Representation of Gay Politics in the 1990s North Carolina Senate Elections
By Kathleen Janes
Helms vs. Gantt
The 1990 and 1996 Senate races between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt acted as a platform for gay politics in North Carolina. The campaigns projected radically different views on issues facing North Carolina, and, thus, the battle for votes divided North Carolinians along racial, economic, and sexual lines. The campaign played out in local newspapers, particularly The News & Observer (N&O), which illustrated the communities to whom each candidate appealed for votes. The articles highlight the rhetoric of the gay and lesbian community that Helms used in his campaigns and the response of this community in support of Gantt. The articles offer insight as to why and how this group felt discrimination at the hands of Helms and those who supported him. Although the elections divided North Carolina as a whole, through the elections, gays and lesbians in North Carolina developed a more visible image through their support of Gantt.
Faith and Family
Jesse Helms gathered support for his 1990 and 1996 campaigns by appealing to individuals concerned with the moral issues facing North Carolina. Helms drew his support from North Carolinians seeking to retain the “moral integrity” of the state. By designing his campaign around moral issues, he appealed to religious conservatives and created an enemy to target, notably homosexuals. He inserted this enemy into Gantt’s campaign, generating the image that Gantt, in support of gay rights, would bring about the moral decline of the state. In the 1996 N&O article titled, “Jesse’s People: Who Loves Helms,” Rob Christensen detailed the opinions of North Carolinians who voted for Helms in 1991 and who would vote again for him in 1996. He wrote that Helms “runs most strongly among…the middle-aged, the middle, class, white males, churchgoers and people who don’t have a college degree, according to exit polls taken during the 1990 elections.” The individuals featured in the article profess a common belief – that Helms would promote morality and family values in North Carolina. One woman, Nell Foy, stated she voted for Helms because she was a Christian and the moral issues were of a concern for her. Christensen demonstrated that the emphasis on moral issues was tied to a fear of change. He described that “for those uncomfortable with society’s changes, Helms has been a voice of tradition.” Noah Kotch, reporting on a 1996 rally in Four Oaks, detailed a similar sentiment when he described the Four Oaks event as “Helm’s chance to preach the gospel that endears him to his faithful: the nation is deteriorating, and the upstanding folks must resist enemies such as liberals, homosexuals, labor leaders, feminists, and the Clintons.” Ruth Sheehan found similar attitudes at a 1996 Family Values March in support of Helms. She interviewed Ron Baitey who stated, “We need to stand up for marriage and the family. We need to send the message: Homosexuality is unacceptable.”
Helms’s campaign characterized Gantt as attempting to disrupt this sense of tradition by promoting gay rights and garnering campaign support from gay and lesbian groups. In the same Four Oaks event, Helms was quoted saying, “We know about the homosexuals and the lesbians. They’re moving into North Carolina and setting up phone banks. I don’t believe they can buy this election.” He then added, “I got all the right enemies.” During the 1990 election, Helms aired television commercials describing how Gantt had raised thousands of dollars from San Francisco and New York gay and lesbian bars. In another 1996 article, Christensen explained that “while trying to moderate his own image, Helms has been seeking to define Gantt as too liberal for the state…portraying Gantt as a close ally of gay rights groups.” Helms created the enemy of the homosexual in order to distinguish himself as the savior of the traditional faith and family in North Carolina and to characterize Gantt as attempting to disrupt this sense of tradition by accepting campaign contributions by gay and lesbians groups and by promoting gay rights.
