Antigay and Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated

California voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have barred lesbians and gays from teaching in public schools. The campaign against the Briggs Initiative mobilized the GLBT community into unprecedented political action.

Summary of Event

As GLBT activists obtained legal protections in some communities around the United States in the 1970’s, religious Christian Right conservatives began mobilizing to block and overturn these laws. Following Anita Bryant’s Bryant, Anita successful “Save Our Children” “Save Our Children” campaign[Save Our Children campaign] campaign to repeal an antidiscrimination law in Dade County, Florida, in 1977, Bryant worked with California California;Briggs Initiative Republican state senator John V. Briggs to collect enough signatures in California to place a measure on the ballot that would bar homosexuals from teaching Teachers, public school in public schools Schools;GLBT teachers and allow teachers to be fired for “advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting” homosexuality. [kw]Antigay and Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated (Nov. 7, 1978)
[kw]Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated, Antigay and (Nov. 7, 1978)
[kw]Briggs Initiative Is Defeated, Antigay and Antilesbian (Nov. 7, 1978)
Briggs Initiative, California
Discrimination;Briggs Initiative
Antigay movement
Proposition 6, California
[c]Civil rights;Nov. 7, 1978: Antigay and Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated[1280]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 7, 1978: Antigay and Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated[1280]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 7, 1978: Antigay and Antilesbian Briggs Initiative Is Defeated[1280]
Briggs, John V.
Goodstein, David
Milk, Harvey
Mixner, David
Reagan, Ronald

Briggs had been a state assembly member and was a state senator from 1977 to 1981. Although he focused his legislative efforts on insurance reform, the death penalty, and decreasing government regulations, by 1977 he had become interested in what he believed was a decline in moral and family values. “Family values”[family values];Briggs Initiative and Briggs first submitted an initiative in 1977 banning lesbian and gay teachers, withdrew the original language, and then resubmitted the initiative with wording that eventually was approved. The initiative would go before the voters of California as Proposition 6.

By 1977, laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation had been passed in several California cities, including Berkeley, Cupertino, Mountain View, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. As gay activists chalked up these local victories, they increased the salience of gay rights issues across the state and attracted the ire of religious conservatives, including Briggs and other conservative California politicians.

Also around this time, Bryant had mobilized religious conservatives to begin a number of campaigns to repeal local ordinances banning sexual-orientation discrimination. In addition to repeals in Florida, measures were successfully repealed in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. Only one local repeal measure failed in 1977-1978, a proposal that appeared on the Seattle, Washington, ballot at the same time as the Briggs Initiative in California.

Briggs collected the required number of signatures (312,000) to place the measure before the voters in the November, 1978, election. The measure was the first GLBT-related measure on any statewide ballot. Briggs began his campaign for the measure in the heart of GLBT-friendly territory, San Francisco. He traveled the state arguing that homosexuals were using the public schools to recruit children to the GLBT movement. His efforts were channeled through a group he chaired called California Defend Our Children, California Defend Our Children
Children, California Defend Our whose executive director was the Reverend Lou Sheldon. Sheldon, Lou Sheldon went on to form the Traditional Values Coalition and pay for the production of Gay Rights, Special Rights, Gay Rights, Special Rights (film) a film used in anti-GLBT ballot initiative contests in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Proponents ended up spending more than $1 million on the campaign.

GLBT activists immediately began mobilizing for the initiative’s defeat. However, the first polls on the proposition showed voters supporting it 61 to 31 percent. Even the national GLBT newsmagazine The Advocate seemed pessimistic in June of 1978, suggesting that the measure might pass by a margin of 2-to-1 and that even San Francisco voters might support it.

The threat posed to the civil rights of gays by the Briggs Initiative, however, also helped to bring gays and lesbians into mainstream politics. Activists formed a statewide group called No on 6 No on 6 that organized fund-raising campaigns, grassroots mobilization, and voting registration. With the help of entertainers and special events, GLBT groups were able to raise $1.3 million dollars to fight the initiative.

In San Francisco, activists held a Gay Freedom Day Parade that drew some 400,000 people. One participant, activist Cleve Jones, marched in the parade carrying symbols of death camps to protest the Briggs Initiative. Likewise, the newly elected and out gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk became a key opposition leader to the initiative, even debating Briggs in town-hall meetings and on television around the state. (Milk, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, were murdered by Dan White later the same year.) Milk consistently and effectively made strong arguments against bringing the government into people’s bedrooms and used the facts to demonstrate that child abuse was perpetrated mostly by heterosexuals and not homosexuals.

While Milk focused on grassroots organizing, some individuals, such as David Mixner, an adviser to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, came out as gay to friends and coworkers. Mixner helped organize fund-raising dinners with the social elite and Hollywood celebrities. At one such dinner, activists raised $40,000 to fight the measure, which at the time was a single-event record in California. Mixner also helped to organize a benefit concert with folk singers Joan Baez and Harry Chapin. Mixner and others formed the first GLBT political action committee in the country, the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), to raise money to defeat the measure. Mixner felt compelled to fight the measure even though some in the GLBT community believed it would be a loss, and even though no heterosexual political consultants would take on the campaign.

