Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. representatives Bella Abzug and Edward Koch introduced a bill to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Had the act passed, it would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Summary of Event

On June 27, 1974, the fifth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, two Democratic members of Congress representing New York City introduced at the federal level legislation that would make discrimination against lesbians and gays illegal. A month later, an African American congressman from Philadelphia, Robert Nix, also a Democrat, introduced a similar piece of legislation. [kw]Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (June 27, 1974) [kw]Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Abzug and (June 27, 1974) [kw]Civil Rights Act of 1964, Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the (June 27, 1974) Civil Rights Act (1964) Antidiscrimination laws;and Civil Rights Amendment Act[Civil Rights Amendment Act] [c]Civil rights;June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1050] [c]Government and politics;June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1050] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1050] Abzug, Bella Koch, Edward Nix, Robert

The Equality Act of 1974 was proposed as a broad-based amendment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education, federal programs, and public accommodations on the basis of “sex, marital status, and sexual orientation.” The original Civil Rights Act of 1964 had prohibited only sex (or gender) discrimination in employment and education, thus the word “sex” was included for the remaining categories.

Also around this time, a few cities had followed the lead of East Lansing, Michigan, and adopted local nondiscrimination ordinances, but no states had adopted such a law. The sponsors were well aware that the likelihood of the bill becoming law was nonexistent, but every legislative battle had to begin somewhere, and this battle became the first step on the national level.

Following the 1974 elections, seeing that representatives Bella Abzug, Edward Koch, and Nix had all managed to get reelected despite having introduced such a “radical” piece of legislation, two California congressmen from San Francisco and its suburbs, John Burton (a Democrat) and Paul McCloskey (a Republican), joined as sponsors of the proposed equality act. This time, however, the references to sex and marital status had been separated from the issue of sexual orientation and presented as a separate piece of legislation. In fact, the term “sexual orientation” itself had disappeared and been replaced by the term “affectional or sexual preference.” Still, the proposed legislative strategy was the same, an amendment of all the relevant sections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To this end, the short name given the bill was the Civil Rights Amendment Act of 1975.

The middle and late 1970’s was also the beginning of the presence in Washington, D.C., of gay and lesbian political organizations that focused on lobbying the legislative and executive branches. The bill was a key focus of their activities. Realizing passage was unlikely in the near term, the principal goal of the activists was to increase the number of legislators who would sign on as cosponsors; in this they were successful. While a disproportionate share of the cosponsors came from the New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, a few liberal members of Congress from the West and Midwest also signed on. Additionally, many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) served as cosponsors (for example, nine of the twenty-one sponsors of a 1977 version of the bill were from the CBC).

The bill was reintroduced in every Congress. From time to time there were changes made to the bill to reflect the impact of the wider social and cultural debates on civil rights in general and gay and lesbian rights in particular.

In 1977, for example, sections were added that prohibited the use of statistical disparities as proof of discrimination or the use of “quotas” as a remedy for any sexual orientation discrimination. In 1979, the term “orientation” returned instead of “preference,” but because a number of high profile antigay and antilesbian referenda had taken place in the late 1970’s, the sections prohibiting discrimination in education (including Title IX) and public accommodations were dropped from the bill. Proponents feared that a debate on having gay and lesbian teachers would prevent the bill from ever passing. In 1980 and 1982, the House Subcommittee on Employment Opportunities, chaired by Representative Augustus Hawkins, held public hearings on the bills, which provided some publicity for the issue but did not have much impact on moving the legislation forward.

Also in 1979, a companion bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. The Senate bill, however, focused exclusively on employment discrimination, until 1985, when Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts became the lead sponsor and returned to the bill all covered sections of the Civil Rights Act except those dealing with education.

For most of the 1980’s, however, HIV-AIDS issues dominated the legislative agenda of gay and lesbian rights advocates and their allies. In the early 1990’s, the issue of lesbians and gays in the military took over as the leading concern for many. In 1994, gay and lesbian activists, working with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, introduced a bill that no longer sought to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but rather proposed a bill that would stand on its own and address only the issue of employment discrimination. The proposed bill, called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act Employment Non-Discrimination Act (proposed 1994) (ENDA), continues to linger in Congress.


The approach advocated by Bella Abzug and Edward Koch to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act came alive again briefly in the 2000 Democratic primary race, when Senator Bill Bradley indicated that he preferred the original approach to the ENDA strategy. However, Bradley’s failure to gain the presidential nomination ended further discussion on that point. Most activists and politicians had come to believe that such a strategy, unsuccessful for twenty years, held no promise of success and posed actual danger to the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Civil Rights Act (1964) Antidiscrimination laws;and Civil Rights Amendment Act[Civil Rights Amendment Act]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feldblum, Chai. “The Federal Gay Rights Bill: From Bella to ENDA.” In Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights, edited by John D’Emilio, William Turner, and Urvashi Vaid. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gross, Larry, and James D. Woods, eds. The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, Nan D., Courtney G. Joslin, and Sharon M. McGowan. The Rights of Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexuals and Transgendered People. American Civil Liberties Union Handbook. 4th ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nava, Michael, and Robert Dawidoff. Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

April 27, 1953: U.S. President Eisenhower Prohibits Federal Employment of Lesbians and Gays

June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

1973: National Gay Task Force Is Formed

June 21, 1973: U.S. Supreme Court Supports Local Obscenity Laws

August, 1973: American Bar Association Calls for Repeal of Laws Against Consensual Sex

October 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded

April 22, 1980: Human Rights Campaign Fund Is Founded

1994: Employment Non-Discrimination Act Is Proposed to U.S. Congress

September 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act

Categories: History