Tag Archives: San Francisco gays

Gay History:The Briggs Initiative: Remembering a Crucial Moment in Gay History

Homophobe John Briggs promoting his initiative

A lot of people are saying this year’s midterm election is the most crucial of our lifetime. It may well be, given the need to elect officials who will fight Donald Trump’s loathsome agenda. But another midterm election, 40 years ago, was one of the most crucial as well, at least in California.

In 1978, State Sen. John Briggs put an initiative on the ballot that would have mandated the firing of any gay or lesbian teacher in California public schools, or any teacher who supported gay rights (the term LGBT wasn’t used back then). Thanks to a Herculean effort by California grassroots activists — Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones, Sally Miller Gearhart, hundreds of others — Briggs’s Proposition 6, popularly known as the Briggs Initiative, was resoundingly defeated, by more than a million votes. It was the first time voters had rejected an antigay measure.

To mark the 40th anniversary of this milestone, the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco is mounting an exhibition called “The Briggs Initiative: A Scary Proposition,” recounting the story of the initiative and how it was turned back. It opens September 14.

“This exhibition will bring a scary time for LGBTQ people zinging back for those of us who were there, reminding us that we can fight the forces of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and win even against long odds,” said co-curator Sue Englander, a veteran of the anti-Briggs Initiative effort, in a press release. “And if you weren’t here 40 years ago, the story will sear itself into your consciousness. The differences between 1978 and today aren’t as big as they may look.”

Indeed, there are similarities between 1978 and today. The gay rights movement jump-started by the Stonewall riots and other events of the 1960s had made some gains in the 1970s. Gays and lesbians were getting elected to state- or city-level public office, or coming out and getting reelected — Elaine Noble in Massachusetts, Allan Spear in Minnesota, Harvey Milk in San Francisco. Many cities and counties, including San Francisco and Miami-Dade County, were adopting ordinances banning antigay discrimination. Major cities across the nation were holding Pride parades, usually around the anniversary of Stonewall in late June. The American Psychiatric Association announced it no longer considered homosexuality a mental illness.

This amount of progress pales in comparison with that of the 21st century, which brought nationwide marriage equality, many more antidiscrimination laws, and, for a time, a president who wholeheartedly supported LGBTQ equality. But just as the Trump administration and other anti-LGBTQ forces are trying to undo civil rights progress today, homophobes came out of the woodwork to try to strip away the advances of the 1970s. The Briggs Initiative was part of this backlash, as was Anita Bryant’s campaign to repeal the Miami-Dade County gay rights law. But where she succeeded, Briggs would fail.

Briggs was a far-right Republican from a district in Orange County, a conservative enclave between Los Angeles and San Diego. In a state that makes greater use of the citizen initiative process than almost any other that has it, he hoped Prop. 6 would boost his political career. Specifically, he aspired to become California’s governor.

But one of the forces who helped persuade voters to reject the initiative was a former governor — Ronald Reagan. When he became president a few years later, Reagan didn’t build a gay-friendly record — he courted the religious right and notoriously ignored the AIDS crisis. But in 1978, he announced his opposition to the Briggs Initiative in an informal letter and in responses to reporters’ questions, and on November 1, six days before the election, he published a commentary in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner denouncing the measure.

“Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles,” he wrote. “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.” That language may sound pretty tepid now, but at the time it was a significant statement. Then-President Jimmy Carter and his predecessor, Gerald Ford, also opposed the initiative.

Opponents meet: John Briggs and Harvey Milk

But the credit for defeating the Briggs Initiative really should go not to high-profile politicians but to the many grassroots activists who worked against it. The opposition started with gay and lesbian advocates and the women’s movement, but they formed alliances with organized labor, progressive religious groups, and community organizations representing a variety of populations. Milk and Gearheart famously debated John Briggs, as chronicled in the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the narrative film Milk (although the latter left out Gearheart). They made mincemeat out of Briggs’s arguments, particularly about his initiative being a way to combat child molestation; Gearheart cited government data showing that this is overwhelmingly committed by straight men.

But most important, gay people came out. “We can defeat the Briggs Initiative if all the gay people come out to your family, your friends — if indeed they are your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors,” Milk said at the time. “You will hurt them if you come out, but think of how they will hurt you if they vote for Briggs. If they don’t come out, then it will be a very tight race.”

