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The Year Activists Defeated an Anti-LGBTQ Initiative

In 1978, one conservative politician sought to remove gay teachers from California schools. A coalition of protestors, along with local and national politicians, moved swiftly to stop him.

People holding signs that reads "stop the briggs initiative," "gays demand the right to work" and "send the supreme court to salem."
A march against the Briggs initiative in 1978. Local politicians and activists came together to oppose the Proposition 6 initiative through carefully crafted protests and media appearances.
Editor’s Note: June is Pride Month. In honor of the LGBTQ community’s contributions to American history, we examine a pivotal moment in the history of LGBTQ political activism.

In the late 1970s, San Francisco appeared to be leading the country in gay rights legislation and activism. Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, becoming the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the state. The next year, San Francisco passed the Human Rights Ordinance, which banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. At the time, the ordinance was considered the most extensive gay rights legislation of its kind.

Some local politicians countered these gay rights initiatives with their own legislation. In 1978, California state Sen. John Briggs spearheaded a ballot measure called Proposition 6, which aimed to ban gay teachers and administrators, as well as gay rights supporters, from teaching in the state’s public schools.

Proposition 6 was part of a movement of anti-gay initiatives throughout the country at the time. The year before, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” initiative successfully overturned a gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Fla. Around the same time, Arkansas and Oklahoma banned gay and lesbian teachers from working in public schools.

Local politicians and activists came together to oppose the Proposition 6 initiative through carefully crafted protests and media appearances. Advocates for gay and lesbian rights collaborated with women’s rights activists, organized labor, religious groups and community organizations to hold demonstrations against the proposition. Activists encouraged voter participation through canvassing, community presentations, fliers and marches. Many participants in 1978 Pride Parades used the platform to protest the Briggs Initiative.

Black-and-white drawing of a stop sign that reads "Stop Briggs."
An icon from a t-shirt denouncing the Briggs Initiative. Grassroots organizations and individual protestors produced stickers, buttons, and t-shirts promoting their campaign against the proposition.
Trade unions in particular played a significant role. California’s two teachers’ union federations campaigned against Proposition 6, and over 1,000 other unions also joined the effort, including construction trade unions and the Teamsters. Many unions saw the proposition as a potential threat to union authority and workers’ rights.

Both Harvey Milk and political activist and educator Sally Miller Gearhart debated Briggs on television, critiquing the logic behind Briggs’ proposition. Gearhart and Milk in particular dismantled the argument that gay educators would convert children to homosexuality.
Harvey Milk and other activists called on national leaders and politicians to stand against Proposition 6. In a letter to then-President Jimmy Carter, Milk asked the president to “take a leadership role in defending the rights of gay people.” In reference to the proposition, he explained that “though it is a state ballot issue, it is also of great national importance and we hope you will strongly oppose it.”

Ultimately, Carter publicly opposed the initiative. Politicians on the other side of the aisle, including former president Gerald Ford, also spoke out against the proposition. Despite his conservative politics, former California governor Ronald Reagan even published an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner days before the vote, criticizing the proposed legislation.

The year of extensive campaigning against the proposition led to a decisive defeat on election day. San Francisco citizens rejected the bill by more than 1 million votes. Even Orange County, Briggs’ own district, voted no.

Harvey Milk meets with California state senator John Briggs who spearheaded the ballot measure called Proposition 6, which aimed to ban gay teachers and administrators, as well as gay rights supporters, from teaching in the state’s public schools. (AP)
This would be one of Milk’s final political successes. Twenty days after the vote, Milk, along with Mayor George Moscone, was assassinated by former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.

The rejection of Proposition 6 did not, of course, mark an end to LGBTQ discrimination. But the successful opposition to the initiative became a model for how a grassroots activist movement can succeed through intensive collaboration across a diverse array of people and organizations.
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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