Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Midge Costanza's Marvelous Memory

by Norm Kent
Margaret “Midge” Costanza, 77, passed away last week, almost 33 years to the day she forged LGBT history in America. In lieu of a news story we commemorate her life in this editorial.

The White House. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Until Saturday, March 26, 1977, its doors had never been opened to lesbians and gay men and straight allies. But on that historic day, more than a dozen women and men entered the West Wing of the presidential residence to meet with Midge Costanza, the director of President Jimmy Carter’s Office of Public Liaison.

Heads high and carrying briefing papers on topics of concern and interest to lesbians and gay men around the country, National Gay Task Force co-directors Bruce Voeller and Jean O’Leary led a delegation into the Roosevelt Room where a three-hour briefing of presidential staff got under way. Later, one White House staffer noted that the group presented the most thoroughly prepared issue briefings he had ever heard.

A press conference on the White House lawn followed the meeting, at which O’Leary proudly proclaimed, “History was made today!” It surely was, and the victories we celebrate in city commissions and state legislatures today evolve out of historic moments such as days like this particular one- moments we must never forget and always salute.

Members of the delegation briefed their hosts on discriminatory treatment of lesbians and gay men at the Internal Revenue Service, the Departments of Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Health Education and Welfare, the Federal Communications Commission, the Bureau of Prisons and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

They pointed out that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission took no interest in discrimination and prejudice against our communities. The noble group of courageous activists pushed for support of federal nondiscrimination legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring, education and public accommodations. They included religious and family issues in their presentations and spoke of the pain and suffering of lesbians and gay men at the hands of church leaders and family members.

Following the historic meet­ing, Costanza arranged meetings between Task Force re­presentatives and all of the agencies specifically named by the delegation, except the IRS. But by June 1977, the IRS dropped its requirement that lesbian and gay groups applying for tax-exempt status agree not to assert that homosexuality is as morally upright as heterosexuality and not hold meetings at which homosexuals would gather and possibly violate state sodomy laws. You see, 33 years ago, a gay and lesbian community center could have been civilly outlawed.

The criticism of the Carter White House that followed the LGBT forum was intense. But Ms. Costanza, a petite, energetic woman who once described herself as “a loud-mouthed, pushy little broad,” was outspokenly committed to women’s issues, gay rights and social justice for minority groups. She stood by us and our right to be part of the political process.

The pressing needs of lesbians and gay men began to be responded to by our federal government—for the first time ever. Cancer claimed Costanza last week. Most recently, she had been a professor at San Diego State University, and was working in her last days to develop the Midge Costanza Institute, aimed at inspiring young people to become active in political and social causes.

NGLTF Executive Director Rea Carey eulogized Costanza last week, noting that “she took a risk in working to ensure our voices were heard at the highest echelons of government. In this regard, she was a pioneer.” She surely was.

Yes, it was a long time ago, but the battle activists engaged decades ago is still being fought by newer task forces and younger LGBT leaders. Our mission as a free community newspaper is to share those lives with you, and we can only do so with your continuing support and sponsorship. Thank you for helping make our first ten issues possible.

The message of ‘Midge’ is that we can never let up, and we can all be pioneers. She was there for us when it counted, when few else were, and now she will be cherished by us forevermore. May we all live our lives to be so remembered.

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