Indeed, gay people and their allies managed to flip the script on the initiative, as Ramy K. Khalil noted in his Western Washington University master’s thesis on the campaign. In August, just three months before the election, opinion polls showed support for the measure at 61 percent, opposition at 31 percent. By September, the polls showed a toss-up. And on November 7, voters delivered a resounding defeat, with the proposition losing by a margin of 58.4 percent to 41.6 percent, and not even carrying Briggs’s home county.

“One decisive factor was the mistake by Briggs himself of over-reaching — of promoting an initiative that was more extreme than the anti-gay ballot initiatives in other states,” Khalil wrote. “Proposition 6 required school districts to terminate employment of LGBT or straight people who expressed any sympathy toward homosexuality, on or off the job, whereas the ballot initiatives in other states merely repealed special protections against discrimination for gays or lesbians. Most importantly, though, Proposition 6 was defeated by LGBT people, labor unions, feminists, and other allies who organized a powerful grassroots movement involving highly visible protests and actions that successfully confronted the homophobic arguments behind Proposition 6.”

One of the posters to be featured in the exhibit
“Never Again! Fight Back!” (San Francisco: Too Much Graphics, 1978); silk-screened poster sold as a fundraiser for the No on Six campaign, GLBT Historical Society.
“No on 6” bumper sticker (San Francisco: Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, 1978). Collection of the GLBT Historical Society.

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Gay History: What Were The White Night Riots?

‘Dan White murdered my friend’: When anger boiled over into violence at City Hall and San Francisco police raided a Castro bar

On May 21, 1979, thousands of members of San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District community took to the streets to protest the lenient sentence received by Dan White for the murders of local politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Their anger–combined with the actions of police who arrived to quell the scene–soon boiled over into rioting. The resulting violence affected San Francisco’s LGBT community for decades to come.

Harvey Milk rose to prominence as a gay rights activist and became the first openly gay person elected to a public office in the state of California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. His murder, as well as that of Mayor Moscone, devastated not just the gay community, but the city as a whole.

Dan White was a former member of the Board of Supervisors who had clashed with Milk during their time serving the city together. In November of 1978, White resigned from his post, but changed his mind and asked to be reinstated. Mayor Moscone denied the request–with Milk lobbying against White’s reappointment. On November 27, White entered City Hall through a basement window and shot both men to death in their offices.

Six months later, White was convicted, not of first-degree murder, but voluntary manslaughter. White’s defense team had pointed to his diminished mental capacity and emotional state at the time of the murders, as indicated by the once-health conscious White consuming too much junk food– a ploy that became known as the “Twinkie Defense.” The jury-predominantly white, Roman Catholic and heterosexual—bought into it, recommending the lesser charge, which led to a sentence of just 7 years and 8 months.

When news of the verdict broke on the night of May 21, Cleve Jones–a close friend of Milk’s who would eventually go on to become one of the creators of the AIDS Quilt–spoke to a crowd of about 500 gatherers on Castro Street, and a peaceful march was quickly organized. By the time the crowd of protestors had made its second trip around the block, they were 1,500 strong. They then marched to City Hall, where their numbers expanded to an estimated 5,000.

As the crowd grew, so did the anger. Police soon arrived to try to control the situation, but that only served to enrage the crowd more. The police had raised over $100,000 for White’s defense–he was a former police officer–and many in the community believed the department had conspired to reduce White’s charges and sentencing. Although ordered to simply hold the crowd back, many officers began attacking the protestors with night sticks. Many had even taped over their badges, so as not to be identified.

Chaos erupted, as the crowd fought with police and destroyed a dozen police vehicles, as well as parts of City Hall itself. After three hours, officers moved in to quell the rioting for good, using tear gas in the process, and the crowd dispersed. In all, 59 officers and 124 protestors were injured, with about two dozen arrests made.

Hours later, several police officers gathered on their own to raid the Castro neighborhood, vandalizing a local bar and assaulting patrons. They shouted anti-gay slurs at the victims, and eventually turned their attention to attacking anyone that happened to be out on Castro Street.

After two hours, Police Chief Charles Gain was made aware of the rogue officers’ activities, and he made his way to the Castro to put a stop to it. No officers were reprimanded for the attacks, as officials were never able to determine who had ordered it, but the violence was finally over.

The next day, on what would have been Milk’s 49th birthday, 20,000 San Franciscans gathered to remember him. That October, more than 75,000 people marched for gay rights in Washington, D.C., and gay rights activists from around the country were inspired to continue their fight.

In San Francisco, the riots led to a wave of political changes, as more and more LGBT politicians were elected over the next decades. LGBT presence on the police forced also dramatically increased, and has continued to increase to this day.

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