Beating the Briggs Initiative

"I was there..."

by Tom Ammiano


Kiss My Gay Ass, Briggs!

Photo: Cathy Cade

The Briggs Initiative was a weird one. I knew nothing about it in the late 1970s when the Briggs Initiative happened but eventually got to know very well that little demented world that Briggs came out of: Sacramento. What really motivated a Republican from rural counties? What did San Francisco’s representatives actually do in the Senate and the Assembly? Where did all these state ballot initiatives come from? All that stuff, I learned it later.

At the time in the late 1970s, we had started to get some leverage in San Francisco. We won some protections for gay teachers. There was still a lot to do in terms of implementation and people responding to legislation and trying to get stuff for gay kids. I’m not saying we were confident, but we were maybe feeling inured to different attacks. Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue comes a state Senator named John Briggs and all of his looney tunes stuff. What became known as the Briggs Initiative was a state ballot initiative to ban gay people from teaching in the public schools. Crazy. But it got on the ballot. Californians were going to vote on it in November of 1978 and a lot of people thought it might pass. Holy hell.

Briggs was chock full of very dumb Trumpian Evangelical stuff about gay people. He was totally a buffoon, but even complete clowns can be dangerous. Right? Remember Pennywise?

We were going, “Wait, we thought we took care of this kind of thing in San Francisco.” But it didn’t matter statewide. So we had to join up with people who didn’t like us very much. The “Bay Area Committee Against The Briggs Initiative” was formed. It was not a very progressive-friendly group. In the Hollywood Harvey Milk movie, they show Harvey going off on David Goodstein, a wealthy gay man who was funding a lot of our campaign. He was an EST guy for people who remember EST. Harvey blasted him, saying, “Why aren’t there any gay people in this campaign literature?”

Well, apparently I was too gay for them. I’m always too gay! What can I fucking do?! I was gay and I was a teacher and I was out and I had local protection of my job in San Francisco. They still didn’t want me to be a spokesperson for the official No on Briggs Initiative campaign. It was all a strategy of, “We have to be careful. Tom’s not a good spokesperson. Too gay.” Instead they found some poor guy to be the media front for our side. I wish I could remember his name. I think they dragged him screaming and yelling from San Mateo to be the spokesperson for the campaign. He seemed very sweet but he had no presence and, I remember, a bad dye job. He eventually freaked out because he couldn’t take all of the media pressure.

Then there was another guy who was elevated to be the spokesperson for No on Briggs who was a really nice guy. Larry Berner, he was from Sonoma. I liked him. They kind of gravitated towards him because he was “presentable.” He’s gone now but he and I would communicate and laugh about him being one of the quote, “good gays.”

Ultimately, mostly it was the grassroots effort that we put forth that defeated the Briggs Initiative. Other efforts were more about getting endorsements and doing mailings which may have a modest impact but won’t dramatically turn the tide of an election.

Eventually, Harvey became the spokesperson for the “No” Campaign and he had major help from a woman named Sally Gearhart. You can see it in the films that the two pro-Briggs Initiative people—Briggs himself and the pastor that was helping him—were really ridiculous and absurd in their claims of what just being in the presence of a gay person would do to harm children. Harvey was direct and charmed people and Gearhart was very academic and persuasive. They won people over.

The campaign strategy was always divided: should it be a moderate approach, and hardly show any gay people—or should it be more activist and open about who we were? Probably a blend of both is what worked in the end. I have never really reconciled with that attitude of “somebody’s being too gay, you have to be careful” because that leads to a solution that is based on exclusion rather than a negotiation.

We saw the same strategic divide many years later with the statewide initiative to ban gay marriage. That was, of course, Proposition 8 in 2008. The official No on Prop. 8 campaign took a lot of fucking money and then blew off people of color who wanted to help them. Their literature hardly had any gay couples. They lost. It was terrible.

Knocking on doors to defeat the Briggs Initiative was very interesting. I used to make a joke, “If you go door to door campaigning in San Francisco, depending on what neighborhood you are in you don’t know if you’re going to get a hostile reception or a friendly one. Here’s how you should deal with whatever they say: ‘Thank you very much.’ The joke part was, if the door opens and it’s a very tall man in a boa and a big hat just say, ‘Good Afternoon Monsignor!”

All over it was the same. They didn’t necessarily want to talk about gay people but I don’t think we ever got, “I’m going to kill you.” Remember you’re knocking on people’s doors and people don’t like that anyway, so most people aren’t chipper about being bothered. But most people listen at least a little. Who knows if you change people’s minds? But, remember, our presence alone was a big deal. In general at that time, nobody ever said in the daily lives of most people in Fresno, “Hi, I’m gay.” No matter how they voted in the end, that education mattered.

A combination of the activism and BACABI’s work won it for us. There was no internet in those days. Everything was communicated by phone. On Election Nights you would be in a place and you’d write the vote total number in chalk and then erase it. On Election Night November 7, 1978, the early results for the Briggs Initiative were looking terrible and it seemed like it would pass. People who had put everything they had into this thing were crying. I said, “oh fuck.” Then the results came in from LA County. It was a total miscalculation on the right-wing side and we won big, 2 to 1.


