“LGBT Americans for”: Presidential Elections and the Movement for Gay Rights, 1980-2020.

Emma Day is a DPhil candidate in American History at the University of Oxford and this year’s History Graduate Scholar at the Rothermere American Institute. Her dissertation is a history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, with a particular focus on women’s healthcare activism, from 1980 to the present. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmmaRoseDay

On March 1st, 2020, Pete Buttigieg, former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ended his campaign to become the 46th president of the United States. A white man who attended a string of the world’s most prestigious universities, who, if elected, would have become the youngest president in US history, Buttigieg was an interesting candidate for simultaneously inhabiting a number of remarkable and unremarkable qualities in a presidential hopeful. Perhaps most notably, coming out at the age of thirty-three in 2015, just five years ago, he was also the first, openly gay person to seriously contend for the highest US office. While some within the LGBTQ+ community have debated the significance of Buttigieg’s campaign for the ongoing movement for gay equality, his success in getting as far as he did, not least in becoming the first gay candidate to win a presidential nominating contest with his narrow victory in Iowa, nonetheless represented how far the gay rights movement has come politically in the past forty years.

Election ephemera from the Philip and Rosamund Davies U.S. Elections Campaigns Archive at the VHL sheds light on the trajectory of gay rights issues from the margins to the centre of mainstream politics during this period. Much of this transition began in the early 1980s with the presidential campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson, the second African American to run for president after Shirley Chisholm’s campaign a decade earlier. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1941, Jackson, a civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and politician announced his campaign for president of the United States in November 1983.[i] Pledging to create a “Rainbow Coalition” of various minority groups, Jackson used his platform to bring members of the LGBTQ+ community into the Democratic party in unprecedented ways as part of this coalition, as a 1984 leaflet in the archive demonstrates.[ii] His Rainbow Coalition speech, delivered at the Democratic convention in San Francisco in July 1984, was the first to mention gay and lesbian Americans at a national convention.[iii] After losing the nomination to Walter Mondale (D-MN), Jackson ran for president again in 1988, and gave his first speech after announcing his second presidential bid at the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987.[iv]

A leaflet showing Jesse Jackson, on yellow paper. There are rainbow bands behind the image.

Leaflet: Jesse Jackson for President, 1984, MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

Left-wing political organisations with strong LGBTQ+ factions such as the Workers World Party in turn supported Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign as “part of the growing mass movement against racism and for basic democratic rights,” as a Workers World newspaper in the archive shows.[v] Following four years under President Ronald Reagan and facing the prospect of another four, groups such as the Workers World Party saw Jackson as an alternative to the imperialism, racism, and capitalism that they argued had characterised Reagan’s first term in office. Specifically, and, similarly to Jackson, they demanded “money for jobs—not wars abroad.”[vi] Moreover, as the devastation and human loss wrought by the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s onwards was met with a slow federal response, such groups also fought for money to address the escalating health crisis instead of funding military intervention in Central America, Lebanon, South Africa and Grenada, as memos in the newspaper from 1984 show.[vii] Items in the U.S. Elections Campaigns Archive therefore speak to the intersectional and reciprocal coalition-building that took place between those fighting against capitalism, racism, sexism, imperialism, homophobia and for social justice in this decade.

A newspaper clipping from Workers World, showing support for Gay and Lesbian Rights,

Newspaper: Workers World, 26(45), recto. 1 Nov. MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

The growing salience of gay rights issues to subsequent presidential races are further seen in a number of election pins from the 2000s. Badges from 2012 advocated “LGBT for Obama Biden” and “Obama for Marriage Equality.”[viii] While factions of the gay rights movement have long debated how much weight to place on the fight for marriage equality, as well as the fight to serve openly in the military, for the broader struggle for LGBTQ+ equality and rights, both issues continued to frame the political debate into the twenty-first century. Obama gained the support of LGBTQ+ voters in part through his revoking of the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans form serving unless they remained closeted in 2010, and, in 2015, during his second term in office, the Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges. While these legislative developments show how far attitudes towards gay rights have evolved since the early 1980s, a majority of states still do not have explicit laws protecting LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination, similar to federal laws that exist on race, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability on their books. The Equality Act, a federal law that would prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, was passed in the House of Representatives in May 2019. It will require the next US president to sign it into law if it passes in the Senate.

