Sexuality and the state: the defeat of the briggs intiative and beyond. Interview with Amber Hollibaugh

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Interview with Amber Hollibaugh

Socialist Review. 9(3) May-June 1979


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. This duty is particularly compelling when the state undertakes to educate its youth and by law, requires them to be exposed to the state’s chosen educational environment throughout their formative years….

For these reasons, 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.

This proscription is essential since such activity and conduct undermines the state’s interest in preserving and perpetuating the conjugal family unit.”

So begins Proposition 6, the anti-gay initiative sponsored by State Senator John Briggs which Californians voted down last November. Unlike most other anti-gay initiatives on the ballot in recent years (in Miami, Eugene, St Paul and elsewhere), the “Briggs Initiative” was defeated, by a vote of 58 percent to 42 percent. Although clearly calculated to appeal to the same anti-“big government” constituencies that had approved Proposition 13 (the Jarvis-Gann initiative) the previous June – not to mention the pro-family, anti-feminist sentiment son which the new right has tried to build itself – Proposition 6 was unsuccessful.

Part of the explanation is that Proposition 6 was quite different in content from earlier anti-gay ballot measures. It was directed not only against gay people, but also would have mandated the investigation and dismissal of any school employee who engaged in “advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity directed at, or likely to come to the attention of school children and/or other employees” (emphasis added). That is how “public homosexual conduct” is defined in the text of the initiative. A school employee who indicates in a private conversation in her or his own home that she or he agrees with the existing California law providing that as consenting adults, gay people are free to do whatever they want in the privacy of their homes, might be fired under the terms of the initiative, regardless of her or his own sexual preference.

In this way, the initiative threatened heterosexuals quite directly, although it was directed primarily against gay people. Moreover, had Proposition 6 passed, its provisions regarding the hiring and firing of schoolworkers would have held “notwithstanding any other provision of the law” – superseding union contracts. Familiar with Senator Briggs’ long anti-labor record in the state legislature, the California labor Federation (AFL-CIO) went on record against Proposition 6 very early in the campaign and many city and county central labor councils followed suit. It is not likely that they would have come out so strongly against the more usual sort of anti-gay measure.

There was one other important difference between Proposition 6 and the anti-gay initiatives that were passed elsewhere. While previous initiatives had called for the repeal of existing statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, the Briggs initiative would have introduced positive discrimination against gay people and supporters of gay rights. In this era of concern about “reverse discrimination” (catalyzed by the Bakke case which also originated in their state), it is not surprising that many Californians were suspicious of a proposed law which mandated special treatment for a particular group of people. As the San Francisco Chronicle (10 October 1978) commented, “It would appear that while the public may not be willing to endorse any special enhancement of homosexual rights, neither is the public willing to specifically deny homosexuals any of their civil rights because they speak out about their sexual preferences.” (emphasis added)

Nevertheless, polls taken several months prior to the November elections showed that the initiative had majority support and gay activists were pessimistic. In August, 53 percent of those people polled by the Los Angeles Times said they would vote “Yes” on Proposition 6, with 41 percent against it and the other 6 percent undecided. By October the polls had completely turned around, with the Times finding only 40 percent favoring the measure, 56 against it and 4 percent undecided.

Some striking variations in pro- and anti-Proposition 6 attitudes along sex, race, regional and education lines were revealed by a poll reported by Mervyn Field in the Chronicle. Opposition to Proposition 6 was greatest in the two major metropolitan areas of the state, the Los Angeles-Orange County area and the San Francisco Bay area. More generally, the northern part of the state registered stronger opposition to the bill than the south, which parallels voting patterns in the Jarvis-Gann initiative of the preceding spring. This reflects the consistently more conservative flavor of southern California.

More women than men were opposed to 6. Those with education beyond high school were much more anti-6 from early on in the campaign than people with high school or less educational attainments. Ethnic variations are particularly striking. While blacks were strong and consistently opposed to the initiative (by late September they represented the strongest oppositional group, with 63 percent indicating a “no” vote in the polls), Chicanos tended to favor the bill. The same black-Chicano voting differences had appeared in response to the Jarvic-Gann bill. These figures are hard to interpret, however, because the ethnic differences coincide with regional and religious variations. More blacks than Chicanos live in urban areas in California, and the heavier distribution of Chicanos in rural areas may help to explain their voting behavior. Religion may also have been a factor. Catholics, among whom there are many more Chicanos than blacks, were more strongly in favor of the bill than other religious groups. Also, many blacks, but few Chicanos, are employed in the state sector, and therefore blacks could more easily recognize the threat posed to them by the anti-labor thrust of the Briggs initiative. Finally, the merging of the homosexuality issue with a housing issue may have affected the situation in San Francisco, where Chicanos have for the last few years been facing competition with gay people from surrounding neighborhoods for scare housing.

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