Another GLBT activist, David Goodstein, was a controversial leader in the movement, but he helped found Concerned Voters of California Concerned Voters of California in 1977, which existed solely to defeat the Briggs Initiative. Concerned Voters of California was credited by some as having coordinated much of the statewide effort against the initiative.

Mixner, a Democrat, and several gay Republicans, helped convince former California governor Ronald Reagan, in a private meeting, to oppose the initiative. Mixner helped develop the argument that the initiative was a real threat to free speech and could easily be abused. These arguments seemed to convince Reagan, who argued that existing laws protected children and that the measure might be used by students to blackmail teachers: “I don’t approve of teaching a so-called gay lifestyle in our schools,” Reagan wrote, “but there is already adequate legal machinery to deal with such problems if and when they arise.…[W]hat if an overwrought youngster, disappointed by bad grades, imagined it was the teacher’s fault and struck out by accusing the teacher of advocating homosexuality? Innocent lives could be ruined.”

Reagan also argued that “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,” and that the measure had “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights.” Reagan’s words were risky; he was gearing up for a 1980 campaign for the presidency, and many credit his public opposition as a key force in turning public opinion against the measure. Others spoke against Proposition 6 as well, including California governor Jerry Brown, U.S. president Jimmy Carter, entertainer Bob Hope, state teachers associations, the Los Angeles Times, unions, and religious leaders.

On November 7, 1978, the measure failed 42 to 58 percent, and did not pass even in some of the most conservative California counties, including Orange County, Briggs’s base. The defeat of the measure was credited to many factors, including the mobilization of the GLBT community and the support of political elites. It is also clear, though, that Democrats, union members, and minority groups strongly opposed the measure. Briggs Initiative, California
Discrimination;Briggs Initiative
Antigay movement


The mobilization of the GLBT community in California and around the country convinced many activists to publicly announce their sexual orientation and to form new political groups. For example, before the Briggs Initiative of 1978, there were dozens of GLBT interest groups in various cities around the state, but none at the state level. During the campaign, a number of lesbian and gay groups formed and a number of out politicians were elected to local offices.

Indeed, the gay Log Cabin Republicans organization credits its founding to the mobilization of GLBT conservatives against the Briggs Initiative. Log Cabin has gone on to form a national group heavily involved in congressional and presidential politics.

MECLA continued to be a powerhouse in California elections into the 1980’s, raising thousands of dollars for GLBT-friendly candidates. MECLA founders, including David Mixner, went on to form new groups and raise funds for GLBT-friendly candidates in national elections. In fact, Mixner has worked on more than seventy-five election campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s Clinton, Bill campaign in 1992 for the presidency, where Mixner was senior campaign adviser. The largest GLBT political action committee in the country, the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Campaign modeled itself after MECLA in the early 1980’s and has since raised millions of dollars for candidates running for national office.

Because of the successful repeal of gay-civil-rights measures throughout the country in 1977 and 1978, and because Oklahoma and Arkansas had passed laws banning lesbians and gays from teaching in public schools, the passage of the Briggs Initiative likely would have led to similar measures throughout the country. Following the defeat in California, Anita Bryant and Briggs fell out of the limelight.

The mid-1980’s saw new California ballot initiatives targeting GLBT people, beginning with a 1985 initiative pushed by Lyndon LaRouche that would have mandated the quarantine of HIV-positive individuals and those suspected of being HIV-positive. That measure, Proposition 64, failed in November of 1986.

Further Reading

  • Adam, Barry D. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1995.
  • Haider-Markel, Donald P., and Kenneth J. Meier. “Legislative Victory, Electoral Uncertainty: Explaining Outcomes in the Battles over Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.” Review of Policy Research 20, no. 4 (2003): 671-690.
  • Hollibaugh, Amber L. “Sexuality and the State: The Defeat of the Briggs Initiative and Beyond.” In My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Foreword by Dorothy Allison. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • Rimmerman, Craig A. From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
  • Shilts, Randy. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
  • Thompson, Mark, ed. The Long Road to Freedom: “The Advocate” History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  • Vaid, Urvashi. Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

June 21, 1973: U.S. Supreme Court Supports Local Obscenity Laws

March 5, 1974: Antigay and Antilesbian Organizations Begin to Form

June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1977: Anita Bryant Campaigns Against Gay and Lesbian Rights

1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

1979: Moral Majority Is Founded

April 22, 1980: Human Rights Campaign Fund Is Founded

November, 1986: Californians Reject LaRouche’s Quarantine Initiative

November 8, 1988: Oregon Repeals Ban on Antigay Job Discrimination