By James Roman
Discrimination was legal in the early 1980s. Gays could lose their homes, jobs, custody, you name it, because there were no laws to prevent it. New York City had an Ordinance: No discrimination based on race, color, creed, age, gender, or disability. To that list, gay New Yorkers requested three more words: “and sexual orientation.” For eleven years, those three words incited some of the angriest, ugliest debates in the City Council, where the “Gay Rights Bill” consistently failed to earn votes by a two-thirds majority to secure its passage.
I attended those hearings. I saw who voted against gay rights. In 1983, when the bill’s passage failed for its tenth consecutive year, I took action. Out of my own pocket, I hired an attorney and registered a political action committee that could raise funds in New York City and State. I invited nine friends with money, responsibility and enormous rolodexes to join me in forming FAIRPAC, to “support the friends and defeat the enemies of gay rights legislation.”
In that pre-Internet era when most organizations kept records on paper, FAIRPAC had a computer. We pooled our rolodexes, and our computerized mailing list was born. From my midtown office, we printed slick solicitations, then rallied an army of volunteers to stuff envelopes; we convinced donors to send our solicitations to their mailing lists too. As persistent mercenaries raising money within gay networks, we succeeded promptly.
Next task: locate the incumbent enemies, then identify candidates who are “friends” to replace them. It was shocking to discover how far a small donation could stretch. We were legally permitted to donate a nickel-a-name for every registered voter in each district. A one-time donation of just $2500 to a friend seeking to defeat an enemy absolutely tipped the balance of power.
From our growing war-chest (a first for the fledgling gay community), we donated the maximum legal amounts to the campaigns of our enemies’ opponents. This was no diplomatic effort to win hearts and minds. With friends dying of AIDS every month, including two of our nine boardmembers, the politicians who blocked gay civil rights needed to feel an indignant bitch-slap from the gay community. Could thousands of gay dollars tip the balance of power? We were the first ones to try.
City Council races were two years off. Our test run came one year earlier, as FAIRPAC supported candidates for State Assembly. In the photo, FAIRPAC contributed to the 1984 campaigns of Bill Thom, a gay Civil Court Judge, Larry Seabrook, a candidate for Bronx State Assembly, and Chuck Hitchcock, a gay State Assembly candidate from Long Island. (FAIRPAC Boardmembers appear in the back row.)
Larry Seabrook’s candidacy gave FAIRPAC a terrific start, a black man living in a black neighborhood that had never been represented by a person of color. Incumbent Vincent Marchiselli was a devout Catholic who consistently voted against Abortion and Gay Rights; he didn’t even live in the neighborhood. To defeat him, FAIRPAC gave Seabrook the legal maximum, then staged a press event at the Gay Community Center where we introduced our candidates.
Months earlier, Jesse Jackson made headlines as a candidate for US President, calling his diverse supporters “The Rainbow Coalition.” Now, Seabrook stepped up to the podium with tears in his eyes. He looked at the Press and announced: “I am here to tell you what Jesse Jackson told me. There is LAVENDER in the Rainbow Coalition!” That statement earned a huge laugh; this friend to the gay community won his race, and launched a lengthy political career.
FAIRPAC succeeded too. In the following year, we supported seven candidates in NY City Council races, and saw six of them win. In 1986, when the Gay Rights Bill came up for a vote, it passed by one vote. On that historic day, FAIRPAC once again tipped the balance of power.
A third-generation New Yorker, James Roman served on the faculty of New York University and as Sales Manager at The Halstead Property Company. His “Chronicles of Old New York,” is available for sale online and in bookstores everywhere.