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

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 venture out to the East Bay suburbs.

Milk’s destination was Walnut Creek’s Northgate High, where he fought that era’s version of the culture wars 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 artfully debated John Briggs, a conservative Orange County state senator, who was pushing an initiative that would prevent LGBTQ+ teachers and their supporters from working in California’s public schools. It proved to be such a pivotal moment in gay rights history that the high School will commemorate it with a public ceremony on Monday, Oct. 16.

News accounts show that the charismatic Milk crushed it in 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. Tragically, Milk’s performance at Northgate High was one of his last public appearances. He and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in City Hall on Nov. 27 by Dan White, a disgruntled colleague.

State Sen. John Briggs photographed debating San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in their historic debate over Prop. 6 at Northgate High School on Sept. 15, 1978. 

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,” said social studies teacher Meg Honey, who is coordinating the event.

Honey said it’s hard to believe there was a time when such a discriminatory ballot initiative could gain traction in a statewide election. Then again, Honey and others in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District are cognizant of the culture wars taking place in neighboring school districts. In the past two months, Moms for Liberty and other conservative groups have sought to stop schools in San Jose, Sunol and the San Ramon Valley from teaching about LGBTQ+ issues or flying pride flags.

“I am so proud to be part of a school community that uplifts the experiences and contributions of marginalized groups,” Honey said. “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.”

Adam Clark, Mt. Diablo Unified’s superintendent, 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.” Thus far, Clark has not heard of any groups planning to protest the ceremony.

In the years since Milk’s death, the icon has been the subject of multiple biographies, an opera and two Oscar-winning films, including the 2008 biopic starring Sean Penn. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by Barack Obama. For a public figure who made such a lasting impression, Milk spent just 11 months in office.

The native New Yorker, former Broadway producer and self-described hippy arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and opened his storied camera shop on Castro Street, as the neighborhood was seeing an influx of new gay and lesbian residents. He found his calling in politics by becoming the “champion of the little guy” and “an articulate champion of progressive causes,” biographer Randy Shilts wrote.

Milk ran for supervisor three times and made national headlines when he won in November 1977. One of his accomplishments as supervisor was sponsoring an ordinance that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

But outside San Francisco, conservatives were mounting pushbacks against LGBTQ+ gains. Singer Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, inspiring Briggs, who was eyeing a race for governor. He pushed for his initiative to be placed on the ballot, knowing it would mark the first time an entire state would vote on LGBTQ+ rights.

With his growing statewide visibility, Milk challenged Briggs to debate Prop. 6. They squared off several times, including in Orange County. Their showdown in the Northgate High gym “looked like as heated an exchange as could be found in American politics,” Shilts said.

Briggs perspired under the bright lights of TV cameras, as he insisted 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 replied by saying he was “raised by heterosexual parents” and “taught by heterosexual teachers” in “a fiercely heterosexual society … so why am I homosexual?” With his trademark humor, Milk quipped: “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.” His joke drew laughter from the crowd, which included suburbanites, a handful of Briggs supporters and hundreds of Milk supporters bused in from San Francisco.

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

The message resonates with Northgate junior Ares Foster, who is speaking at the ceremony. Foster said he has dealt with his share of homophobia and transphobia.

“Me, myself, I’m very outspoken about the rights of LGBTQ+ community. If I believe in something, I want to show my beliefs,” Foster said. “(Milk) fought for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. I think that’s really cool and interesting and I want to be like that.”

The tribute to Harvey Milk on Oct. 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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When Harvey Milk fought the culture wars at this Bay Area high school


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