Gay History – November 7, 1978: California’s Prop 6 aka The Briggs Initiative Against Gay Teachers Defeated

California’s Proposition 6 was an initiative on the California State ballot on November 7, 1978.  More commonly known as The Briggs Initiative, sponsored by John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County. The failed initiative would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools.

The Briggs Initiative came on the heels of successful anti-gay campaign headed by Anita Bryant and her organization Save Our Children in Dade County, Florida, to repeal it’s local gay rights ordinance.

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

San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk along with a coalition of gay and lesbian activists including including Sally Gearhart, Bill Kraus, Tom Ammiano, and Hank Wilson mobilized under the slogan “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!” and worked fiercely to defeat the initiative. Gay men and lesbians went door to door in their cities and towns across the state to fight and to talk about the harm the initiative would cause.

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.

A diverse group of politicians opposed the bill including Jerry Brown, Gerald Ford, then-president Jimmy Carter who publicly opposed the bill, citing its potential infringement on individual rights.

Surprisingly the former state Governor of California and later US President Ronald Reagan (who would later go down in gay history as murderous villain during the AIDS Crisis) Ronald Reagan moved to publicly oppose the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, a week before the election

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.” 

It is not known if Carter’s or Reagan’s involvement is what helped sway the final vote but the Briggs Initiative was defeated by over a million votes on November 7, 1978. 

Briggs’s own Orange County, a conservative stronghold voted against the initiative.

In 2008 (the same year MILK came out and in which he was featured) Briggs stated  he was not an “intolerant person.” He stated that he continued to regard singer Anita Bryant as “a hero,” but he also said that, “with the passage of over thirty years, America has changed — including me.  Briggs went on to say that he and his wife “not only stood for our principles, but fought for principles as we then saw them.” But he also said that the 1970’s and 1980’s were “a much different America,” in which “President Reagan and the country shamefully neglected the AIDS epidemic causing the deaths of thousands.”

Below see long lost photos of Harvey Milk debating, Republican state Sen. John Briggs of Orange County,  on Sept. 15, 1978, at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek. over the Briggs Initiative 

Long Lost Photos of Harvey Milk Unearthed

4 thoughts on “Gay History – November 7, 1978: California’s Prop 6 aka The Briggs Initiative Against Gay Teachers Defeated

  1. The San Diego GLBT Achieve has a folder on the proposition and the polling data that indicate the heavy hitters and the shift happened in succession. But the undecided voters was also abnormally large, if memory serves, so there is no way to figure out the total impact.

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