It was a very different world for gay people in 1974. Marriage equality was an unheard of idea. Five years earlier, the New York City police conducted another raid of a gay bar — this time at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — resulting in demonstrations that started the modern gay rights movement.
But there was one member of Congress from New York who saw a promising future. Rep. Bella Abzug, then a two-term member of the U.S. House, introduced along with Rep. Ed Koch on May 14, 1974 legislation known as the Equality Act. It would have amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation as a protected class for the purposes of employment, housing and public accommodations.
Abzug died in 1998 after a battle with breast cancer, but one person who remembers the introduction of the bill is Liz Abzug, her lesbian daughter.
Mother and daughter share histories of working as civil rights lawyers and fighting on behalf of LGBT advocacy. Liz Abzug, now 60, has founded an organization to honor the memory of her late mother: the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute.
Speaking with the Washington Blade via phone from her home in New York City, Abzug recalled being a law student at that time and the heated reaction that the introduction of the Equality Act caused — both within Congress and the gay community itself.
“Nobody could believe it,” Abzug said. “My mother at the time was prescient, and the liberal groups understood, but still couldn’t believe that she did it. And that’s why it was so incredible. She was prescient in everything she did politically.”
Just five years prior, the Stonewall riots had taken place in New York City. Liz Abzug acknowledged those demonstrations played a role, but said the bill’s introduction was more about “her understanding as a leader, a civil rights leader and someone who broke barriers.”
“You got to get the sense of the person,” Liz Abzug said. “She had enormous courage and enormous intelligence and was radical as they come, and understood the process as a lawyer and as a leader.”
The decision to introduce the Equality Act, Liz Abzug said, was based on her mother’s belief that the civil rights movement was a movement for all people.
In the 1940s, Bella Abzug took on the case of William McGee, a black man who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the alleged rape of Willette Hawkins. According to Liz Abzug, McGee was falsely accused because he was having a long-term affair with Hawkins. Bella Abzug took the case to the Supreme Court, but lost, leading to Hawkins’ execution.
Upon becoming a member of the U.S. House in 1971, Bella Abzug became a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment for women and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Adding protections for gay people within civil rights law, Liz Abzug said, was a natural extension of those efforts.
“If you’re going to fight, and you’re going to have a Civil Rights Act that’s going to protect African Americans, and you’re going to fight for women’s rights, and you’re going to fight to ban sex discrimination after you fight to ban race discrimination or religious discrimination, this would be totally the next natural legal, political sort of gut level extension of that,” Liz Abzug said. “What’s different between that and fighting for the rights of gay people and their civil rights?”
Bella Abzug had long been a favorite within the gay community, her daughter recalled. Upon campaigning for Congress, she ventured into not just New York City’s gay bars but its gay bathhouses, offering campaign buttons to patrons, which they would affix to their towels.
“She’s trying with her aides to give them buttons because it was big at that time; you’d give a campaign button no matter where you went,” Liz Abzug recalled. “And they’re all trying to grab her. They’re so thrilled that she came in there.”
A definitive moment of her relationship with the LGBT community, Liz Abzug said, took place sometime in the 1970s as Baptist singer Anita Bryant worked to repeal non-discrimination laws protecting gay people in various cities. A crowd of gay men came in candlelight to Bella Abzug’s home in New York City, calling out to the lawmaker to speak with them.
“She thought she was dreaming this, and my father kept saying, ‘You’re dreaming. Just go back to sleep. It’s the middle of the night,’” Liz Abzug said. “She went out with her nightgown and showed up with 400 guys mostly with candlelight asking her to speak to them. And that was the kind of period that we’re talking about.”
Even though her mother enjoyed a rapport with the gay community, Liz Abzug said her own coming out in the 1970s “was hard” for her to hear.
“In a way, there was conflict in her: personal vs. political,” Liz Abzug said. “But then she got it. She had come to overcome her understanding, the Jewish part of cultural understanding of our being.”
In 1976, Abzug left the House to run for U.S. Senate from New York, which ended her political career. She lost narrowly to a more conservative Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who went on to win the general election and serve four terms. Abzug lost the primary by 9,000 votes out of a million cast. Although she went on to run for mayor of New York City, she never again held elective office.
Despite the loss, Liz Abzug said her mother never regretted abandoning her seat in the U.S. House to pursue higher office. It would have broken a glass ceiling because, at the time, no woman was serving in the U.S. Senate.
“She never regretted it, but everybody else did,” Abzug said. “They told her she was crazy.”
In the four decades that passed since the introduction of the Equality Act, different iterations of the measure have taken its place in Congress. The measure, now known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, is focused only on employment — having been stripped of protections related to housing and public accommodations.
Although it now includes explicit protections for transgender people, the bill also has a broader exemption allowing for religious organizations to discriminate against LGBT workers and forbids claims based on disparate impact.
That lessening of protections riled Liz Abzug. On the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1999, she took part in a news conference calling for more expansive legislation, she said. And a few years ago,she said she had a conversation about its protections with former Rep. Barney Frank, who was then chief sponsor of the bill.
After she asked whether the bill would be strong enough in terms of the breadth of its coverage, Frank’s reply was “I think so,” which Liz Abzug said was so nebulous and unreassuring that it was “somewhat shocking, to tell you the truth.”
“For full equal rights for the LGBT community, you need to have the strongest civil rights act you can have,” Liz Abzug said. “So, ENDA should have covered every base that the original civil rights act did, and Title VII.”
Abzug also had stern words for LGBT rights groups, saying part of the reason no federal law protects gay people from employment discrimination is that they’ve been so marriage-focused in their efforts.
“They put this as a priority on their fight because everybody’s been focused on marriage,” Abzug said. “That’s the other thing, they’re the people that should be pressing for this, and getting young gays and lesbians to understand this.”
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Liz Abzug has considerable experience in activism and had her own political aspirations. In the 1990s, she ran against Tom Duane for his seat in the New York State Senate and in 2008 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Even though ENDA hasn’t been passed by Congress, the LGBT community has enjoyed a slew of victories within a short amount of time, including “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, the advancement of marriage equality and a Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act.
But Liz Abzug said if her mother were alive today, she would be less than impressed because employment protections aren’t law. Even though he’s since retired, she envisioned her mother taking Frank aside to tell him, “This isn’t enough.”
“To change the way a system is going takes a long time, but 40 years later, here we are,” Abzug said. “It’s unbelievable to me that we can’t get this done.”