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December 21, 2008

WC School District Makes Cameo Appearance in "Milk"


What’s referred to as the “Walnut Creek School District” provides the setting for one scene in the new critically acclaimed film biography of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a major political office in the United States.

Before I tell you how our local school district gets its “closeup,” I’ll just say there are lots of things I could write about this film, including its relevance to issues of today (the ongoing Proposition 8 debate).

I also have strong personal memories of being a straight, teenage girl living in Walnut Creek at the time Milk was elected supervisor in 1977 and of seeing him on TV through the following year, speaking out against Proposition 6, a proposed law that would have made it mandatory to fire gay teachers and any public school employee who supported gay rights.

I also have pretty vivid memories of those horrible 10 days in November 1978—first of when news broke on November 18 about the Jonestown cult mass suicide/massacre, which involved a number of former Bay Area residents—and then of when Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in San Francisco City Hall on November 27, 1978. Their assailant was a City Hall colleague, Dan White, a disgruntled, anti-gay supervisor who had just resigned his seat. I remember watching TV coverage of then-Board of Supervisors president and now-U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein announcing the deaths of Milk and Moscone and then, that evening, the spontaneous candlelight march from the Castro district to City Hall, which spanned the width of Market Street, and extended a mile and a half long.

Many of these events are covered in Milk, starring Sean Penn as the former camera store owner who became the “Mayor of Castro Street.”

The cameo by the Walnut Creek school district comes during the part of the film that covers Milk’s campaign against the aforementioned Proposition 6. Just some background: Leading up to Proposition 6, there was a wave of anti-gay votes in municipalities around the United States, including a repeal of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida, led by former beauty queen and orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant. Proposition 6 wound up on the California ballot with conservative state Senator John Briggs as the major figurehead behind it. In fact, the measure was known as the Briggs Initiative.

Milk, as depicted by Milk, saw defeating Proposition 6 as a milestone in the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians.

Briggs and Milk engaged in numerous debates around the state, during which Briggs maintained that homosexual teachers wanted to abuse and turn children gay. Milk responded with statistics compiled by law enforcement that provided evidence that pedophiles identified primarily as heterosexual, and dismissed Briggs' points with one-liner jokes: "If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you'd sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around.”

Some of those debates took place in school gymnasiums, including one identified as belonging to the Walnut Creek School District, of which I’m a graduate and which my son currently attends. The scene is presented as a “Channel 7” live presentation of the debate between Milk and Briggs. And it is during this scene that Milk makes his joke about how "you’d have a helluva lot more nuns running around” if it was true that children would turn gay just by having an openly gay teacher.

As I said, I remember the Proposition 6 measure being on the ballot, and I remember Milk’s role in speaking out against it and his jubilant demeanor during an interview after learning of its defeat on election night in November 1978. I don’t remember Milk and Briggs coming to Walnut Creek to debate the proposition—not that they didn’t. I just don’t remember.

In the fall of 1978, I was student directing my Walnut Creek high school drama department’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s tender family comedy, Ah, Wilderness! Milk was killed the week we presented that show. Most noteworthy about that show: the student playing O’Neill’s idealized version of a father was a good friend of mine who, in the wake up Milk’s death, would come out openly as gay in our high school. He was harassed by some jocks on campus.

My friend never said so but it’s likely he was taking to heart and putting into action the words that Milk spoke in an electrifying speech he made on the night that Proposition 6 was defeated. In a few weeks, Milk would be dead.

Rob Epstein, who directed the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, quoted some of Milk’s speech in a recent column for the Huffington Post, in which he analyzes similarities between this year’s Proposition 8 debate and Milk’s anti-Proposition 6 campaign 30 years earlier:


"...to the gay community all over this state, my message to you is, so far a lot of people joined us and rejected Proposition 6, and we owe them something. We owe them to continue the education campaign that took place. We must destroy the myths once and for all, shatter them. We must continue to speak out, and most importantly, most importantly, every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people in the stores you shop in (thunderous applause), and once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better."

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article soccer mom.Thank you for your local blog.This and claycord are the two I go to first every morning. I enjoy your writing and agree with all of your views so it makes for a nice read for me. I saw Milk the other night, what an amazing film.

Soccer Mom said...

