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Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America's Debate on Homosexuality (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 606-609 | 10.1353/jsh.2010.0075

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Between the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the outbreak of AIDS in the early 1980s, the gay movement in the United States achieved a number of successes. More than thirty municipalities and over a dozen large corporations banned discrimination against gay people; the first openly gay politicians were elected to public office; and the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders. But it was a resounding defeat of gay rights that marked the movement's coming-of-age.

In 1977, singer and born-again Christian Anita Bryant successfully led a campaign in Dade County, Florida, to repeal an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of "sexual preference." Fixating on a single context - classrooms - Bryant's organization, called "Save Our Children," framed the law as an endorsement of immorality and a license for homosexual "recruitment." Dade County's gay activists, divided between the sexual-liberationist Miami Victory Campaign and the liberal Coalition for Human Rights, proved no match for Save Our Children, whose rhetoric capitalized on the public's deep antipathy to homosexuality and its profound ignorance of actual homosexuals.

Other than Bryant's own memoir, rushed to publication months after her victory, Fred Fejes' Gay Rights and Moral Panic (2008) is the first book devoted primarily to this pivotal moment in American history. Let us hope that it is not the last.

Fejes offers a detailed chronicle of the course and local context of Bryant's 1977 "crusade" (her word) and useful summaries of six gay-rights referenda the following year. Only the most patient readers, however, will follow Fejes long enough to appreciate his scrupulous review of relevant press coverage and his impressive array of interviews with key players on both sides. Quite simply, the book fails to weave its abundance of valuable information into a readable narrative. The prose is colorless, sometimes confusing, and often downright careless. A total absence of illustrations - despite the author's focus on media representations, and the easy availability of telltale photographs, cartoons, and campaign paraphernalia - only exacerbates the book's failure to echo any of the excitement generated by the events it describes.

Worse, the factual accuracy and thorough research that characterize Fejes' account of the Miami referendum do not extend to his treatment of larger historical problems. Certain errors are patent, like his suggestion that World War II "resulted in the first major effort to define and examine homosexuality as a problem." More often, though, the book stumbles on questions of cause and effect. A tendency to see the media as always generating rather than reifying popular conceptions leads Fejes to dubious conclusions; he insists, for example, that the media was the major "source" of Americans' "common sense knowledge" about homosexuality, and he specifically discounts religion's influence simply because most denominations were not especially vocal on the subject prior to 1977. Later, Fejes identifies in the late 1970s a shift in "cultural norms and public opinion," a turn from increasing "social acceptance" of gay people to "a form of quasi-stigmatized tolerance." Here and throughout the book, Fejes wrongly interprets backlash to betoken a reversal of popular sentiment. In fact, it was not until 1977 that most Americans even confronted homosexuality as a political issue; campaigns like Save Our Children's did not change people's minds about gay rights so much as they allowed existing hostility to express itself.

Yet, as Fejes' subtitle rightly proclaims, the Miami referendum did inaugurate a new era in American politics. Preceding by one year Jerry Falwell's establishment of the Moral Majority, Bryant's crusade was a signal event in the emergence of grassroots religious conservatism, which had been quietly gaining strength throughout the previous decade. Miami proved that homosexuality was one issue by which conservatives could reach moderates and even liberals. As Fejes notes, Florida's rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977 - for fear, in part, of constitutionally mandated same-sex marriage - was as powerful a lesson in homophobia's political potential as Bryant's two-to-one victory in Miami. But Fejes passes over conservatives' persistent use of referenda since 1977 to thwart gay legislative gains, just as he ignores their prior use of that...

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