Antigay Populism

The proposition, which came on the heels of a nationwide debate over homosexuality, marked the growing importance of gay rights and evangelical activism in U.S. electoral and cultural politics. Briggs and his church-based advocacy group, California's Save Our Children (SOC), emerged directly from a political struggle over gay rights in Dade County, Florida. In 1977, after commissioners in Dade County passed a human-rights ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of “sexual or affectional preference” in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations, a coalition of conservatives named Save Our Children emerged (Stanger 18-A ). SOC rallied support around the ideas of child protection and parents’ rights. It protested the ordinance on the grounds that it would allow gay teachers to corrupt children by acting as “role models” or to molest children. The group's spokesperson was Anita Bryant, a former Miss America runner-up (Miss Oklahoma) renowned at the time as the national spokesperson for Florida Citrus, her Christian literature, and for her bestselling pop albums. Signaling SOC's agenda, Bryant infamously declared that “recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality—for since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit, must freshen their ranks” (Bryant 62 , “Gay Law” 3-B ). After a highly publicized campaign, Dade County voters overwhelmingly rejected the gay-rights ordinance in June 1977.

SOC's campaign, which drew national attention and the support of prominent conservative activists across the country, sharpened a conservative rhetoric of child protection and enshrined a strategy of using referendums to politicize homosexuality. After the Dade County vote, church-based conservative groups in Kansas, Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota sought to repeal municipal gay rights laws through referendums. Dade County served as the blueprint for all of these antigay campaigns, which asserted that gay teachers sought to molest children or convert them into homosexuals. It likewise provided the impetus for Proposition 6 in California. The day after the Dade County vote, California State Senator John Briggs, who had campaigned for SOC in Florida, declared his intention to pass a law in his home state that would prohibit homosexual teachers. Building off a sex education controversy in San Francisco and the state legislature's recent restriction of marriage to heterosexuals, Briggs sponsored a bill in the California legislature to ban gay teachers. Failing to achieve the support in the Senate necessary to pass the law, Briggs decided to advance his cause by placing the question of gay teachers on a statewide referendum. His aspirations were not only based upon the recent municipal backlashes against gay rights but also upon the success of Proposition 13 in California, which was a conservative-sponsored antitax measure that passed in June of 1978.

With the assistance of evangelical churches, Briggs quickly obtained half-a-million signatures, far more than required, to have his antigay measure placed on the November ballot. Anita Bryant and evangelist Jerry Falwell actively supported Brigg's campaign. Early public opinion polling showed that the initiative was heading toward an easy passage with the majority of Californians supporting the measure. However, unlike earlier antigay campaigns that responded to the passage of gay rights laws, Proposition 6 required the state to actively prosecute educators who privately engaged in consenting same-sex sexual behavior. It further mandated firing those educators who in any way supported gay rights regardless of sexual orientation. This difference set the stage for mass mobilization against Proposition 6 that crossed the political spectrum.

Briggs's efforts invigorated activism in the very communities that Proposition 6 threatened. California's gay and lesbian communities and their supporters around the country were galvanized to a heightened level of activism and participation in the political process. Many opponents of the Briggs Initiative emphasized human rights themes to attract supporters who might otherwise be opposed to homosexuality. Yet many of these activists broke new ground when they spoke openly and directly about homophobia and gay liberation, including San Francisco county supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk, the only openly gay elected official in California. Milk gained increased prominence within the gay community after he debated Briggs over gay rights. Likewise, gay churches, teachers groups, and civil rights organizations raised funds and awareness to challenge the law.

Numerous straight allies including liberal groups and teachers’ unions also voiced opposition to the bill, as did religious leaders from mainline Protestant, Jewish, and some Catholic congregations. Likewise, major newspapers in California editorialized against the Briggs Initiative. Further turning the tide against the bill were the voices of prominent conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan, who described the bill as excessive, costly, and having “the potential of infringing basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights” (West A26 ). Far from affirming same-sex sexuality, these straight opponents of Proposition 6 believed it to be an unconstitutional law and a violation of personal privacy. At stake in the debate were not simply gay rights but whether the state should investigate and police consenting adults’ sexual practices. Ultimately, California voters defeated the initiative by a 58–42 percent margin.

Gillian Frank

See also: Evangelicalism and Populism ; Proposition 13 (1978) ; Sagebrush Rebellion


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D'Emilio, John. Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Faderman, Lillian. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Frank, Gillian. “‘The Civil Rights of Parents’: Race and Conservative Politics in Anita Bryant's Campaign against Gay Rights.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 22 (1) (2013).

“Gay Law Foes to Plan Vote Drive.” Miami Herald, January 26, 1977, 3-B.

Hollibaugh, Amber L. My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Howard, Clayton. “The Closet and the Cul de Sac: Sex, Politics, and Suburbanization in Postwar California.” Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2010.

Stanger, Theodore. “Dade Approves Ordinance Banning Bias against Gays.” Miami Herald, January 19, 1977, 18-A.

West, Richard. “Prop. 6 Dangerous, Reagan Believes.” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1978, A26.