The Briggs initiative: A Scary Proposition

September 2018 – January 2019

Curated by Sue Englander, Paula Lichtenberg, and Glenne McElhinney

“Never Again! Fight Back!” (San Francisco: Too Much Graphics, 1978); silk-screened poster sold as a fundraiser for the No on Six campaign, GLBT Historical Society.

“Never Again! Fight Back!” (San Francisco: Too Much Graphics, 1978); silk-screened poster sold as a fundraiser for the No on Six campaign, GLBT Historical Society.

“The Briggs Initiative: A Scary Proposition” marked the 40th anniversary of the defeat of a California ballot measure that would have banned lesbian and gay people and supporters of lesbian and gay rights from teaching public schools. The exhibition recounts the history of this turning point for LGBTQ rights.

Detail of a poster for an “Evening of Education and Culture” organized by Lesbian Schoolworkers and Gay Teachers and Schoolworkers (San Francisco, 1978), GLBT Historical Society.

Detail of a poster for an “Evening of Education and Culture” organized by Lesbian Schoolworkers and Gay Teachers and Schoolworkers (San Francisco, 1978), GLBT Historical Society.

Sponsored by State Senator John Briggs, Proposition Six was part of a wave of homophobic ballot measures across the United States. On November 7, 1978, Californians decisively voted down the measure. The No on Six campaign was the first to succeed in stopping anti-gay forces in the voting booth. Among the best remembered leaders of the effort was Harvey Mlik, but many other groups and individuals also made vital contributions.

“This exhibition will bring a scary time for LGBTQ people zinging back for those of us who were there, reminding us that we can fight the forces of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and win even against long odds,” said co-curator Sue Englander. “And if you weren’t here 40 years ago, the story will sear itself into your consciousness. The differences between 1978 and today aren’t as big as they may look.”

Drawing on posters, buttons, flyers, photographs, videos and other scarce materials from the archives of the GLBT Historical Society and the San Francisco History Center of the San Francisco Public Library, the exhibition traced the history of the fight to defeat Briggs and advance equality for LGBTQ people and their allies in California. The show focused in particular on organizing in the Bay Area. Joining Sue Englander as co-curators were Paula Lichtenberg and Glenne McElhinney. All are veterans of the No on Six campaign.

“No on 6” bumper sticker (San Francisco: Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, 1978). Collection of the GLBT Historical Society.

“No on 6” bumper sticker (San Francisco: Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative, 1978). Collection of the GLBT Historical Society.

About the Curators

Sue Englander is a historian who has been active in the LGBTQ movement since 1977, when she joined the campaign against the Briggs Initiative. She practiced as a registered nurse for 25 years, working with people with AIDS for much of that time. In 1989, she received a master’s degree in history at San Francisco State University, then went on to a Ph.D. at UCLA in 1999. She worked for 10 years at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, and currently teaches at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco.

Paula Lichtenberg is a retired law librarian with a lifelong interest in historical research. She has written articles, given public talks, prepared exhibitions and led walking tours on LGBTQ history and other subjects. She was co-chair of the Bay Area Committee Against the Briggs Initiative/No on Proposition Six and has served on the boards of Community United Against Violence and the San Francisco Chapter of the National Organization for Women. A co-founder of the GLBT Historical Society, she is co-curator of the “Faces of the Past” display in the “Queer Past Becomes Present” exhibition in our Main Gallery. 

Glenne McElhinney is the founder of Impact Stories, a California-based project that uses oral histories, documentary films and exhibitions to bring alive the histories of LGBTAQ people and their allies for all types of audiences. A Bay Area native, McElhinney marched in her first San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1976. In 1982, she was a founding member of InterPride, the international association of pride organizations. Since 2008, she has worked as an oral historian, filmmaker and curator focusing on LGBTQ history.


Banner photo: Dave Earl, the Briggs Initiative exhibition.