July 4, 2008
I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that….
If you want to call me a bigot, fine.”
–Jesse Helms, in response to President Clinton’s 1993 nomination of Roberta Achtenberg as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Future students of 20th-century US history may puzzle over a section of the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act. After mandating the federal government’s annual collection of data about “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” the Act includes the following passage:
(a) Congress finds that:
- the American family life is the foundation of American Society,
- Federal policy should encourage the well-being, financial security, and health of the American family,
- schools should not de-emphasize the critical value of American family life.
(b) Nothing in this Act shall be construed, nor shall any funds appropriated to carry out the purpose of the Act be used, to promote or encourage homosexuality”
This section of the Act is the legacy of Jesse Helms, who died today at the age of 86.
When the Hate Crimes Statistics Act was being considered by the Senate, Helms played a leading role in efforts to block it because it included antigay violence among the crimes to be monitored by law enforcement personnel. Aware of the bill’s popularity and having failed to remove sexual orientation from it, Helms attempted to thwart its passage by introducing an amendment that its supporters would find unacceptable but politically difficult to vote down.
The Helms amendment would have added the following language to the bill:
“It is the sense of the Senate that:
- the homosexual movement threatens the strength and survival of the American family as the basic unit of society;
- State sodomy laws should be enforced because they are in the best interest of public health;
- the Federal Government should not provide discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation; and
- school curriculums should not condone homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in American society.”
Such tactics were typical of Helms, who regularly used his parliamentary skills to get his own way in the Senate. On this occasion, however, he was outmaneuvered by Senators Paul Simon (D-IL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who proposed alternative language that was less antigay.
The Simon-Hatch amendment was approved before Helms’ amendment was considered, thus providing political cover for senators. By supporting the Simon-Hatch language, they could safely vote against Helms’ amendment without being labeled pro-gay and anti-family.
And that’s why the Hate Crimes Statistics Act includes statements about “the American family” and denials that it was intended to “promote or encourage homosexuality.”
Helms’ failure at preventing passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act was unusual. His mastery of Senate procedure, coupled with lawmakers’ fear of appearing pro-gay, frequently allowed him to succeed in enacting his anti-gay agenda.
When the US was first confronting the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, for example, Helms was instrumental in preventing the government from funding effective prevention programs among gay and bisexual men. The Senate twice endorsed his amendments prohibiting federal funds for AIDS education materials that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” By constricting the scope of risk-reduction education, Helms’ actions were widely believed to have contributed to the epidemic’s rapid spread.
Throughout his 30-year tenure in the US Senate, Helms was consistently associated with antigay stands. Given this fact, as well as his longstanding opposition to racial equality and the race-baiting tactics he used in election campaigns throughout his career, it is a fairly easy matter to accept his invitation to label him a bigot.
Personal bigotry aside, however, Helms’ legacy includes the many institutional manifestations of heterosexism that he was able to implement during his years in the Senate. Through the laws he sponsored and those he helped to defeat, he created real hardships for sexual minorities while also fostering sexual prejudice in American society. And his efforts probably contributed to the spread of HIV in the United States and the infection and deaths of many gay and bisexual men.
On this Independence Day and the occasion of Jesse Helms’ death, it is fitting to note how personal bigotry combined with political power can enable one politician to do so much harm to so many people.
And, recalling the general unwillingness of elected leaders to stand up to Jesse Helms’ antigay campaigns over the years, it is appropriate to reflect upon the words attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”