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California Proposition 6 was an initiative on the California State ballot on November 7, 1978, and was 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 was the first failure in a movement that started with the successful campaign headed by Anita Bryant and her organization Save Our Children in Dade County, Florida, to repeal a local gay rights ordinance.
Openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk was instrumental in fighting the measure, and opposition to the proposition from a variety of public figures from California Governor Ronald Reagan to President Jimmy Carter helped to defeat it. Public opinion swung fairly quickly from general support of Proposition 6 to what became overwhelming opposition.
Singer and Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson Anita Bryant received national news coverage for her successful efforts to repeal a Dade County, Florida, ordinance preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. This success sparked additional efforts to repeal legislation that added sexual orientation or preference as a protected group to anti-discrimination statutes and codes. In a step beyond repeal of anti-discrimination measures, Oklahoma and Arkansas banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. The idea for the Briggs Initiative was formed during the success of the repeal of the Dade County anti-discrimination language.
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."
A coalition of activists including Sally Gearhart Gwen Craig, Bill Kraus, openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, teacher (later president of San Francisco Board of Supervisors) Tom Ammiano, and Hank Wilson mobilized under the slogan "Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!" to defeat the initiative. In what became the No On 6 campaign, gay men and lesbians went door to door in their cities and towns across the state to talk about the harm the initiative would cause.
Gay men and lesbians came out to their families and their neighbors and their co-workers, spoke in their churches and community centers, sent letters to their local editors, and otherwise revealed to the general population that gay people really were "everywhere" and included people they already knew and cared about. 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. By the end of the month, however, the balance of the polls shifted to 45% in favor of the initiative, 43% opposed, and 12% undecided.
Some gay Republicans also became organized against the initiative on a grassroots level. The most prominent of these, the Log Cabin Republicans, was founded in 1977 in California, as a rallying point for Republicans opposed to the Briggs Initiative. The Log Cabin Club then lobbied Republican officials to oppose the measure.
The former state Governor (and later US President) Ronald Reagan moved to publicly oppose the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, answered reporters' questions about the initiative by saying he was against, and, a week before the election, wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it.
The timing of Reagan's opposition is significant because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and moderates who were very uncomfortable with homosexual teachers. As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon puts it, Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue” but nevertheless “chose to state his convictions.” Extensive excerpts from his informal statement were reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle of September 24, 1978. 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.”
While polls initially had showed support for the initiative leading by a large margin, it was defeated by a landslide following opposition by the LGBT community and prominent conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike.
The initiative was defeated on November 7, 1978 and lost even in Briggs’ own Orange County, a conservative stronghold.