- A California ballot initiative once sought to ban openly-gay educators in the late 1970s.
- Activists and educators told Insider about the “fight of their lives” to defeat the proposition.
- But recent anti-gay legislation, like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, has them worried once again.
Larry Allegre always knew he wanted to be an educator. It was a simple enough goal to achieve, he figured — that is, if he kept secret an integral part of his identity: He was gay.
But amid the increasingly-hostile national attitude toward gay rights in the late 1970s, an ominous wrench was thrown into Allegre’s carefully-laid professional plans.
State Sen. John Briggs, a conservative California lawmaker from Allegre’s native Orange County, introduced a ballot initiative in 1977 to be put to a referendum in the upcoming state election that would bar gay men and lesbian women from working in California’s public schools.
“I wanted to be a teacher, to go into education,” Allegre told Insider. “But I certainly wasn’t going to do that if it was going to be illegal for me.”
For more than a year, the looming threat of Briggs’ initiative hung over California’s queer community, striking uncertainty and fear in LGBT teachers who couldn’t be sure if they would have a job come November 1978. The proposition, did, however, bring together a dedicated group of gay activists and advocates who waged a hard-fought opposition campaign against the initiative, which was formally known as California Proposition 6.
The path to success was not an easy one. Educators and activists battled hatred, lies, and homophobia from the conservative faction in the state, insiders said. But on November 7, 1978, millions of California voters ultimately showed up in force to defeat the Briggs Initiative.
“At the end of the night we were euphoric,” Tom Ammiano, 80, a former educator and California State Assembly member, told Insider. “There was no certainty that we would win and certainly not in such a strong way.”
It was a decisive win, and one that would shape Allegre’s life in the years to come. He began his teaching career six years later and retired in 2014 after 31 years in education as both a teacher and principal.
“Part of me deciding on becoming a teacher in the very end was because of what happened with Briggs,” he said. “We did prevail.”
The Briggs Initiative was the first effort to restrict gay rights through a statewide ballot measure, but it would not be the last. And the bigoted aim at the heart of the initiative would continue to rear its ugly head time and time again in the succeeding years — most recently with the introduction of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that sparked national outcry earlier this year.
Five former educators and activists who were involved in the effort to defeat California Prop 6 spoke to Insider about the “fight of our lives,” and the worrisome parallels they see arising more than 40 years later.
Gay people faced homophobia at work and in the world
Allegre knew early on that he was different from his peers. At 13, he remembers being cornered in the school stairwell by several boys on his basketball team who accused him of being gay, mocking and chanting at him until he proceeded to cry.
It was the sort of experience that is achingly familiar to those who grew up queer: unique in the specific nature of its cruelty, but identical in intent.
Ammiano had faced such bigotry for years from hecklers on the streets and his own snickering colleagues in the staff room, he told Insider. He would go on to have a fruitful political career following 20 years in public education, but in 1975, Ammiano was still a junior high special education teacher fighting for acceptance as one of the first out teachers in San Francisco.
“Men in teaching were looked upon suspiciously, especially if it was in lower grades,” he said.
In 1975 — three years before Prop 6 would be defeated — Ammiano was part of a collective effort to form a gay teacher’s coalition in San Francisco. The group picketed the city’s board of education for more rights and stronger protections for queer teachers.
“It seemed to me there wasn’t much sense in being in the closet since half the people in the world seemed to know,” Ammiano said of his decision to come out publicly at work. He began keeping a photo of his partner on his desk at school telling inquisitive students, “this is my family.”
By forming the coalition, Ammiano said he and his fellow LGBT teachers had been trying to normalize the presence of queer educators in schools, and primarily positive responses from students, parents, and colleagues seemed to suggest they were on a path to success.
But a mere two years later, Sen. Briggs introduced his initiative, reigniting familiar bigotry and putting Ammiano’s livelihood at risk.
Inspired by emerging anti-gay activist Anita Bryant’s overwhelming success in repealing a Florida ordinance that would have prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation, Briggs sponsored his own similarly-minded initiative, seemingly hoping it might be his star-maker.
The proposition would have allowed school boards in California to fire any public school teacher, aide, administrator, or counselor if it was discovered that they had engaged in “public homosexual activity” or “public homosexual conduct,” defined as homosexual behavior that was “not discreet” or “practiced in private.” Those who supported LGBT teachers or even knew of their existence but kept it secret were also at professional risk under the proposition.
“It was almost like a joke,” Ammiano said of the initiative. “Except it was very serious.”
Briggs’ emergence on the national stage lit a fire in Ammiano, who jumped into activism-mode. But for the younger Allegre, still struggling with his identity, the initiative’s introduction seemed to cement all the negative beliefs he already held about himself.
“I had friends who said they would vote for the Briggs Initiative,” he said. “They just felt like these people should not become teachers”
Activists and educators worked together to defeat the Briggs Initiative
Queer people across California quickly rallied together in defiance of Prop 6, insiders said.
“The LGBT community is not monolithic, but when it comes to attacks like this, they tend to come together,” Ammiano said.
The fight against Briggs coalesced in San Francisco, a hotbed of political activism and social justice where professional activists, politicians, and educators came together to form what would become the “No On 6” campaign.
The fight brought together a cadre of heavy-hitters from the local activism scene who spoke to Insider about their efforts: Paula Lichtenberg was named co-chair of the Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative/No on Proposition Six following her previous involvement in local women’s issues groups; John Durham, a member of the Socialist Workers Party at the time, was assigned to work on the anti-Briggs campaign based on his prior organizing experience; His now-wife, Sue Englander, got involved in planning meetings and demonstrations throughout the city as well.
