WASHINGTON, D.C. — During a press conference March 26 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first-ever meeting between the White House and gay and lesbian leaders, those who attended that historic gathering talked about that milestone and the progress since made — or lack thereof.
History in the making: the first ever meeting between gay and lesbian activists and the White House in 1977.
“Thirty years ago, I received a phone call from Jean O’Leary and Bruce Voeller, the co-executive directors of the National Gay [and Lesbian] Task Force and what they said was, ‘It is time. It is time that a government we helped choose and a government we help pay no longer discriminate against us. We want to talk — and we want to talk in the White House,’ and I agreed that certainly the Constitution demanded that everyone be represented under those laws, and that would include gays and lesbians,” recounted Midge Costanza, then-assistant to President Jimmy Carter.
Costanza was among the nine speakers at the press conference. Others were Marilyn Haft, then-deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, several gay and lesbian leaders who attended the 1977 meeting — Pokey Anderson, Charlotte Bunch, Frank Kameny, Elaine Noble, Bishop Troy Perry and George Raya — and Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman.
The White House meeting in 1977 was initiated by Task Force leadership. Costanza met with Task Force co-executive directors Jean O’Leary and Bruce Voeller (now both deceased) and other leaders for a briefing on critical policy issues affecting the community — many of which remain relevant, including gays in the military, immigration, religious discrimination against gay and lesbian people, and prison abuse.
While the meeting was a critical milestone for gay and lesbian people in terms of access to the country’s most powerful leadership, the criticism of the Carter White House that followed was intense.
“Anita Bryant back then wanted my resignation, as did many of the right-wing groups. More mail was generated from that meeting than from any other meeting during Jimmy Carter’s administration,” said Costanza.
But the sense that something vitally important was unfolding was profound.
“There was a point made during the meeting that Franklin Kameny had marched outside the White House 12 years earlier. Here we were in 1977 and Frank was inside the gates now. Midge welcomed him, saying, ‘Frank, I’m really glad to meet you finally. I’m just sorry that it has taken so long to come into a house that belongs to you as much as it belongs to anyone in this country.’ Elaine Noble said that some of us had been marching outside the White House gates so long, we wondered if there was an inside,” recalled Pokey Anderson.
Said Bishop Troy Perry of Metropolitan Community Church: “What I remember most about the White House meeting is that we were actually inside the White House while Anita Bryant and right-wing politicians were fighting to take away our rights. We were actually meeting with the staff of the president of the United States. I remember thinking, ‘Thank God we’re inside while that group is outside.’”
“Now we’re outside, and they own the White House,” countered Elaine Noble, who, like other speaker, acknowledged the progress made — but also the grim reality of the current administration and the fact that much remains to be done.
“Thirty years ago on this day, the doors of the White House were opened to us. Today, in spite of exponentially positive changes in public support for our equal rights, those doors are slammed tight, as they have been for nearly 20 out of the last 30 years. Thirty years ago no federal laws protected gay people. Today, sadly, the same is true,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.