Bella Abzug: A Force for Change
By Jessica Chan
“What is at issue here is equal rights for all Americans…I have long been a proponent of measures which would ensure that these principles are guaranteed for all individuals…people of every nationality, ethnic group, race or religion. Likewise, sexual orientation should be no barrier to equal treatment under the law.” With these remarks, made on March 25, 1975 in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Bella Abzug made history as she introduced the Civil Rights Amendment of 1975, the first piece of federal legislation that guaranteed the LGBTQ community equal civil rights. It was a daring move, even one for the Representative of the West Side of Manhattan’s 19th District, a radical feminist who made her name fighting against the war in Vietnam. Famous for her floppy hats and brash relentlessness, “Battling Bella” served from 1970 to 1976, establishing herself as a staunch advocate for social and economic justice with uncompromising principles.
Abzug’s 1975 Civil Rights Amendment came a year after her Equality Act of 1974, the first federal bill that addressed discrimination based on sexuality. The Equality Act of 1974, co-sponsored by fellow New York Congressman Ed Koch, aimed to extend the protections guaranteed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the LGBTQ community and penalize hate crimes against homosexuality. The next year, Abzug and Koch, with twenty-two other co-sponsors, introduced the Civil Rights Amendment of 1975, which extended protections of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 to all areas covered by the Equality Act and prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in public education, public facilities, federal programs, housing, and financial services. Both bills failed to pass in the House, and Abzug herself acknowledged that she had not expected success. The educational and symbolic power of such a political statement could not be ignored, however. For the first time, twenty-four members of the U.S. Congress openly supported full equality for the LGBTQ community. By introducing federal legislation, Abzug started a national conversation about LGBTQ rights and began the process of disrupting the status quo, a process that is still ongoing today.
In introducing the nation’s very first gay rights legislation, Abzug was taking an enormous risk. The year before, a poll by the General Social Survey revealed that only 11% of Americans supported gay rights. In fact, it was only in December of 1973, three years after she took office, that the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off its list of mental disorders. Throughout much of the late 1900s, homosexuality was a stigmatized term, and the LGBTQ community remained a marginalized minority (the term LGBTQ did not come into common use until the 1990s). Even for politicians in liberal districts, coming out in support of gay rights was a huge political liability. Across the nation, Abzug was lambasted for her Civil Rights Amendment: the New York Times published several letters from appalled constituents decrying her Civil Rights Amendment and the Daily News put out hysterical pieces claiming the amendment would “encourage lesbianism”. Nevertheless, against a rising tide of public opinion, Abzug remained the only member of Congress who would introduce such legislation. Across the nation, there was a question of “if not Abzug, then who?”
Bella Abzug was certainly not a saint. Conservative in her private life, she was a Zionist and known for her aggressive temper. But she was also a fearless and unapologetic advocate for women’s rights and gay rights. By representing the LGBTQ community, she showed tremendous courage in placing her moral convictions above her political aspirations and public approval. She fought for the rights of all of her constituents, because she understood the fundamental equality of all human beings, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Unfreezing the status quo required bold visions and the courage to implement radical change. Bella Abzug possessed both, and her legacy of courage and determination continues to inspire generations of advocates and activists.
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