Senator Jesse Helms looked right at the camera and named two of my neighbors as threats to the people of North Carolina.
Their offense: They were gay.
The year was 1984. After two terms as the furthest-right senator in Washington, Helms faced a formidable opponent—North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt. Helms energized his campaign by bitterly fighting the Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday—King was a Communist, he claimed. But he was still behind in the polls. In the candidate debate, Helms dropped his gay bomb. “You’re supported by people liked Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown,” he said.
Herzenberg and Brown were the first two out gay political activists I had ever met. Like every Democrat in the state, they were working against Helms and for Hunt, and now they became Helms’s weapon against Hunt. A newspaper friendly to Helms began calling Herzenberg “Queen of the Hop”; it charged that, because Brown was gay, he was “a class H felon in North Carolina.” A few days before the election, its main headline read, JIM HUNT IS SISSY, PRISSY, GIRLISH, AND EFFEMINATE.
Of course other newspapers denounced this crude anti-gay smear—thus ensuring that it was heard by voters from Manteo to Murphy. Helms went on to defeat Hunt by a small but solid margin. In 1990, Helms was reelected again, in part because he warned voters that his Democratic opponent favored “mandatory gay rights.” (“If we have mandatory gay, can I be gay with you?” a friend asked after that. “I’d hate to be assigned to a stranger.”) “ Helms said that homosexuality “is not decent and moral and we are taught biblically what it is—it's an abomination."