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The Briggs Initiative: Remembering a Crucial Moment in Gay History

The lessons from a critical California election in which voters rejected a virulently homophobic ballot measure.
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.
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