The coalition hit the ground running, aiming to attack the issue “head-on,” the activists said. Soon after Briggs’ announcement, the group was ready with pamphlets, speaking engagements, and press releases that refuted popular lies about gay people in the classroom.
They won support from local churches and politicians, filed lawsuits on the matter, and worked closely with the teacher’s union in the hopes of building a mass movement that could stop Briggs.
“We believed we were in the fight of our lives,” Englander said. “A significant percentage of the California population would not be able to find jobs.”
Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the state, and Sally Gearhart, the first out lesbian to obtain a tenure-track faculty position at a state university, served as the public faces in the fight against Prop 6, publicly debating Briggs on his initiative.
“The debate was a major turning point,” Englander said. “It was clear that John Briggs didn’t know what he was talking about when confronted with a book of statistics that Harvey and Sally brought to the debate.”
While the professional activists waged a war of pamphlets and demonstrations, gay and lesbian teachers were fighting a more personal battle, going door-to-door to talk about the proposition’s harms. Queer educators were encouraged to follow Ammiano’s lead and come out to their family members, friends, and colleagues in an effort to show the real human lives at stake.
“We always felt visibility was a weapon,” Ammiano said. “Saying ‘I’m gay. I teach and I am a gay teacher.
“If you’re a teacher, you’ve got to tell the truth,” he added.
Despite their best efforts, the activists and educators were far from confident when election night 1978 arrived. There was real concern that the proposition could pass. But as the results started rolling in, it became clear — they would win.
“It was a night I’ll never forget,” Lichtenberg said.
We always felt visibility was a weapon.
Voters defeated the initiative 58.4% to 41.6% across the state, rejecting the proposition even in Briggs’ own Orange County, a usual conservative stronghold. The triumph was a jubilant celebration of the activists’ hard work, they said.
“In some ways, it kind of propelled me because I realized that when it did not pass, that ‘okay I’m safe,'” said Allegre, who would begin his teaching career six years later.
They were vindicated, Ammiano said. But the whole affair had left a lingering fear throughout the community.
“If it could happen here in California, even being put on a ballot, then this fight is not over,” he said. “This struggle is not over.”
Just days later, Milk was assassinated, gunned down by a disgruntled former city supervisor.
Florida lawmakers revived old tactics in a similar ploy this year
Even after Briggs’ defeat, both Ammiano and Allegre would go on to face instances of homophobia throughout their decades-long educational careers. But it wasn’t until 2022, when Florida lawmakers introduced contentious legislation that banned public school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in primary school classrooms, that they witnessed such a direct parallel to their own battle against Briggs.
“It is frustrating and upsetting and gets you angry when you see all this resurfacing,” Ammiano said. “But it’s also a good heads up. You can’t really be comfortable on these issues of social justice and equality.”
Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation into law in July after months of outcry over the legislation’s nebulous language, which opponents said would legalize dangerous bigotry in the classroom against an already-marginalized group.
Activists and educators say the bill, which is officially called the Parental Rights in Education Act, plays on tired, homophobic rhetoric, and echoes the Briggs Initiative’s inherently-flawed thesis that LGBT topics are not appropriate for children.
Both California Prop 6 and the Parental Rights in Education Act were framed as protective measures for children in the public school system by politicians who used baseless accusations of possible “grooming” by queer educators to incite parents’ fears.
“They’re based on a lot of lies about gay people being pedophiles and child molesters,” Lichtenberg said. “It’s really easy to access people’s fears about gay people going after their children.”
Such assumptions about gay people are untrue and unsupported by any scientific evidence, a far-right tactic to demonize the queer community that dates back decades, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
With a recent influx in anti-gay legislation and incidents, the US seems to be at an inflection point that closely mirrors the contention surrounding Briggs’ initiative, activists said.
“Just like in the late 70s, we’re looking at the tip of a belief system and a political strategy that can cut much deeper if it’s allowed to proceed,” Englander said.
It’s really easy to access people’s fears about gay people going after their children.
Unlike California Prop 6, which was a voter initiative decided upon by the masses, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law was a lawmaker-sponsored bill that was parceled and passed by politicians at every point. Once the legislation was introduced, the people of Florida had little power to stop it.
“It’s extremely frustrating but not at all surprising, given the levels that the Republican Party and politicians are stooping to to gain power,” Lichtenberg said. “They’re using LGBT issues and identity as a wedge issue.”
The growing right-wing hostility toward gay people is ultimately a right-wing ploy to erase LGBT people from society, Insider’s sources worried, to render them invisible.
“Gay people exist. We exist,” Lichtenberg said. “Gay history is part of everybody.”
Fighting oppression is an ongoing battle, the former educators said
More than 40 years later, there remain few gay teachers who can offer their firsthand accounts of defeating the Briggs Initiative, Ammiano said: “Almost everyone is dead. That’s what AIDs did,” he added, referring to the epidemic that has killed more than 700,000 people in the US since 1981.
The community’s losses make the ongoing fight for acceptance and equality even more potent in the modern age. The renewed conflict in Florida this year further cemented Allegre’s long-held belief that openly-gay teachers are not only appropriate for students, but necessary.
“There was a reason we would be called to education because of what we were — not in spite of it,” he said.
Soon after Allegre came out at work in the 1990s, a young girl at his elementary school approached him asking if he was really gay, wearing a look of horror on her face, he recalled. He calmly confirmed his sexuality, and to his surprise, her face shifted.
“She went from total horror to confusion. She had no idea what gay was, but she knew the first thing to act was horrified,” he said.
“The only thing you need to know is that I am gay and I’m a good person,” he told the girl. “She said ‘okay,’ and she skipped away with a smile on her face.”