Two pin badges. One on the left says "LGBT for Obama-Biden 2012" with a rainbow background. The second "Obama for marriage equality" shows Obama on a blue background.

Barack Obama Campaign, 2012, Buttons: “Obama-Biden: LGBT for 2012” and “Obama for marriage equality” MM Amer. s. 33 (not-catalogued).

The stakes of the 2020 presidential election for members of the LGBTQ+ community are therefore particularly high. President Donald Trump has already said that he opposes the Equality Act in its current form.[ix] As such, Democratic candidates seeking to beat Trump in November can learn from the importance of weaving together broad, intersectional platforms for social justice—as Jackson, in alliance with groups such as the Workers World Party, did in 1984—that are then acted upon and translated into policy when in office.

To request access to items from the Philip and Rosamund Davies U.S. Elections Campaigns Archive, email vhl@bodleian.ox.ac.uk


[i] Leaflet: Jesse Jackson for President, 1984, MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

[ii] Leaflet: Jesse Jackson Headquarters, Vote for Jesse Jackson: The Most Progressive Democrat, 1984; Leaflet: Women’s Press Project, “Jackson for President,” 1984, 162-163, MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

[iii] Alex Bollinger, “How Jesse Jackson helped bring gay rights to the Democratic mainstream,” LGBTQ Nation, February 28, 2018, accessed 5 March 2020, https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2018/02/jesse-jackson-helped-mainstream-gay-rights-democratic-party/

[iv] Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 168.

[v] Newspaper: Workers World, 26(45), recto. 1 Nov. MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

[vi] Newspaper: Workers World, 26(45), verso. 1 Nov. MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

[vii] Memo: Workers World, “Workers World Presidential Candidates Support Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day, Demand Immediate Government Action on Lesbian and Gay Rights,” June 18, 1984, 30; Workers World, “Statement by Larry Holmes and Gloria La Riva in Front of Federal Elections Commission,” January 27, 1984, 1-2, MSS. Amer. s. 33 / 4 / 5

[viii] Barack Obama Campaign, 2012, Buttons: “Obama-Biden: LGBT for 2012” and “Obama for marriage equality” MM Amer. s. 33 (not-catalogued).

[ix] Chris Johnson, “The House vote on the Equality Act is the easy part. What’s next?” Washington Blade, 15 May 2019, accessed 4 March 2020, https://www.washingtonblade.com/2019/05/15/the-house-vote-on-the-equality-act-is-the-easy-part-whats-next/

New term news round-up

Welcome back to those returning after the summer, and a warm welcome too to new students!  Our term time hours start today (Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm; Saturday, 10am-2pm), and we look forward to seeing you all in the library soon.

Here’s a round-up of various bits of news from over the summer that you may have missed:

New electronic resources
We have been able to acquire (or contribute to the acquisition of) four major new electronic resources for US studies this summer, as follows:

All are now available through SOLO/OxLIP+ and listed in our online guide. Click on the links above for more information.

Improvements to SOLO: clustering, display of locations
Various changes were implemented to SOLO over the summer, as follows:

Click on the links above to learn more. 

History Faculty Library move
The move of the History Faculty Library to the Radcliffe Camera and Gladstone Link took place as planned over the summer vacation. The old HFL on the corner of Catte St and Holywell St has now closed. All the details, including information on where and how to access HFL books now, can be found on the HFL website and blog. HFL staff are also offering tours throughout 0th and 1st weeks for returning tutors and students.

Less directly relevant to VHL readers, the Philosophy and Theology Faculties Library has also moved this summer, and is now open in its new location in the Radcliffe Humanities Building on Woodstock Road.

Annual ILL price rise
Charges for inter-library loans increased by 25p per request on 1st August.

RAI Elections 2012 blog
If you are avidly following the US elections, you may be interested to know that the Rothermere American Institute has launched a blog in partnership with Politics in Spires, designed to bring together contributions from scholars from a range of different fields to discuss the upcoming elections. The blog can be read on the RAI website and will run until mid-November.

Events in RAI garden, Thursday 10th and Saturday 12th May

Mansfield College will be using the RAI’s garden as part of an arts festival on two occasions this week, and it’s possible that this may cause a small amount of noise disruption in the library. The garden will be in use in the afternoons of Thursday 10th May between 3.30pm and 5.30pm, and Saturday 12th May after 12 noon.

