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.