On March 7, 1972, the East Lansing, Michigan, city council approved by a vote of 4–to-1 an act declaring the city must seek to “employ the best applicant for each vacancy on the basis of his qualifications for the job and without regard to race, color, creed, national origin, sex or homosexuality.” It was the first gay rights legislation enacted in the United States.
That milestone act came about through the convergence of three significant factors: the involvement of student activist groups from the city’s major community, Michigan State University; the lowering of the national voting age from 21 to 18, energizing a new generation of citizens; and the subsequent election to the city council of two new members, Democrats George Colburn and George Griffiths, who were swept into office in November 1971.
“The early ‘70s was a sea change of things that happened, especially in East Lansing,” Griffiths said. “Soon before I was elected, the city got rid of its policy that only whites could own homes in East Lansing. Then the issue came up about gays and lesbians, and I was happy to introduce [the personnel rule].”
Said Colburn, “Being the first to make it happen was not a driving force. I felt we were being progressive at the time, and representing a majority viewpoint in our community, but I had no idea it was breakthrough legislation.”
However historic, the action was but a small step on the road to gay rights; the legislation, after all, only covered employment practices with municipal workers. Yet four months later, in July 1972, the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan – home to University of Michigan — would take East Lansing’s measure one step further, prohibiting discrimination against gays not only in employment, but housing and public accommodations as well – becoming the first community-wide gay rights legislation in the nation.
Ann Arbor’s act was spurred by the election to the city council in 1972 of Jerry DeGrieck and Nancy Wechsler, who had run on the Human Rights Party ticket. In 1973, both DeGrieck and Wechsler would come out while still serving on the council, making them — and perhaps not San Francisco’s Harvey Milk — the first “out” politicians in the US.
The year 1972 was a watershed year in the history of gay rights in America, the beginning of the unshackling of legislation and public opinion that had suppressed men and women for centuries. It was a time of action and awakening on a number of social fronts.
In 1972, the first meeting of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, founded by political activist Jim Foster, took place in San Francisco, on Valentine’s Day, becoming the country’s first gay Democratic political club. Later that year, Foster would become the first gay delegate to address a major party presidential nominating convention, the Democratic National Convention, held at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beach, Florida on July 10–13. Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern would endorse gay rights, the first US presidential candidate in history to do so; party stalwarts would denounce him.
That same year, the American Psychiatric Association voted 13-0 to remove homosexuality from its DSM-II (the official list of psychiatric disorders). The APA also passed a resolution urging an end to all private and public discrimination against gays. Conservatives would accuse the APA of giving in to “political correctness” for this decision, arguing that homosexuality should continue to be treated as a disorder.
Following Michigan’s lead, New York City Mayor John Lindsay that year issued an anti-bias order protecting city employees from discrimination based on homosexuality. Meanwhile, in San Francisco supervisors banned discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation for both the city and those doing business with the city.
In 1972, State legislatures would begin to amend century-old restrictive laws. Hawaii would become the first state to decriminalize consensual homosexual sex acts between adults, while Delaware became the sixth state in the nation to repeal its “sodomy” law – Illinois, the first in the country to do so, had repealed its law in 1961. That same year, in 1972, the National Coalition of Gay Organizations called for the repeal of all legislative provisions that restrict the sex of persons entering into a marriage unit and extension of legal benefits of marriage to all persons who cohabit regardless of sex.
In 1972, religious organizations had begun to publicly open their arms to the gay community. The ”Ithaca Statement on Bisexuality,” by the Quaker Committee of Friends on Bisexuality, a seminal document, was published in The Advocate (itself the first gay newspaper, begun in 1967). William Johnson was ordained by the United Church of Christ, becoming the first openly gay person to be ordained by a major Christian denomination. And the first gay and lesbian synagogue in America opened in Los Angeles, California. Begun as the “Metropolitan Community Temple,” in 1973 the fledgling synagogue would change its name to Beth Chayim Chadashim, Hebrew for “House of New Life.”
Academia recognized the importance of gay issues to the character and history of America when the nation’s first gay studies program began at Sacramento State University in California. And popular culture examined the gay experience in such productions as “That Certain Summer,” aired on ABC in 1972, the first television screenplay to sensitively explore homosexuality through the story of an American housewife (Hope Lange) losing her husband (Hal Holbrook) to a young artist (Martin Sheen). At the same time, the off-Broadway play, Nightride, would stir controversy with its more strident depiction of a black-white homosexual marriage.
Despite the strides being made, setbacks as well occurred in 1972. That year, the US Supreme Court heard the case of Baker v. Nelson, which challenged the constitutionality of a state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. However, the Supreme Court established in the case that such a law is constitutional and does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, Due Process Clause and right to privacy under the 14th Amendment. The same year, the US Supreme Court would uphold the right to refuse employment on the grounds of homosexuality by refusing to review the case of a man turned down for a job by the University of Minnesota library because he was openly gay.
Much work remained after 1972 – and still does today.