto loses, the defeat will have national repercussions, especially since Palo Alto is one of the most liberal cities in the country. If Palo Alto wins, it will show that the New Right backlash is already being turned back, as the public awakes to the danger of the Moral Majority and similar groups.”
All totaled, the “Yes on B” campaign raised $20,000. Surprisingly, the opponents raised very little; The politically and religiously conservative political action committee FAMPAC and Palo Altoans Against Measure B only spent a reported $1,000.
Despite all best efforts, victory was not meant to be. On election night, Measure B went down to defeat as had so many other gay rights ordinances across the country: 58% to 42%.
Gay activists partially blame the results on low voter turnout: 36% in Nov. 1981, compared to 67% in Nov. 1980. Palo Alto held its elections in off-years, without presidential or gubernatorial contests on the ballot to drive people to the polls. Pundits speculate that the defeat was due, in part, to the low turnout of liberal-leaning voters.
Doug Winslow also lost. As a strong supporter of Measure B, he believed the turnout of more conservative voters was the explanation. Of the five contested city council seats, four were won by incumbents. To add insult to injury, the open seat was won by an opponent of the non-discrimination ordinance.
The loss in Palo Alto ended attempts to win passage of anti-discrimination ordinances at the local level. It was not yet to be, nor did it prove as a way to defeat the Moral Majority. Attention turned to states like California, where laws were passed by state legislatures but vetoed by governors. Finally in 1992, a bill was signed into law in California, thereby negating the need for municipalities to enact such protections.
The November 1981 Palo Alto election has been largely forgotten but its legacy remains: Even in liberal university cities, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is never guaranteed. Given the increasing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments that are emerging across the country, this is an important political lesson to remember: No political demographic is immune to an anti-gay backlash.