Mayor Bernie Sanders issued a proclamation declaring June 25, 1983 as Burlington’s Lesbian and Gay Pride today, and supported the city’s first-ever pride march. Gay rights organizers had originally called on the Board of Alderman for support. The University of Vermont Library of Special Collections documented the highly contested battle that ensued.
“This human rights issue is of great importance to our community,” the Organizing Committee of the Lesbian and Gay Pride Celebration wrote in a June 6 letter to the board.
A scathing response letter dated June 16 from the Vermont branch of the Maranatha Christian Church read:
“We will express our sympathy with the sick humanity that is involved in this sin but can in no way on God’s earth and in light of His scripture condone or even sit back and not voice God’s word,” the church wrote as it requested permission to testify on the matter.
On June 13 the board voted six to five in favor of the march, and proclamation. A Republican Alderman from Ward 6 didn’t want to officially recognize the march, remarking:
“Can’t you just go out and have your party and enjoy yourselves and make your point without asking the city to have a proclamation?” she asked.
But Bernie Sanders proceeded to sign the proclamation, stating:
“In the city of Burlington and in the state of Vermont, people have the right to exercise their lifestyles. It’s an American right, anyone’s right to have a march… This is a civil liberties question.”
On the eve of the march he added:
“In our democratic society, it is the responsibility of the government to safeguard civil liberties and civil rights — especially the freedom of speech and expression. In a free society, we must all be committed to the mutual respect of each other’s lifestyle.”
Unfortunately, the victory ignited fear from its opponents.
The mayor’s “support for ‘gay rights’ and the city’s support is giving this town a bad name,” a Burlington resident wrote. An Essex Center resident questioned why the city wouldn’t designate a day for Nazis if it was willing to do so for gays. “Come on, Bernie, no one is infringing on any civil rights by not proclaiming a gay rights day,” he wrote.
A Winooski resident penned one of the more caustic responses. “How many of these abnormal, disgusting critters will emerge from their closets, under the guise of aldermen, and Bernie is right there too, rubbing his hands with glee and expectation,” she wrote in a letter published on the day of the march. “As morals keep slipping, will we eventually celebrate Murderer’s Day, Rapist’s Day, Alcoholic’s Day, Dope Day, Arsonist’s Day and Child Molester’s Day, or will a greater power give us The Day of Reckoning? Stand up, you weirdos, and give your brains an airing.”
In response, Bernie kept up the good fight and in 1984 the Aldermen passed a final resolution stating that all levels of government would support gay rights. The march’s organizing committee asked him to speak at its 1984 rally, which he accepted.
“It is my very strong view that a society which proclaims human freedom as its goal, as the United States does, must work unceasingly to end discrimination against all people,” he wrote. “I am happy to say that this past year, in Burlington, we have made some important progress by adopting an ordinance which prohibits discrimination in housing. This law will give legal protection not only to welfare recipients, and families with children, the elderly and the handicapped — but to the gay community as well.”
June 22, 1983 letter from Bob Skiba to Mayor Bernie Sanders
(Bernard Sanders Papers, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library)
Milton resident Bob Skiba wrote Bernie in a letter dated June 22, 1983 in appreciation for his commitment to human rights:
“I thank you sincerely for your endorsement of Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in Burlington. Your endorsement gives me more reason to be glad for your re-election. (For every person who marched in the parade), there will be a dozen who, because of fear, cannot.” Such fears, he said, “make us hide what is at the center of our existence as human beings.”
Bernie’s focus, as a democratic socialist, on class issues often leads people to condemn him on the basis that he doesn’t focus enough on issues of social justice. But in reality, for Bernie, issues of economic class and social justice are often inseparable.