RAI Seminar – Inside the Workings of the American Historical Review

VHL readers may be interested in the following Special Seminar, to be held on Wednesday 22 February (16.00-17.30) at the Rothermere American Institute.

Inside the Workings of the American Historical Review

The American Historical Review (AHR) is often regarded as the leading history journal of the Anglophone world. Certainly it has the highest ‘impact factor’ among history journals, according to the Journal Citation Reports from Thomson Reuters, which measure how often articles are peer-cited. As the official publication of the American Historical Association, since 1895 it has been the journal of record for the history profession in the United States – the only journal that brings together scholarship from every major field of historical study. The most recent issue, for example, includes articles on piracy in the Indian Ocean, colonial governance in three frontiers of the British Empire, the understanding of ‘freedom’ in nineteenth-century Japan, and US imperialism, and an AHR Conversation on the circulation of information across time and space.

Former editors Konstantin Dierks and Sarah Knott (RAI Senior Visiting Research Fellows) will lead an informal discussion about the inner workings of the AHR, from the journal’s ambitions to its article review process to its book review practices. All are welcome.

American Literature exhibition: Marilynne Robinson and the American Family Home

To accompany the Esmond Harmsworth Annual Lecture, which will be given by Marilynne Robinson at the Rothermere American Institute on Monday 23rd May, we have set up a small exhibition in the library. The exhibition places Robinson’s work in the context of the American literary and artistic tradition, and includes works by John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Erskine Caldwell, Edward Hopper and Dorothea Lange, as well as Robinson’s major novels.

The exhibition will remain in place until the end of next week (27th May). Thanks to Dr. Sally Bayley for her help in selecting material and writing the text.

Annual Esmond Harmsworth Lecture: C.K. Williams

The 2010 Esmond Harmsworth Letter in American Arts and Letters will be given at the RAI next week by the major American poet C.K. Williams.  The VHL has bought a volume of Williams’s collected poems, as well as his two most recent works, Repair (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and The Singing.  These books are all currently on display on the ground floor in the library, just outside the group study room, for anyone interested in taking a look before the lecture.

For more information on the lecture, visit the RAI website. Please note that places at the lecture are limited and must be reserved in advance.

Posted in RAI

Common room unavailable Tuesday 27th-Wednesday 28th April

The downstairs common room area will be temporarily unavailable throughout Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th April, due to a major conference taking place in the RAI.   Apologies to all of our readers who like to use the common room for refreshments or to eat lunch!   There is a water fountain in the library (on the first floor, near the toilets) which is available as an alternative to the water machine downstairs.

Posted in RAI

US Elections Campaigns Archive: Exhibition and Event

Starting today, there is an exhibition in the library of selected material from the Philip & Rosamund Davies US Election Campaigns Archive. This archive has been donated to the library over many years by Professor Philip Davies, and includes all sorts of ephemera and memorabilia from American election campaigns of all levels. Material on display now includes buttons from the 19th century to the present, leaflets, bumper stickers, commemorative plates, and some more unusal items like a Reagan cigar, a book of matches, rain bonnets, a cap, mug, Obama doll, a 1976 edition of Playboy and a 1952 bar of soap!

The exhibition has been set up to accompany the forthcoming visit of Professor Davies to the RAI. He will be speaking about the archive, and what campaign material can tell us about elections in the US and the wider political climate, this Thursday at 4.30pm. All welcome to come along to hear about this fascinating collection.

Special seminars in US politics at the RAI

(posted on behalf of the RAI)

The Rothermere American Institute is holding three special seminars in US politics during seventh week:

Senator Russ Feingold: The Politics of Healthcare Reform
Tuesday 24th November, 11.30-12.30

Professor Philip Davies (The Eccles Centre, British Library), with materials from the Philip & Rosamund Davies US Elections Archive of campaign memorabilia
Thursday 26th November, 16.30-17.15

Professor Byron Shafer (University of Wisconsin, Madison): The American Public Mind
Thursday 26th November, 17.15-19.00

Professor Shafer will also be speaking at the American History Research Seminar on Wednesday 25th November, 16.00-18.00, on The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Post-War American South.

All welcome.