In 1978 Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to major office in the US, led the fight against Proposition 6. The California ballot measure would have banned gay teachers, including those already teaching, from public schools. Milk's organization against Prop. 6 is featured in the upcoming movie MILK, staring Sean Penn. A group of close friends, including Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg, surrounded Milk in his quest to preserve the human rights of gay Americans. I recently got the chance to meet longtime civil rights activists Cleve and Anne and ask them what they make of today's gay rights movement.
How does Proposition 6 compare with today's Proposition 8 to outlaw gay marriage?
Anne: Proposition 6 was (about) a basic fundamental right of gay men and women being allowed to teach in our schools. It was based on a morality that gays would be recruiting the kids and trying to turn them over into homosexuals, which is so bizarre. I think the same right-wing, Christian, born-again (groups) certainly play a big role in Prop. 8 currently. But (now) we're talking about an equality issue. . . . If you think in 30 years the difference (between) the paranoia of "I have a teacher and they're going to make me a dyke," to now we're talking about marriage — I think Harvey is smiling that we are even there.
To find out if Cleve thinks Proposition 8 will be defeated tomorrow as well as what he makes of today's gay activists,
Cleve: I think we're going to win, but I don't feel the level of fear that I felt then. I feel that history's on our side, that we are moving in the right direction. And that if we do lose it will be a setback and I will be angry and disappointed, but I won't feel the same gut-level fear that we felt then. If Prop. 6 passed, we were going down a slippery slope right to fascism. I mean, that was outrageous — how would they determine who was homosexual? How would they test us? And it also included language for those who advocated for homosexuals. There was much more . . . real fear in the pit of your stomach and of the violence that could be unleashed. . . . It's very different now. We are winning and winning and winning. If we lose this one, it will be a minor and temporary setback.
Do you think today's gay youth have the same passion?
Cleve: I often say to younger people, "you know things are only new once, and I'm sorry you missed it" (laughs). But I think you can look at all the economic changes in San Francisco. It was much easier to live in the city then, it was much cheaper. Artists, students, young people could live on very little money. . . . But things are only new once. And all of us that were participating in the movement were keenly aware that we were participating in something that had never been seen. . . . It was just an amazing time. And everything was brand new: the first marching band, the first gay synagogue, the first gay film festival, all of the institutions and structures we now take for granted.
Photo courtesy of Focus Films