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The Briggs Initiative, officially California Proposition 6, was a ballot initiative put to a referendum on the California state ballot in the November 7, 1978 election. It was sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County. The failed initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in California's public schools.
Openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and Sally Miller Gearhart, as well as many other LGBTQI activists of the time were instrumental in fighting the measure. Opposition to the proposition from a variety of public figures such as then former California Governor Ronald Reagan to President Jimmy Carter helped to defeat it. Public opinion swung fairly quickly from general support of Proposition 6 to what became overwhelming opposition.
Singer and Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson Anita Bryant received national news coverage for her successful efforts to repeal a Dade County, Florida, ordinance preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. This success sparked additional efforts to repeal legislation that added sexual orientation or preference as a protected group to anti-discrimination statutes and codes. In a step beyond repeal of anti-discrimination measures, Oklahoma and Arkansas banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. The idea for the Briggs Initiative was formed during the success of the repeal of the Dade County anti-discrimination language.
The initiative provided that a public school teacher, teacher's aide, administrator, or counselor could be fired if the employee was found to have engaged in either (1) "public homosexual activity," which the initiative defined as an act of homosexual sex which was "not discreet and not practiced in private, whether or not such act, at the time of its commission, constituted a crime," or (2) "public homosexual conduct," which the initiative defined as "the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity directed at, or likely to come to the attention of, schoolchildren and/or other employees."
The employee would be terminated if the school board, after a hearing, determined by a preponderance of the evidence that the employee had engaged in "public homosexual activity" or "public homosexual conduct" and "that said activity or conduct render[ed] the employee unfit for service." The factors that the board would consider in the determination of "unfitness for service" would "include, but not be limited to: (1) the likelihood that the activity or conduct may adversely affect students or other employees; (2) the proximity or remoteness in time or location of the conduct to the employee's responsibilities; (3) the extenuating or aggravating circumstances which, in the judgment of the board, must be examined in weighing the evidence; and (4) whether the conduct included acts, words or deeds, of a continuing or comprehensive nature which would tend to encourage, promote or dispose schoolchildren toward private or public homosexual activity or private or public homosexual conduct."
The initiative further provided that a person could not be hired as a public school teacher, teacher's aide, administrator, or counselor if the person had "engaged in public homosexual activity or public homosexual conduct should the board determine that said activity or conduct render[ed] the person unfit for service."
A coalition of activists including Sally Gearhart, Gwenn Craig, Bill Kraus, openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, teacher (later president of San Francisco Board of Supervisors) Tom Ammiano, and Hank Wilson mobilized under the slogan "Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!" to defeat the initiative. In what became the No On 6 campaign, gay men and lesbians went door to door in their cities and towns across the state to talk about the harm the initiative would cause.
Gay men and lesbians came out to their families and their neighbors and their co-workers, spoke in their churches and community centers, sent letters to their local editors, and otherwise revealed to the general population that gay people really were "everywhere" and included people they already knew and cared about. In the beginning of September, the ballot measure was ahead in public-opinion polls, with about 61% of voters supporting it while 31% opposed it. The movement against it initially succeeded little in shifting public opinion, even though major organizations and ecclesiastical groups opposed it. By the end of the month, however, the balance of the polls shifted to 45% in favor of the initiative, 43% opposed, and 12% undecided.
Some gay Republicans also became organized against the initiative on a grassroots level. The most prominent of these, the Log Cabin Republicans, was founded in 1977 in California, as a rallying point for Republicans opposed to the Briggs Initiative. The Log Cabin Club then lobbied Republican officials to oppose the measure.
The former State Governor (and later US President) Ronald Reagan moved to publicly oppose the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, answered reporters' questions about the initiative by saying he was against, and, a week before the election, wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it.
The timing of Reagan's opposition is significant because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and those moderates who were very uncomfortable with homosexual teachers. At that very moment, he was actively courting leaders from the religious right, including Jerry Falwell, who would go on to form the Moral Majority to fight out such culture war issues the following year. As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon puts it, Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue” but nevertheless “chose to state his convictions.” Cannon reports that Reagan was “repelled by the aggressive public crusades against homosexual life styles which became a staple of right wing politics in the late 1970s.”