Wow! Thanks for your nice comment. And if there is anything I should be doing differently on this blog, feel free to let me know. It's a work in progress, and I'm finding my way.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I just saw this today at the WC theater and was wondering whether it was true or not. I would have figured that WC in the seventies was a very conservative, anti-gay town, so I'm surprised the audience was portrayed to be sympathetic to Milk. I'd be curious to find out whether a) it actually did take place there, and b) the audience was sympathetic to Milk.

Soccer Mom said...

Dear Anonymous,
I'm curious to track that down and find out whether Milk did bring his debate with Briggs to Walnut Creek. The gymnasium shown in the film doesn't look like anything belonging to the Walnut Creek School District; it looks more like a high school gym, as in Las Lomas High, not a middle school gym. My understanding is that the film was pretty heavily researched and documented, with Milk's associates as technical advisor. I can't see any reason, for reasons of artistic license, to say the debate was happening in Walnut Creek as opposed to any other suburban community in California.

If I find out anything, I'll do a post about it.

As far as Walnut Creek being anti-gay? Well, if Milk did come to WC to debate Briggs, people in WC wouldn't have organized a rally against Milk's presence. I think they would have shrugged, and thought, oh, that homosexual politician who's getting a lot of press lately is coming to town. That's a little strange but interesting and whatever--not that these same Walnut Creekans wouldn't have suffered a major identity crisis had they found out that their child was gay...

There might have been protests if Milk had gone to Concord, because, from what I remember, there was a Traditional Values-esque coalition building there in the 1970s and 1980s, led by a church leader who did attempt to get anti-gay legislation approved in Concord in the early 1980s. Again, I'd have to look that up. If anyone has a better memory of that, let me know.

I do know there was a big stink at the Contra Costa Times in the late 1980s over its coverage of a gay event. Margaret Lesher, the conservative wife of publisher Dean Lesher, pitched a fit when a Monday edition of the Times, in the late 1980s, ran a front-page story about the Gay Freedom Day parade in SF the day before.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to rent "The Times of Harvey Milk" documentary and see if there's any info in there about it. The movie seems to imply that WC was totally pro-Milk, versus the pro-Briggs audience in OC which doesn't make any sense to me. Had the debate taken place in Berkeley I could see that making sense, but not in WC.

Soccer Mom said...

I saw The Times of Harvey Milk when it first came out. Great film. I'll be interested to hear what you find out.

Soccer Mom said...

Okay, I just found this on Google Book Search: Randy Shilts', "The Mayor of Castro Street." The entire book online. The reference to WC is page 229: "The debate in a high school auditorium in suburban Walnut Creek--televised live to the Bay Area--looked like as heated an exchange as could be found in American politics..."
But according to the book, Milk's "nuns" comment might have come later in the campaign.
http://books.google.com/books?id=P_2f521UkFIC&pg=PA229&lpg=PA229&dq=Harvey+Milk+debates+John+Briggs+Walnut+Creek&source=web&ots=BKEh8sJDdq&sig=u4it73clh4T54eGjQz8EYa-Pj-8&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result#PPA229,M1

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. A page later he writes, "The crowd cheered Milk on." Is this the WC crowd, or a crowd at another debate? He states that the WC debate was broadcast live, buy how would the author remember all this without reviewing the videotape of it? Maybe the tape of the debate exists in the broadcaster's archives or something. I would love to see that debate.

Soccer Mom said...

Wouldn't it be great to see the original debate? I just looked at Shilts' biography on Wikipedia. Shilts published the book in 1982. He was an openly gay journalist, which made it hard for him to get a regular newspaper job right after graduating from college in 1975. It doesn't say when he moved to SF, but he was doing freelance work, and perhaps as a freelancer, he was covering SF gay politics in the mid to late 1970s, includng the rise of Harvey Milk and his anti-Prop. 6 campaign. Yes, this requires more digging.

Did you ever read Shilts' "And the Band Played On"? At one point, as a journalist, I covered the AIDS epidemic overseas, as it was emerging as a global crisis. "And the Band Played On" was my Bible in terms of presenting the history of the disease, its emergence, and social and political response to it. No wonder they made a movie of it: it's a page-turner.

Anonymous said...

I did not know that. Anyway, I just finished watching the Milk documentary from 1984. I don't believe WC is mentioned anywhere in it directly, although there was a shot of a gym which could have been where the debate took place. Maybe I just zoned out and missed it.

I think what could have happened is that since WC is in the bay area, Milk's supporters were bussed in to WC causing such support for him. Maybe someone who reads this blog and was there could chime in with more info.