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Wednesday 08 April 2009

1978: Harvey Milk vs. the Briggs Initiative

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 9th February 2009

In the film Milk, there's significant emphasis on the Briggs Initiative, a Californian antigay citizens referendum that was defeated in 1978. How did this arise, and why was it defeated?

Marching in 1978's Gay Day Parade against the Briggs Initiative. Photo: GLBT Historical Society

It all began in Dade County, Florida, after fundamentalist homophobe Anita Bryant had led a successful campaign to repeal inclusive antidiscrimination measures there. Oklahoma and Arkansas then went a step further, and banned lesbian and gay teachers from public schools, and progay antidiscrimination referenda were defeated in Minneapolis, Eugene (Oregon) and Witchita (Kansas), although a Mormon-sponsored antigay referendum was defeated in Seattle (Washington state).

However, California State Senator John Briggs (b 1930) was in Bryant's crowd when the Dade County repeal effort succeeded. Briggs had previously represented the 35th District, which included notoriously conservative Orange County (1966-1974). He then became California State Senator (1976-1981). After retirement from California state politics, he became involved in business lobbying and real estate, and now lives in Southern Nevada.

Briggs engineered Proposition Six to similarly ban lesbian and gay teachers from teaching public schools in California state, as part of his ambition to become California state governor. However, California's LGBT communities outorganised him, and eventually, LGBT opponents of Proposition Six included then-California State Governor Ronald Reagan, ex-President Gerald Ford, President Jimmy Carter, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and Log Cabin Republicans, a new LGBT Republican organisation who lobbied the centre-right against the Briggs Initiative.

In the end, the referendum went down to defeat, by over one million votes. It was a significant victory for California's LGBT communities, and a setback for opponents of LGBT rights.

Arch religious homophobe Anita Bryant gets hit with a pie in the face on the video clip below, from 1977.

Craig Young - 9th February 2009