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January 14, 2009

Proof! Yes, Harvey Milk came to WC and debated at Northgate High


A few weeks ago, I wrote about how what’s referred to as the “Walnut Creek School District” provides the setting for a pivotal scene in Milk, the new critically acclaimed film biography of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a major political office in the United States.


That mention piqued the curiosity of former Walnut Creek resident Jonathan Butterworth, who was delighted at the idea that his outwardly conservative suburban hometown might have played such a significant role in gay civil rights history.


In fact Butterworth was so intrigued by this possibility that he did the hard work of tracking down irrefutable proof that Harvey Milk How came to Walnut Creek to participate in a historic debate to argue against Proposition 6, a 1978 measure that would have required public school districts to fire teachers and other employees who are gay or who openly support gay rights.

The scene involving a Walnut Creek school in the film was presented a live Channel 7 debate between Milks and Senator John Briggs, a conservative state senator from Southern California who campaigned strongly in favor of Proposition 6. In fact, Proposition 6 was known as the “Briggs Initiative.”


Later, I checked out the definitive biography of Milk by Randy Shilts, the pioneering gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. In his biography, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Shilts described how 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 that Shilts said took place in Walnut Creek in September 1978. But neither the film nor Shilts identified the name of the school, an omission that frustrated Butterworth, who moved from Walnut Creek to attend the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma and later studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington. He now works at the Boeing Company.


“I [was] pretty intrigued when that scene in Milk flashed up on the screen,” he writes me. “It was interesting to see the Gay Rights movement come so close to home. I grew up in the East Bay (Concord) , and never thought of it much of a liberal bastion. I didn't give the scene that much thought until I ran across the Milk documentary The Times of Harvey Milk yesterday on Hulu.com It was an amazing film, and I was once again shocked to see that the Prop. 6 debate scene included in the film. This time however, it hit much closer to home, as I recognized the surroundings of the gym. I'm a 1998 graduate of Northgate High School, and after watching the clips in the documentary, was hell bent on finding out exactly where that debate took place.”


Butterworth was so hell bent that he hit the University of Washington library and spent a couple hours scanning through rolls of microfiche of old issues of the San Francisco Chronicle. He found two articles: “One was from Friday September 15,1978 and a debate review from Saturday September 16, 1978. The debates did in fact occur at Northgate High School, and it appears that Harvey got a much warmer reception from the folks in Walnut Creek than Briggs did.”


Butterworth adds that, “even today,” Milks’ warm reception in Walnut Creek, “shocks me a little bit.”


“I came out to friends and family in 2001," he continues, "and up until now have given little thought to my suburban upbringing in the context of my sexual orientation. It sounds a little funny to say, but I was pretty proud and a little surprised that my alma matter had something to do with framing the debate on this important issue waaaay back in 1978. My memories of Walnut Creek and High School in the late ‘90s were not as gay friendly, but that might have had more to do with my internalized homophobia and being young than the actual attitudes of the community.”


Thanks, Jonathan for your persistent digging and for sharing this fascinating piece of history about our local area.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, great detective work, thanks! I noticed the last sentence in the article states that the debate was sponsored by the Democratic party so maybe the audience was comprised of more people siding with Milk.

Anonymous said...

SO Cool! I'm a 2004 NG Alum and am now pursuing my Masters at Boston University. Last night I had had dinner with a friend who recently saw the movie and she mentioned the scene, saying it was a Walnut Creek high school. I asked her if she could remember, but she said she didn't know. Either way, it is amazing that people across the world who see the movie will see Walnut Creek's name. I'm so proud of WC and Northgate's role in this pivotal moment in history.

Anonymous said...

I was at Northgate in 1978. Not only did Harvey Milk debate in the Northgate auditorium in the evening, he also met with students in the music room after school - perhaps before the debate with Senator John Briggs. An announcement had been made over the PA that Mr. Milk would be available to meet with students after school. There was a lot of talk about who would attend his talk, but in the end only about 10 of us showed up to hear what he had to say. Perhaps the music teacher, Mr. Piazza was there too? He was an eloquent speaker, extremely funny, and so dedicated to his civil rights cause. Later that evening when I proudly told my father I'd gone to see Harvey Milk at school he was furious and said horrible things to me. The next day my father went to Mr. Hansen's office (the principal) and screamed at him for letting a "pervert" on our campus. I found out years later that my father also tried to get Mr. Hansen fired. I was so ashamed by my father's reaction and to this day it remains an "issue" between us. I am so thankful for Harvey Milk and am so fortunate to have spent an hour in a small group hearing about his dreams for civil rights for the gay community.

Anonymous said...

So, the principal at the time was a "Mr. Hansen". Maybe he's around WC to be interviewed about this story.

Soccer Mom said...

Readers,
Thanks for sharing these stories, especially the one about Harvey Milk actually making himself available to talk to students before the debate.

Jon Crovo said...

I opened The Hub bar in 1976 Walnut Creek"s first openly gay bar in Contra Costa County and when Harvey Milk was coming to Northgate High School I called his office and extended an invite for him to come to the club. He showed up after the debate and gave a very moving speech about being out in Walnut Creek for the time....

Randy said...

Harvey Milk was the Martin Luther King of the Gay Rights Movement, who in tragic irony, met a similar fate as Dr. King a decade later.