Legislature Nebraska Politics

Nebraska’s anti-gay past is still so present that it’s even running for mayor

Patty Pansing Brooks’s bill to make it illegal to discriminate against sexual orientation or gender identity in employment decisions died this week in the Unicameral. (It could be brought back next year if Pansing Brooks finds 33 votes for it). The setback of the anti-discrimination bill was a loss for Nebraska’s residents–not just the ones needing the protection of the bill, but also anybody who wants to live in a state not run by bigots. It, is, however, a win for Nebraska’s tourism slogan, though: “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

The effort to win basic protections for Nebraska’s LGBTQIA+ residents is a long one, and one episode in the struggle is particularly relevant to Lincoln city elections.

In the early 90s, current city council member and mayoral candidate Cyndi Lamm began building a reputation for herself in Lincoln politics–specifically by crushing gay rights. As she tells her own story, Lamm moved to Lincoln from California when she became fearful of the tolerance for homosexuality there.

In fact, Lamm left California in 1988 in response to an anti-discrimination policy passed by Los Angeles Public Schools. At the time she was outraged by the anti-discrimination policy, the man who was leading the charge against that policy and other LGBT protections in California was hate minister Lou Sheldon. Sheldon lived 20 minutes from where Lamm lived at the time, even accounting for notorious Los Angeles traffic.

Sheldon had set up the “Traditional Values Coalition” for the purpose of fighting gay rights, right in Lamm’s neck of the woods. Wouldn’t a woman so angry about a gay protection policy that she left the state be acquainted with the man who was leading the fight against that policy if he lived just 20 minutes away and had founded an organization just for that purpose?

Might she have been working with him, even?

What are we to make of it if she then moved to Nebraska and set up a chapter of his organization, flew the man out here at least twice, and publicly insisted that she had not been recruited by him to run for office?

Louis Sheldon, whose entire career has focused on persecuting gay people, was one of the organizers of the notorious California Proposition 6, a “Lavender Scare” initiative to ban gay teachers from California’s schools.

Back in Lincoln in April of 1993, Lamm was outraged by a multiculturalism initiative proposed by Lincoln Public Schools, which risked suggesting to Lincoln’s children that gay people are worthy of acceptance. Some third grade teachers had even brought up the possibility of purchasing a copy of the book Heather Has Two Mommies, which depicts as normal a little girl living with two moms. In response, Lamm and two other activists produced a pamphlet called “Homosexual Education Headed for Lincoln Public Schools” and distributed it around town.

Imagine viewing this as a scourge you must crush.

A personal side note: the year that Lamm was circulating her anti-gay pamphlet, I was a teenager working as a substitute teacher at a preschool in Oklahoma. One day a little girl cried in my arms because the other kids were telling her that her family wasn’t real because she had two moms. Where did those children get the poison they used to traumatize another child? From adults like Cyndi Lamm.

Lamm and the others then distributed an “action alert” to Lincoln churches and businesses to direct people to oppose the initiative at a school board meeting. They began identifying themselves as affiliated with Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition. The Traditional Values Coalition claimed that the real goal of homosexuality is child molestation and set out to defeat the “gay threat.” By the time Lamm was publicly affiliating with him, Sheldon was advocating placing AIDS patients in concentration camps. In 1992 he had helped defeat a California LGBT anti-discrimination bill that would, as he described it, “protect sex with animals and the rape of children as forms of political expression.”

This Lincoln Journal piece from 1993 shows that Lamm didn’t just want to keep the “homosexual agenda” out of the curriculum–she didn’t even want gay students supporting each other or teachers learning how to show them compassion.

In the fall, Lamm, now identifying as the president of the Nebraska state chapter of Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, had invited Sheldon to Lincoln for several days to discuss the “heterosexual ethic” with locals.

Sheldon’s real reason for visiting Lincoln was to lobby against an anti-discrimination bill that had been proposed by Senators Tim Hall and Ernie Chambers in the Legislature. The bill had been voted out of committee and was expected to be debated on the floor in January. At a press conference with Lamm, Sheldon told reporters that 78% of gay people eventually make the decision to stop being gay. He also said that LGBT discrimination did not exist and that gay people were “enemies of traditional values.” (LJS 10/06/93)

When the Legislature resumed in January of 1994, the debate about protecting Nebraska’s LGBT residents began in earnest. Lamm’s chapter of the Traditional Values Coalition organized a rally of hundreds of Nebraskans to fight the anti-discrimination bill, where Sheldon was the guest speaker. At the rally, Lamm–who in 2019 is running as an advocate of small government–said that gay rights were a threat to families and “We need more boundaries, not fewer.” The bill went nowhere.

Just some good, old-fashioned “small government” wanting to create more boundaries between you and your family-undermining romantic life.

Lamm had also begun insisting that Sheldon’s organization did not groom her for office–“Traditional Values Coalition does not recruit or sponsor candidates!” she wrote in a letter to the editor, apparently in response to questions about her relationship with Sheldon and his org. In May she appeared on the primary ballot for the first time, running as a delegate to the Republican County Convention. All of this is within Lamm’s rights and prerogative, but it’s worth noting that it was her association with a national hate minister that began her political career, and possibly earlier than she has let on. Virulent homophobia was not a side issue, it was the single cause that lobbed her into politics.

Nebraska’s treatment of LGBTQIA+ residents has a shameful past and a shameful present. Now we decide whether we want that history as Lincoln’s future. This election, we have important decisions to make about the future of our city. Luckily, we have some candidates like James Michael Bowers, who is running for Lamm’s city council seat, and Leirion Gaylor-Baird, who is running for mayor, and testified in favor of LB627 at the Unicameral.