Recent ban recalls 1978 Briggs Initiative

As same-sex marriage advocates pursue their efforts to overturn Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, could “Milk” provide a roadmap?

The Focus Features biopic of gay civil rights icon Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, is prescient – to some inspirational; to others reminders of what went wrong in fighting the ballot initiative.

A central feature of the movie is Milk’s 1978 effort to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a draconian measure backed by singer Anita Bryant that would have forced schools in California to fire (and refuse to hire) gay teachers.

But Briggs was defeated. Proposition 8 passed.

Since then, the Prop 8 debacle has awakened a new and more aggressive group of younger same-sex marriage activists, organized not by established gay rights organizations but on the Internet.

Among those demonstrating has been “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who along with the real-life Cleve Jones, an associate of Milk’s, launched a seven-week “equality campaign” starting Nov. 27, the 30th anni of Milk’s death, and extending to the inauguration. In their call for a “nationwide campaign of mass protests and nonviolent civil disobedience,” they say, “We must personally introduce ourselves to those who would discriminate against us. We must make ourselves visible.”

Such a call for visibility comes from “Milk.” There’s a scene in the movie in which he attends an anti-Briggs planning meeting, and rails against the proposed campaign tactics. He looks at a campaign flyer, which casts the battle as a “human-rights issue” but kept gays invisible.

“This is shit,” Milk says. “It’s just a coward’s response to a dangerous threat.”

By contrast, the No on 8 campaign has been criticized, even before the election, for its scarcity of ads featuring gay couples, apparently in response to research that it wouldn’t be an effective way of reaching undecided voters. Rick Jacobs, whose progressive Courage Campaign produced its own independent No on 8 spots, finds fault in No on 8’s “top down, media-driven, focus group campaign.”

It’s hard to see one of his ads passing such traditional campaign muster. His spot featured Mormon missionaries coming to a suburban home’s doorstep and taking away a lesbian couple’s marriage license and wedding rings.But those who worked on No on 8 caution against Monday-morning quarterbacking.

Political consultant Chad Griffin points out that, as easy as it is to compare 2008 to 1978, these really are two different types of campaigns. What’s more, it wasn’t as if No on 8 was hiding gay couples – they got plenty of exposure in free media, whether from those going down the aisle for the first time when same-sex marriage became legal in June, or Ellen DeGeneres and “Star Trek”s George Takei gathering tons of publicity when they tied the knot with their respective partners.

Adds Griffin, “There are so many `what-ifs’ of what could have made a difference.”

One of those is obvious: the lack of a Milk in the marriage movement. One of the producers of the movie, Bruce Cohen, notes, “We haven’t had a national leader of the gay rights movement really since. It adds impact to a movement when you have someone nationally recognized out in front of it.”

Thanks to a new dose of activism, there are high hopes that that may just happen such a leader just might emerge.

It’s an open question as to how such a figure would wield power in the long run, or interact with activists in the Internet age.

At one point in the film, Milk makes it well known that he’s able to deliver blocks of votes from the gay community. A bit surprised by Milk’s political power play, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone wryly admonishes him for sounding like Boss Tweed or Chicago’s Mayor Daley.

Today’s new activists “are coming from this whole grassroots Internet organizing where they want to do it themselves and they don’t want some old fart telling them what to do,” Cohen says. “In that sense it is different now, and that is part of what is exciting about what is happening.”

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