If you have seen Milk, the biopic of slain San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk starring Sean Penn, then you will be aware that much of the plot focuses on Milk’s efforts to defeat a 1978 California ballot initiative known as Proposition 6. This initiative would be defeated that November and in the movie Milk is given the lion’s share of the credit for its demise.
Had Proposition 6 (also known as the Briggs Initiative, as it was initiated by Republican State Senator John Briggs) passed, it would have become legal for teachers to be fired if it were known they were gay or lesbian. A teacher could also be fired for publicly supporting homosexuality.
There is little doubt Milk’s yeoman efforts against Proposition 6 were significant. Yet if it were not for the intervention of Ronald Reagan the initiative would have almost certainly passed. Milk, to its credit, notes Reagan’s opposition to Proposition 6. However, its acknowledgement doesn’t properly do justice to how significant Reagan’s contribution was to this divisive debate. It is a shame given, the hostility directed towards Reagan by the gay community to this very day due to his perceived indifference to and inaction on AIDS.
Yet Reagan’s involvement in defeating Proposition 6 is not lost on all in the gay community. David Mixner, an organizer for the No forces in Los Angeles who would later become a top fundraiser for Bill Clinton in his first bid for the White House, is unambiguous in crediting Reagan for defeating Proposition 6. Mixner wrote in his blog last month:
Despite all our good work, everyone involved had taken the Proposition from 75% in favor of firing homosexual school teachers down to only 55%. We were having a helluva time gaining that last 6%. We knew we needed something big to push us over the top and we needed it soon since we were in the last weeks of the campaign.
There is no doubt in my mind that the man who put us over the top was California Governor Ronald Reagan. His opposition to Proposition 6 killed it for sure.
Actually, Reagan had been out of office for more than three and a half years when he jumped into the fray. Reagan stood absolutely nothing to gain by getting involved in this fight. After all, he did want to take one more stab at becoming the GOP standard bearer for the White House in 1980. In opposing Proposition 6, Reagan ran the risk of alienating a conservative base that had been the bedrock of his support in two terms as Governor of California. This would be especially true in Orange County, the cradle of California conservatism. It was also the home base of State Senator Briggs, who had ambitions to follow in Reagan’s footsteps to Sacramento.
Reagan also risked running afoul of Anita Bryant. The singer-turned-orange juice pitchwoman-turned-political activist was squarely behind Proposition 6. Bryant founded and became the spokeswoman for Save Our Children. She was as feared as she was despised by the gay community. The year before, Bryant had persuaded voters in Miami-Dade County to repeal an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Bryant would achieve similar victories in far flung places such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Wichita, and Eugene, Oregon. Bryant appeared to be an unstoppable force. The sort of force Reagan would need to become the GOP presidential nominee and could ill afford to alienate.
In his book Stranger Among Friends, when Mixner learns of an opportunity to meet with Reagan on the subject he jumps at the chance. The meeting was arranged by a former Reagan staffer who was a closeted homosexual. This former staffer would tell Mixner to use libertarian arguments to make his case. He took this advice to heart when he and his same sex partner Peter Scott met with Reagan. Mixner argued Proposition 6 would lead to chaos in the classroom because it would give students license to accuse teachers of homosexuality when they received bad grades or in retaliation for disciplinary measures. Reagan was receptive to this argument and told Mixner and Scott, “This might be a good day for you boys. Don’t think we can allow something like that to happen here in California.” If Reagan didn’t like disorder at Berkeley, he certainly didn’t want it in California’s elementary schools either.
Reagan made his objections public first with an informal statement to reporters late that September and again a few days before the vote in a newspaper editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. It is clear Proposition 6 offended Reagan’s libertarian sensibilities and put government in a place where it did not belong. He writes, “Since the measure does not restrict itself to the classroom, every aspect of a teacher’s personal life could presumably come under suspicion.” Reagan then asks, “What constitutes ‘advocacy’ of homosexuality? Would public opposition to Proposition 6 by a teacher — should it pass — be considered advocacy?” In this vein, Reagan would also argue that Proposition 6 had “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights.”
Nearly four million Californians would vote against Proposition 6, representing 58.4% of the vote. Significantly, a majority of Orange County voters would join the rest of the state in opposing the measure, effectively sounding the death knell not only for Proposition 6 but for Briggs’ own political ambitions. Bryant would also never again enjoy the same kind of public influence. This would not have happened without Ronald Reagan.
The defeat of Proposition 6 might be summed up in this way. Harvey Milk organized the gay community while Ronald Reagan took care of everybody else. Sean Penn, alas, forgot to thank him on accepting the best actor prize at the Academy Awards last Sunday.