WASHINGTON ― It was only 22 years ago. But for gay Americans, the mid-’90s may as well have been a different universe.
Back then, homophobia and workplace discrimination were commonplace. Gay marriage was more a thought than a cause. Gays couldn’t serve openly in the military. And Ellen DeGeneres had yet to come out. There were openly gay members of Congress. But only a handful. And all had revealed their sexuality after their first elections.
In the 1996 cycle, Rick Zbur, along with three others, became the first class of openly gay non-incumbent candidates to run for voting congressional seats. Running in California’s 38th District, which included a substantial gay community in Long Beach, Zbur’s candidacy was viewed as the most likely to succeed. And, for that reason, there was a tremendous amount of hope, fascination and press attention surrounding him.
In the latest episode of “Candidate Confessional,” Zbur reflects on that run, what it said about America at the time and what it says about the gains LGBTQ rights advocates have made.
It wasn’t all dark and gloomy. His sexuality was an asset in certain ways, making his candidacy historic and helping him draw in resources from the gay community. But it was an oddity, too. No one in his party supported gay marriage “other than gay people,” Zbur explained. Many operatives feared that he was too risky a candidate to run for a seat that they hoped to flip. And the press treated him as an anomaly.
“Every newspaper article in Long Beach was “Rick Zbur, an openly gay candidate.’ They couldn’t not ever say it,” Zbur recalled.
There were also scary and depressing moments. His opponent, a moderate Republican named Steve Horn, had become notably more open to gay rights after Zbur jumped into the race. But he also dabbled in subtle homophobic attacks. Zbur recalled one mailer that said, “Is Steve Horn anti-gay?” and then on the other side: “No, he would never use the fact that Rick Zbur is a homosexual against him in this race.”
That was mild, ultimately, compared with what outside actors did. Conservative churches passed out flyers in neighborhoods asking whether voters wanted a homosexual representing them in Congress. Zbur’s office got hate calls every day. Once, someone sent a piece of butcher paper with Scripture written on it describing where Zbur would go in the afterlife.
Before the end of the campaign, the Long Beach Police Department had to put a security detail on Zbur’s house.
Zbur claimed to have not been worried about the possibility of violence. But toward the end of the interview he conceded that, in the back of his mind, was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, who was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when he was assassinated in 1978.
“Of course it was,” Zbur said. “We were telling the police periodically about the death threats, and we were getting death threats…. But you can’t let fear prevent you from making progress.”
By the end of the campaign, the pressure of making electoral history began to weigh on Zbur. He felt as if he was being held to a different standard than other candidates, in part because of his sexuality. And he wondered if voters were lying to pollsters when they said they’d be open to supporting a gay candidate.
“It was a really different time,” he said. “It was really unusual to have an openly gay candidate.”
Zbur lost the race by roughly 10 percentage points — enough not to question whether his sexuality was determinative but close enough to sting. When the opportunity came to run again in 1998, he passed.
“I felt like I had let people down. It is probably why I didn’t run the next cycle … and frankly I probably would have won in the next cycle.”
About four or five months after his defeat, however, Zbur chatted up a Democrat from Wisconsin who was thinking about making a congressional run of her own. Tammy Baldwin would run for election in 1998. And she would win a seat in her state’s 2nd District, becoming the first openly gay challenger to actually be elected to Congress.
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that Zbur ran for a voting seat in the House. Technically, Zbur wasn’t the first openly gay man to run for Congress. In 1971, gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny ran and lost his campaign to be the District of Columbia’s delegate in the House of Representatives, a non-voting position.
Listen to the latest episode of Candidate Confessional above.
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