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Jan 2, 200906:00 PMBest Of Editor Picks

Walnut Creek’s Pivotal Moment in Milk’s Spotlight

Jan 2, 2009 - 06:00 PM
Walnut Creek’s Pivotal Moment in <i>Milk’s</i> Spotlight

A Walnut Creek school gymnasium shows up in the part of the film that covers Milk’s 1978 campaign against Proposition 6.  At the time, this proposition was as hotly debated as this year’s Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban. Back in 1978, Proposition 6, if approved by voters, would have made it mandatory for school districts to fire gay teachers and any public school employee who supported gay rights. 

Before I get to Walnut Creek’s moment in Milk’s spotlight, here is some background on Milk and Proposition 6:

In 1977, Milk made history by being elected San Francisco supervisor, representing the city’s Castro district. The next year, John Briggs, a conservative state senator from Fullerton and a failed gubernatorial candidate, decided to jump on the anti-gay bandwagon that had been sweeping the United States at the time. Anti-gay laws had been passed in municipalities throughout the United States, including a repeal of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida, led by former beauty queen and orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant. Briggs’ campaign for Proposition 6 earned it the title “the Briggs Initiative.”.

Milk (excellently portrayed by Sean Penn in the film) saw defeating Proposition 6 as a milestone in the state and national battle for equal rights for gays and lesbians, according to Milk and to Randy Shilts, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter and pioneering gay journalist who wrote an authoritative biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.

Both Milk and Shilts’ book describe how Briggs and Milk engaged in numerous debates around the state, during which Briggs maintained that homosexual teachers wanted to abuse and turn children gay. Milk responded with statistics compiled by law enforcement that provided evidence that pedophiles identified primarily as heterosexual, and dismissed Briggs' points with one-liner jokes: "If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you'd sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around.”

Some of those debates took place in school gymnasiums, including one identified in the film as  belonging to the Walnut Creek School District, of which I’m a graduate. In the film, the scene is presented as a “Channel 7” live presentation of the debate between the two politicians. 

In fact, a Walnut Creek high school gymnasium was the setting for a September 1978 debate between Milk and Briggs, and it was broadcast live on TV throughout the Bay Area, according to Shilts’ biography.

But—and I’m getting a nitpicky here—it couldn’t have been a “Walnut Creek School District” high school gymnasium because the Walnut Creek district, then and now, only comprises elementary and middle schools. So, it could have been the gymnasiums for Northgate or Las Lomas high schools—or the now-closed Del Valle high school campus. (Las Lomas and Del Valle are part of the Acalanes Union School District; Northgate is part of the Mount Diablo Unified School District). I don’t think it was Del Valle High. I was a sophomore there at the time and don’t remember my school hosting the debate.

In any event, if Shilts says a Milk-Briggs debate happened in Walnut Creek school gymnasium, I’m sure it did. He was known as a reporter of the highest courage and integrity. In any event, here is his book’s description of the debate:

[Senator Briggs] perspired lightly under the glare of television lights and the derisive sighs of the overwhelmingly hostile audience. Briggs cited the apocryphal statistics he brought up in every debate: a third of San Francisco’s teachers were gays, as were 20 percent of Los Angeles.
“Many of them are in the closet,” he concluded, “and frankly, that’s where I think they should remain.”

“If Senator Briggs think he’s better than Christ, that he can decide what’s moral,” [Milk] snapped back, “then maybe we should have elected him Pope.”

Harvey was reading the line off one of the dozens of five-by-nine inch pieces of paper on which he had methodically typed each pat answer to all those equally pat charges which arose in his debates with the Fullerton senator. The debate in a high school auditorium in suburban Walnut Creek—televised live to the Bay Area—looked like as heated an exchange as could be found in American politics.

As much as I don’t remember the debate taking place in Walnut Creek, I do remember—even as a supposedly self-involved 15-year-old—Proposition 6 on the ballot. I also remember Milk’s role in speaking out against it and his triumphant demeanor during a TV interview on election night in 1978, after learning it was defeated. 

A few weeks after election night, Milk would be dead. I actually have pretty strong memories of that horrible day, November 27, 1978, when Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco City Hall. The Bay Area was already reeling from news that more than 900 people, many from the Bay Area, had died the previous week in the Jonestown cult suicide/massacre in Guyana. I barely slept the night that Milk and Moscone were killed. This would be the first, but not the last, time in my life that a news event would disturb me in a profound, almost indescribable way.

In thinking back to that Walnut Creek scene in Milk, and to Shilts’ description of the “derisive sighs” and the “overwhelmingly hostile” audience reception to Briggs’ statements, I can say that I’m gratified to learn that my suburban hometown didn’t live up to the stereotype that some might have had of it—of being conservative, narrow-minded, and bigoted. It turns out that Walnut Creek demonstrated the best of itself: a community made up of people who are sensible, fair-minded, and compassionate.   

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