Measure B in Palo Alto

palo alto 1981 headline

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.

Measures A & B: Local Anti-Discrimination Attempts

awaiting measure a and b results

Measures A and B. Anita Bryant. Rev. Marvin Rickard. The Los Gatos Christian Church.

Saying these names today is likely met with blank stares. But in 1980, they were at the center of a battle for local policies protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public services.

In 1979, two years after Harvey Milk helped lead a statewide defeat of anti-gay Proposition 6, there was a push for anti-discrimination ordinances throughout Silicon Valley. Johnie Staggs, a pioneering lesbian activist in San Jose, recalled that the local gay community was “in a kind of euphoria [about Prop. 6]. We knew we were right and we wanted to live our lives openly. Unfortunately, many of us were kind of pie in the sky.” Passing an anti-discrimination ordinance in the first place, however, would be much more difficult.

Initially, it was envisioned that the City of San Jose would pass an anti-discrimination ordinance – but the mayoral race in 1979 bogged down any chance for the city council to make an issue of it. Subsequently, the push for anti-discrimination moved to the Board of Supervisors. David Steward, who was the only openly-gay member of the Human Rights Commission, was able to gather support (albeit lukewarm) from the commission to ask the Board of Supervisors to pass the ordinance; At the same time, Jim McEntee, Director of Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations, was able to bring the ordinance directly to the Board of Supervisors.

After receiving the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, the Board of Supervisors oversaw six public hearings and more than 25 hours of testimony. The opposition was entrenched; Rev. Marvin Rickard of the Los Gatos Christian Church fervently argued against the ordinance and was able to bury the public hearings with hundreds of protesting fundamentalists.

By a 4 to 1 vote (with supervisors Diridon, McCorquodale, Steinberg and Wilson supporting and Supervisor Cortese opposed) the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors would finally pass an ordinance that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The opposition quickly responded with promises of retaliation on the ballot. With far less fanfare, the San Jose City Council voted 6 to 1 for a similar city ordinance.

Opponents wasted no time gathering signatures to stop the ordinances from taking effect. Two measures were placed on the June 1980 ballot, Measure A for the county and Measure B for the city of San Jose. A “yes” vote meant you favored the protections; a “no” vote signified you wanted them repealed.

The campaign was ugly, with opponents receiving a great deal of support from out of the area, with money and organizers (even campaign manager) coming straight from Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” group in Florida. In the wake of the Moral Majority, there was a clear

“Vote ‘no’ for the sake of our children. Don’t let it spread,” read their literature.

For proponents of Measures A and B, support was hard to find. Beleaguered organizers, lack of local interest, and vague platform significantly harmed the “Yes on A & B” campaign. Despite San Francisco’s sizeable gay political community, there was little to no support given, which was something campaign manager Johnie Staggs attributed to “a kind of arrogance because San Francisco is recognized, justifiably or not, as the gay Mecca.”

nikki johnie campaign toast
Rosalie “Nikki” Nichols (center left) and Johnie Staggs (center right) toast at a Yes on A & B event

The election was a blowout, with 70 percent of San Jose voters and 65 percent of Santa Clara County voters rejecting the ordinances. The message was clear: gays were not wanted.

The repercussions were immediate. The nascent LGBTQ rights movement vanished. Gay activism came to a dead stop. Supervisor Rod Diridon, who ran for state senate in the April 1980 special election, lost to a Republican. The Religious Right also successfully supported two San Jose City Council candidates that year. Moreover, many local political leaders backed away from gay rights issues, although not the supervisors who voted for the gay rights bill.

long struggle booklet
The Long Struggle for LGBTQ Equality in Santa Clara County (PDF)

Four Former County Supervisors Recall the Turbulent Times of Measures A and B

mccorquodale yeager wilson christensen diridon cortese panel
Dan McCorquodale, Ken Yeager, Susie Wilson, Terry Christensen, Rod Diridon, Dominic Cortese reunited for a panel discussion about Measures A and B on CreaTV’s Valley Politics show

Supervisor Susanne Wilson began with a recollection of her earlier experience with the religious right. In her previous position as a San Jose City Councilmember, conservative church members turned out in force to insist that the Council rescind a vote they had taken in March 1978, which provided recognition for a planned Gay Pride Week later that year.

She recalled the Council Chambers being packed with opponents of the Council’s action and that the crowds also filled to overflowing the downstairs cafeteria where the meeting was being broadcast. In the end, she and Councilmember Jim Self were the only ones who remained in support and refused to rescind their previous votes for the proclamation.

Supervisor Wilson also talked about the fallout from this vote she encountered when she walked door to door in her campaign that year for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. In the end, she was victorious in winning the Board seat, but she remembered experiencing lots of doors slammed in her face, something she noted had never happened to her when campaigning before her vote on gay pride.

Supervisor Dan McCorquodale commented that discrimination against gays was not a new issue for him. He recounted the anger and helplessness he felt when, as a young Marine, one of his friends was discharged from the Corps for having been seen leaving what was thought to be a gay bar.