A United Front
The process of dividing the people of North Carolina had repercussions unforeseen to Helms as his 1990 and 1996 elections prompted a greater organization and visibility for lesbian and gay groups in North Carolina. In support of Gantt, these groups promoted the image of Helms as a bigot who discriminated against minorities. Even though gays and lesbians had different political interests and backgrounds, they organized as unified front against the common enemy of Helms. For example, Senate Vote ‘90 formed during the 1990 election as an independent coalition to defeat Helms and raise funds and support for Gantt. Founded by Mandy Carter, an African American lesbian activist, the group sought to unite the gay and lesbian vote in North Carolina because at the time there no strong political infrastructure to support them. In an interview with the N&O in 1993, she described the 1990 election as “the gay and lesbian community’s chance to build quick bridges with more mainstream grassroots groups and political organizations.” She even credits the 1990 election for making the group more “cohesive.” In the outcome of the election, Carter refuted they had even lost. She stated, “I mean we won because no one ever in the history of North Carolina had ever put something together like this before. No one has ever gone after Helms as visibly as we did.” In 1996, Carter and her coalition returned to form NC Mobilization ’96 which primarily organized around the effort to close the voter gap between Helms and Gantt in the 1990 election. Just as importantly, the effort worked to unite the African American community and the gay community by making minority rights a primary cause for political activism. Her identity as an African American woman and a lesbian allowed her to move between the gay and lesbian community and the African American community and ultimately unite them against the common foe of Helms. This proved much easier as Carter made gay and lesbians of color more visible in the effort. The commonality of minority rights, either racial or sexual, strengthened the opposition against Helms.
After the Elections
Carter’s effort and her established political network, helped influence the visibility of the gay and lesbian community in North Carolina, even after the 1990s elections. Other organizations, like N.C. Pride PAC, now known as Equality NC, the Black Coalition of Lesbians and Gays, and the North Carolina Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Equality continued to organize the community to vote for candidates in support of gay-rights, in addition to supporting gay and lesbian candidates themselves. Furthermore, they worked to change the perception of North Carolina as oppressive to gays and lesbians at the national level. A lobbyist for N.C. Pride Pac reported, “Gays and lesbians have been demanding their civil rights and it’s paid off.” In 1993, Durham hosted the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Annual “Creating Change” Conference. North Carolina was the first state in the South to host. According to Alison Jones of the N&O, “Leaders of the group say the debate over rights for homosexuals is moving beyond major urban centers to smaller communities,” like Durham. She also articulated that the organization selected the Triangle because “it has a reputation for having a well-established, well-organized gay community.” Doris Taylor, an activist from North Carolina, explained that the South’s sense of community makes the area an important member in the national gay movement. The South’s long fight for civil rights fostered that sense of community and the South is continuing the fight against oppression in the gay rights movement. Despite Helm’s effort to divide and isolate a particular group of people, he provided a way to unify the gay and lesbian community such that it continues to have a strong and lasting presence in North Carolina today.
- Christensen, Rob. “Jesse’s People, Who Loves Helms?” The News & Observer. 6 October 1996. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. 7 April 2012.
- Kotch, Noah. “Only Jesse Can Save Our Nation” Helms Rallies Johnston Faithful.” The News & Observer. 12 August 2007. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. 7 April 2012.
- Sheehan, Ruth. “Gays Facing a Changed Atmosphere.” The News & Observer. 2 July 1996. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. 7 April 2012.
- Christensen, Rob. “Gay Man’s Race for Senate is a Rarity.” The News & Observer. 23 October 2007. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. 7 April 2012.
- Christensen, Rob. “Two Familiar Names Appear for Rematch.” The News & Observer. 2 November 1996. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. 7 April 2012.
- Galst, Lisa. “Mandy Carter, Helms-Buster.” Uppity Women. May/June 1996. Southern Oral History Program. Southern Historical Collection. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Parsons, Grant. “Up and Out – Durham’s Gay and Lesbian Culture Has Come of Age.” The News & Observer. 1 December 1993. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. 7 April 2012.
- Carter, Mandy. Interview with Holloway Sparks. Southern Oral History Program. Southern Historical Collection. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 3 January 1996.
- Buggs, Shannon. “Family Values: Who is to Judge?” The News & Observer. 14 September 1997. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. Web. 7 April 2012.
- Jones, Alison. “Gays Gather in Durham to Regroup.” The News & Observer. 12 November 1993. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. Web. 7 Apr. 2012.
- Hagigh, Jaleh. "Triangle Gays Tear down Some Southern Stereotypes." The News & Observer. 14 November 1993. Rubenstein Library. Duke University. Web. 7 April 2012.