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  • "Gay Teachers Fight Back!":Rank-and-File Gay and Lesbian Teachers' Activism against the Briggs Initiative, 1977–1978
  • Sara Smith-Silverman (bio)

At a press conference in Los Angeles in September 1978, John Briggs, a California state senator from Orange County and self-proclaimed born-again Christian, roared: "If you'd put a second-grade child with a homosexual you're off your gourd. . . . We don't let necrophiliacs be morticians," he persisted. "We've got to be crazy to allow homosexuals who have an affinity for young boys to teach our children."1 The "homosexual" in question at the press conference was Larry Berner, a thirty-eight-year-old second-grade teacher at Fitch Mountain Elementary School in Healdsburg, California, a quiet town on the Russian River sixty-five miles north of San Francisco.2 Briggs directed his animosity at Berner because Briggs was in the midst of a campaign to pass Proposition 6, an initiative planned for the California ballot of 7 November 1978 that, if approved by voters, would have barred gays, lesbians, and advocates of gay rights from teaching or working in California's public schools. Berner, out as gay in his personal life but not at work, came out of the closet at his elementary school to join the campaign to defeat Proposition 6. In defense of his activism Berner proclaimed: "I've already been hit once, by guilt, fear, and ignorance, which filled me with self-hate and controlled my social and personal behavior for 30 years. . . . I'm determined to stand and fight, determined to live and work as a member of this society with rights equal to those of everybody else."3

Larry Berner was one among many gay and lesbian teachers who campaigned to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a sweeping proposition that would [End Page 79] have had devastating consequences for the gay and lesbian community. The initiative read, in part:

One of the most fundamental interests of the State is the establishment and preservation of the family unit. Consistent with this interest is the State's duty to protect its impressionable youth from influences which are antithetical to this vital interest. . . . The State finds a compelling interest in refusing to employ and in terminating the employment of a schoolteacher, a teacher's aide, a school administrator or a counselor . . . who engages in public homosexual activity and/or public homosexual conduct directed at, or likely to come to the attention of, school children or other school employees.4

Had it passed, the Briggs Initiative would have superseded union contracts and set up hearings controlled by school boards to determine whether or not the teacher in question should be fired. Any protections negotiated in union contracts, such as the right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation, would have been made irrelevant by the Briggs Initiative.

Polls taken just a few months prior to the November election showed majority support for the Briggs Initiative; as late as August 1978, 61 percent of voters favored Proposition 6, while 31 percent opposed it, with 8 percent undecided.5 However, the initiative ultimately failed by a wide margin, with 59 percent voting no and 41 percent voting yes.6 The Briggs Initiative was defeated in large part due to a substantial grassroots campaign spanning the state and led by gays and lesbians, including gay and lesbian teachers.

This article examines how gay and lesbian teachers organized to defeat the Briggs Initiative in 1977 and 1978. Rank-and-file teachers in California influenced the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the California statewide affiliate and its local unions—to actively oppose the initiative. The 1970s marked a turning point in the relationship between the labor movement and the gay and lesbian movement. Though queer workers had previously influenced their unions to advocate for queer rights, queer labor activism had its national "coming-out moment" when unions—most prominently the Teamsters—joined with gay and lesbian activists in the mid-1970s to boycott the antiunion and homophobic Coors Brewing Company.7 The [End Page 80] campaign against the Briggs Initiative is less well known, but it represents another key moment in queer labor...


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