Flyer: courtesy Bolerium Books

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The anti-gay forces did have some victories, unfortunately. In the year 2000 a statewide ballot initiative by State Senator Pete Knight banned gay marriage broadly; that was Prop. 22. Incidentally, Pete Knight’s son, Steve Knight, was in the state Legislature with me. He was a cop and very right wing.

In the beginning, I wished that the teachers union had done more sooner, which was painful for me. The conventional line was that there was no need for a group called the gay teachers because “we’re all teachers,” or some shit like that. Eventually they did the right thing. But homophobia is very entrenched. Especially when you had closeted gay teachers on the sly saying, “Don’t listen to this. Our jobs need to be protected.” The NEA—National Education Association—they were good. The librarians union was good too, a woman there named Barbara Giddings. They passed all kinds of resolutions supporting gender equality and LGBT rights. They were great. Eventually our local teachers union came along too. My joke is, show me a room full of teachers and I’ll show you a gay bar.

One of the things Hank and I did in organizing gay teachers was we established a Speakers Bureau. We thought it was important for students to see us. We got some very brave people to help. One was a woman named Jocelyn Siegel. We would go into the classrooms. The dynamics were this: mostly it was straight teachers who invited us to speak. Sometimes even they faltered because they didn’t prepare their students. All this has been taken care of since then—the Speakers Bureau is very professional now and works very well. But at that time it was more freewheeling. The kind of questions you would get from students were things like, “Did you get fucked in the butt?” So you really couldn’t just walk in cold because they’d never talked to an out gay person.

They were high school students. Everybody was nervous. Closeted gay teachers tried to undermine us. They went to the principal and said you don’t need to have them come here. Plus, the rockiness of us being new and dealing with kids made it tough. One time the principal at Mission High School came down and sat in the class while we spoke to the students. When it was over and the principal had left, I said to the students, “Well, how did you feel about the principal being there while we spoke?” They said, “Who?” The students didn’t even know who their principal was. It was a big disconnect.

After we spoke somebody went to the tabloids, to the National Enquirer. I think the teacher who did that was a Bible thumper. She said: “They made me do this! They made me have them speak!” I was on the front page of the National Enquirer under the headline: “GAY TEACHERS TEACH GAY POSITIONS.” They used the word “positions” to juxtapose the physical and the policy. There was my photo, captioned: “Tom Ammiano, perverted teacher.”

That was my National Enquirer debut. When I saw it I thought, “Oh great, my mother is going to see that when she goes to the supermarket.” I didn’t wait for her to call me, I never did. I always preempted problems with her. I think by that time I was out. Still, she was like, “What! More? Isn’t it bad enough already?”

Still, the Gay Teachers’ Speakers Bureau was rolling right along. There was a nice gay teacher at Everett. He brought in Speakers to talk to his kids about being gay and to answer their questions. The students had good questions and it all seemed to go well. What we didn’t know was there was a movement of evangelicals against us.

What I’m going to tell you next happened in Sonoma too, so this was a coordinated effort. There was a guy who lived in my neighborhood, Bernal Heights. He said he was just a simple teacher. But he was part of a big anti-gay organization. What they did was plant kids in there. The kids were young, 10 and 12 years old. So after the Speaker came, the kid would say that the Speaker and the teacher allowed a dildo to come out and described in graphic detail how you use it. That was totally false. But it succeeded in getting attention. Then this guy put up flyers around where we live in Bernal Heights that said, “Tom Ammiano is a child molester.” Nice.

Next, Chronicle writer, the grobian Debra Saunders, took up the cause of this guy. She trashed the Gay Teachers Speakers Bureau in the Chronicle and said what a wonderful parent this anti-gay guy was.

I went on KQED with Michael Krasny to talk about it. Krasny is great but I was miffed because he has to do the “two sides” thing where everybody gets the same reasonable consideration no matter how outrageous and bigoted their comments are. To me there were not two reasonable sides. They had a student—the daughter of the anti-gay activist—call in to the show to say, “Oh, I was so upset. There was a dildo in the classroom.” I said, “That did not happen.” She said, “Are you calling me a liar?” I said, “I’m a teacher and I’m telling you what you said is not true.” It was upsetting.

The teacher who brought in the speakers was put on suspension even though he did nothing but the right thing. The union could have been better in backing him up. Eventually what happened was that the teacher almost lost his teaching credential permanently. The issue went all the way up to the top in Sacramento. The Credentialing Committee did not revoke his credential—remember he did nothing wrong—but they told him he could work in the library but not in the classroom anymore. That was the outcome of that fiasco. I thought the lawyers that were supposed to defend him did a crappy job.

During all of this, I gave an off-hand interview to a gay newspaper called Frontiers. It was kind of a glossy newspaper out of LA. I think they put my picture on the cover. They wrote this article and they repeated what I’m telling you about this incident. Then the Bernal Heights anti-gay guy and whatever his anti-gay organization was sued Frontiers for not presenting “their” side. Frontiers gave in and the guy got to write a whole article about why Tom Ammiano was wrong and a pervert. (That’s Mr. Pervert to you.)

I let it go. Enough already. The bigots got a platform while the teacher got penalized and he didn’t do shit. The teacher did like being in the library and he didn’t lose his job so it could have been worse. But I always felt tremendously guilty about the teacher not being reinstated as a teacher just for doing his job.


Originally Chapter 5 "Beating Briggs" in Kiss My Gay Ass (Bay Guardian Books: 2020). Excerpted here with permission.