Extensive excerpts from his informal statement were reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle of September 24, 1978. Reagan's November 1 editorial stated, in part, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this.”
While polls initially had showed support for the initiative leading by a large margin, it was defeated by a landslide following opposition by the gay community and prominent conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike.
The initiative was defeated on November 7, 1978 and lost even in Briggs's own Orange County, a conservative stronghold.
|Invalid or blank votes||339,797||4.7|
- Ruth Shack
- Proposition 22
- Proposition 8
- Section 28
- National Gay Task Force v. Board of Education, a court decision that partially struck down a law identical to the Briggs Initiative.
- Rimmerman, Craig (November 2001). "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States". Temple University Press. ISBN 9781566399050. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
- Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library. "Ballot Propositions June 1978 – June 1998". Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library. Archived from the original on February 19, 2012. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
- Lipkin, Arthur (December 2000). "Understanding Homosexuality, Changing Schools". Westview Press. ISBN 9780813325354. Retrieved December 8, 2008.
- Shilts, Randy (1988). "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk". St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 9780312019006. Retrieved December 8, 2008.
- For the full text of the initiative, see Secretary of State of California (1978). California Voters' Pamphlet (PDF). pp. 29, 41. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 18, 2006. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
- Secretary of State of California (1978), p. 41.
- Secretary of State of California (1978), p. 29.
- Miller, Rachael; Rose, Rebecca; Kaushall, Justin Neville; LaBounty, Aimee (2007). "Guide to the Sally Miller Gearhart Papers". Finding Aid. Northwest Digital Archive. Retrieved April 9, 2012.
- "Milk Memorial March Brings Out Hundreds". Archived from the original on February 16, 2010. Retrieved February 24, 2009.
- McKinley, Jesse (November 1, 2008). "Back to the Ramparts in California". NYT. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
- LeVay, Simon; Nonas, Elizabeth (1997). City of Friends: A Portrait of the Gay and Lesbian Community in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780262621137. Retrieved December 8, 2008.
- Reagan, Ronald (November 1, 1978). "Editorial: Two Ill-advised California Trends". Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. p. A19.
- Magliocca, Gerard (October 18, 2010). "Ronald Reagan and Gay Rights: A reproduction of the op-ed "Editorial: Two Ill-advised California Trends" by Ronald Reagan in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner from Library of Congress". concurringopinions.com. Archived from the original on August 14, 2017. Retrieved August 14, 2017.
- White, John Kenneth (June 3, 2021). "Kevin McCarthy should meet the Ronald Reagan of 1978". The Hill. Retrieved June 4, 2021.
- Carpenter, Dale (June 10, 2004). "Reagan and Gays: A Reassessment". IGF CultureWatch. Retrieved June 4, 2021.
- Brigham, Roger (October 28, 2008). "Back to Briggs: Latest No on 8 Ad With Sen. Diane (sic) Feinstein Brings Back Memories of Another Referendum". EDGE Media Network.
- Gallagher, John; Bull, Chris (1996). "Perfect Enemies: The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s". Washington Post.
- "Primary Source Set: Briggs Initiative". GLBT Historical Society. Retrieved April 19, 2021.
- Jones, Cleve, with Dawson, Jeff (2000). Stitching a Revolution: The Making of an Activist. ISBN 0062516426
- Milk, Harvey (2013). An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk's Speeches and Writings. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-27548-5. (Includes three articles, two speeches, and a ballot argument written by Milk against the Briggs Initiative.)
- Milk, Harvey (2012). The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words, Vince Emery Productions. ISBN 978-0-9725898-8-8 (Includes transcripts from three debates between Harvey Milk and John Briggs, and an interview with Milk about the Briggs Initiative.)
- Shilts, Randy (1982). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-52330-0
- California Ballot Propositions Database from University of California Hastings College of the Law Library, a comprehensive, searchable source of information on California ballot propositions from 1911 to the present