When Harvey Milk fought the culture wars at this Bay Area high school

Northgate High School in Walnut Creek pays tribute to Milk’s historic 1978 debate in their gym, against a conservative state senator who was pushing a state proposition that would bar LGBTQ+ teachers from working in public schools

On a September evening in 1978, Harvey Milk left his home base in San Francisco’s Castro district, the epicenter of America’s gay rights movement, to travel to the East Bay suburbs.

Milk’s destination was Walnut Creek’s Northgate High, where he fought the culture wars of the time and helped change the course of LGBTQ+ history in the final two months of his life. In front of a live TV audience, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor deftly debated John Briggs, a conservative Orange County state senator who was pushing an initiative that would bar LGBTQ+ teachers and supporters from working in California’s public schools. It was such a watershed moment in gay rights history that the high school will commemorate it with a public ceremony on Monday, Oct. 16.

According to reports, the charismatic Milk dominated the debate, effectively countering Briggs’ claims that “homosexuals want your children.” Two months later, the “Mayor of Castro Street” reached the pinnacle of his political power when he and other activists helped ensure the defeat of the “Briggs Initiative” at the polls. Sadly, Milk’s performance at Northgate High was one of his final public appearances. On Nov. 27, he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled colleague.

During the Oct. 16 ceremony, which coincides with LGBTQ+ History Month, Northgate teachers, students, and administrators, Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, and local officials and activists will dedicate a plaque in the school gym as “a powerful reminder of the significant event that happened here,” according to social studies teacher Meg Honey, who is organizing the event.

Honey finds it difficult to believe that such a discriminatory ballot initiative could gain traction in a statewide election. However, Honey and others in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District are aware of the culture wars raging in neighboring school districts. Moms for Liberty and other conservative groups have attempted to prevent schools in San Jose, Sunol, and the San Ramon Valley from teaching about LGBTQ+ issues or flying pride flags over the last two months.

“I am so proud to be part of a school community that uplifts the experiences and contributions of marginalized groups,” Honey went on to say. “Harvey Milk helped protect the human rights of school employees, and it is time that his courageous leadership during the debate at Northgate High is honored.”

Mt. Diablo Unified Superintendent Adam Clark added, “It’s just sad that we’ve made progress in so many ways, but that we’re going backwards with these attacks on civil rights and equal justice.” So far, Clark has not heard of any groups planning to protest the ceremony.

In the years since Milk’s death, he has inspired numerous biographies, an opera, and two Oscar-winning films, including the 2008 biopic starring Sean Penn. Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2009. Milk served in office for only 11 months, despite being a public figure who left an indelible impression.

The native New Yorker, former Broadway producer, and self-described hippy moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened his storied camera shop on Castro Street, just as the neighborhood was seeing an influx of new gay and lesbian residents. He discovered his political calling as a “champion of the little guy” and “an articulate champion of progressive causes,” according to biographer Randy Shilts.

Milk ran for supervisor three times and won in November 1977, garnering national attention. One of his accomplishments as a supervisor was sponsoring an ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Outside of San Francisco, however, conservatives were mounting a counter-offensive to LGBTQ+ gains. Anita Bryant, a singer, led a successful campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, inspiring Briggs, who was considering running for governor. He worked hard to get his initiative on the ballot, knowing that it would be the first time an entire state voted on LGBTQ+ rights.

Milk challenged Briggs to a debate on Proposition 6. They clashed several times, including in Orange County. Shilts described their confrontation in the Northgate High gym as “as heated an exchange as could be found in American politics.”

Briggs perspired under the bright lights of TV cameras, insisting that he only wanted to defend the family, while claiming that “homosexuals” sought jobs as teachers so they could serve as role models and recruit “your children” to their lifestyle.

Milk responded by saying he was “raised by heterosexual parents” and “taught by heterosexual teachers” in “a fiercely heterosexual society… so why am I homosexual?” “And no offense, but if teachers are going to affect you as role models, then there’d be a lot of nuns running around the streets today,” Milk joked. His joke elicited laughter from the audience, which included suburbanites, a handful of Briggs supporters, and hundreds of Milk supporters bused in from San Francisco.

In his famous 1978 “Hope Speech,” Milk bemoaned “the Anita Bryants and John Briggs who are doing their bit on TV” to diminish young gay people’s sense of self-worth.

The message resonates with Northgate junior Ares Foster, who is speaking at the ceremony. Foster stated that he has experienced homophobia and transphobia.

“I, for one, am very vocal about the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.” “If I believe in something, I want to demonstrate my belief,” Foster explained. “(Milk) fought for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.” That’s really cool and interesting, and I want to be like that.”

The Harvey Milk tribute on October 16 is free and open to the public. It begins at 6 p.m. in the gymnasium at 425 Castle Rock Road, Walnut Creek.

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