There was no due process and no avenue for recourse. He said that he considered his 1979 vote on the anti-discrimination ordinance as one of his opportunities to speak out for equality and justice.

Supervisor Rod Diridon recalled, at the time of the gay antidiscrimination ordinance vote, he already was planning a campaign for a State Senate seat that would be decided in an April 1980 special election. He said that the Senate district electorate had become more conservative under Governor Ronald Reagan and with the growth of the Moral servative under Governor Ronald Reagan and with the growth of the Moral Majority, and he was aware a “yes” vote on this issue would impact his chance for success. However, despite the trepidation this caused, he felt he had to vote his conscience.

Supervisor Dominic Cortese said he considered the vote on the ordinance premature and that it concerned a moral issue to be discussed by the church and not legislated by government. “In many ways, I still feel that way.” He added his thought that “my church has not done enough to open that door.” He reminisced, “I was in a learning process. The whole country was in a learning process.” He concluded by saying, “I commend my colleagues for moving forward in a very bold manner. We had a very proactive Board.”

In response to a question concerning what the hearings were like, Wilson said she remembers, despite her previous experiences, still being amazed by the extent of the anger and hatred demonstrated by the ordinance opponents. Diridon said that the calls and letters received by the Board offices numbered at least 10 to 1 in opposition to the ordinance, but he didn’t believe the opponents reflected the entirecommunity. He commented that anti-gay sentiment was being preached from the pulpits of the conservation churches, as reflected, in part, by the number of calls against the ordinance the Board offices received on Monday mornings.

When asked if they saw the referendum coming, Wilson said “no”; Diridon said “yes”; Cortese said he felt the whole controversy was likely to set back the movement. McCorquodale said he could tell the proponents were in trouble from the very beginning but that rescinding the vote wasn’t an option as it would have been much “too disheartening for too many people.”

All described the campaign as “brutal.”

Diridon recalled leaving church with his wife and children on one occasion during that time and finding that every car in the church lot had a flyer on the windshield condemning his vote and stating “Diridon is a false person” and “actually he is gay.” He subsequently found out this distribution of flyers that Sunday morning involved virtually every car in all the church parking lots in his district.

Diridon went on to say that his support for the ordinance was a dominant factor in his losing the Senate election in April 1980. He clearly remembered being told by a state Democratic Party leader that “If he voted for this issue, he was committing suicide.” After his vote, he said some state Democratic leaders lost interest in his campaign. However, he concluded, “If you don’t vote your conscience, you’re not worth a damn.”

Wilson said that this issue didn’t seem to hurt her in her 1982 re-election campaign. Diridon, too, was reelected to the Board in 1982. Cortese won election to a seat in the State Assembly in the 1980 election, the same year as the Measure A and B vote. McCorquodale ran unopposed that year for another term on the Board of Supervisors.

However, in McCorquodale’s 1982 State Senate campaign, his opponent, incumbent Senator Dan O’Keefe, tried to make an issue of the gay rights vote in Stanislaus County, the more conservative part of the district. McCorquodale commented that, while he received negative reactions from certain individuals, the issue never seemed to gain traction.

When interviewer Terry Christensen asked if the supervisors ever regretted their vote, all said “no.” Cortese added that he had been consistent with his votes in support of LGBT issues over his 16 years in the Assembly. Diridon said that it was emancipating to vote his conscience despite the consequences. He expressed regret that the ordinance supporters hadn’t been better organized, though, because he thought the Measures A and B votes could have been successful.

Christensen asked if the supervisors had any advice to advocates of unpopular causes. Diridon responded, “Get organized early.” He went on to say that the Democratic Party, organized labor, the Council of Churches, and the Mercury News all supported the ordinances and, if the supporters had been organized, they could have won.

McCorquodale recommended that advocates research their issues carefully and also study and understand their oppositions’ issues in order to formulate responses. In addition, he suggested they make sure they have enough volunteers to go door to door and take the issue to the public.

Wilson said when you feel something deeply, you must stand up and fight for it. Cortese added that he always recommends following the golden rule and treating people with respect. Further, he said it is important to analyze the issues, make considered decisions, and stick with them.

McCorquodale said he wanted to take the opportunity to recognize the contributions of then-Human Relations Commissioner David Steward, the first openly gay commissioner, who secured a unanimous vote from the Commission to send the ordinance to the Board. He called Steward “the spark plug.”

Diridon and Cortese both added that the role of then-Human Relations Director Jim McEntee shouldn’t be overlooked. Diridon noted that McEntee never hesitated in his support for the ordinance, and Cortese recalled that “Jim McEntee gave of himself unconditionally.”

When asked how the supervisors thought the County was functioning now, Wilson said, “very well” and concluded with, “They are taking care of people.” McCorquodale made special note of the County’s fine hospital and park system. Cortese added to his positive comments about the current Board that he was extremely proud of his son, former Board President Dave Cortese, and that “Dave was his legacy.” Diridon expressed that he perceived that the dynamics of the current Board were similar to the Board at the times of Measures A and B, and that they were “taking up progressive issues” and “doing a wonderful job.”