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DANA PARSONS

'Milk' takes him back to a different Orange County

February 17, 2009|DANA PARSONS

To improve my chances of winning an annual Oscar-picking contest with friends, I went to see "Milk" the other night. Aside from providing key information for my ballot, the movie about one of America's first openly gay men elected to public office gave me a glimpse into an Orange County that seems like a long time ago.

At least, I think it was a long time ago. On paper, it was. It was so long ago that I had to leaf through yellowing clips that our newspaper library maintains, a relic from a time before our archives were switched over to computers.

The year was 1978, and state Sen. John Briggs (R-Fullerton) was riding high. Convinced he was on to something, he sponsored a statewide initiative that would, in essence, permit school boards to fire teachers who acknowledged their homosexuality. Even on the eve of the election that November, it was murky as to how far Proposition 6, the so-called Briggs Initiative, would go, but in October, Times staffer Robert Scheer asked Briggs if "simply being a homosexual and admitting to that fact is grounds for firing."

Briggs replied: "That is correct. If you are a homosexual, publicly admitted or practicing, that is automatic grounds for the removal of a teacher or a school administrator or an aide or a counselor."

In "Milk," Sean Penn plays San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who clearly saw Briggs (and Orange County) as a menace. At one point in the movie, someone asks how many signatures would be needed to put the initiative on the ballot. "Whatever it is," someone says, "they'll get it in two Sundays at church in Orange [bleeping] County." Another scene depicts a debate in Fullerton between Milk and Briggs.

Those are the kind of references that reinforced the notion of Orange County as an intolerant patch of scorched earth -- a notion not completely undeserved. The Briggs era precedes my time in Orange County, but when I got here in the late 1980s, Orange County Reps. Robert Dornan and William Dannemeyer were portrayed in both local and national press as warriors in the anti-gay brigade. In the early 1980s, a fledgling gay support organization hid its location so as not to invoke reprisal.

Given that, I was surprised to learn from our files that, while the Briggs Initiative lost statewide 58% to 42%, it also lost in Orange County -- and by an only slightly smaller margin of 54% to 46%.

Briggs received the news with supporters in a hotel near South Coast Plaza. He blamed the defeat on former Gov. Ronald Reagan, who came out against the initiative in the days before the election.

Briggs said that night: "Christians rallied behind us too late. But when they did rally, Reagan wasn't with them. They will remember that. I think he's finished as a national politician."

Briggs, as it turned out, wasn't an accomplished seer. Reagan did quite well for himself; gays, even if not thriving, survived and largely overcame social prejudices.

Three weeks after the Briggs Initiative went down to defeat, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed in City Hall by Supervisor Dan White. Authorities said he was angry over not being reappointed to his job after resigning it a couple weeks earlier but then wanting it back.

Frank Ricchiazzi, an early member of a group of gay Republicans who became the Log Cabin Club, remembers those days well. "Before Briggs," Ricchiazzi says, "there were no politically organized groups in the state of California. John Briggs is the reason we have gay political groups because up until that time, everyone was so closeted, so fearful, there was no concept."

Because of its overwhelmingly white population in those days, Ricchiazzi says, Orange County was perceived by outsiders as intolerant of minority groups. Though there were elements of truth in that, he says, the county's libertarian streak accounted for more tolerance than was generally believed.

"There were clearly problems regarding gays in this county in certain areas," he says. "No doubt about that. This is why you had the haven of gay people in Laguna Beach."

Ricchiazzi remembers being so afraid of job reprisals that he wouldn't sign his name to a $10 check in support of gay causes. He paid everything in cash, he says.

Though he doesn't attempt to account for every last bigot now or in the future, Ricchiazzi says the days of what used to be called gay-bashing in Orange County are largely a thing of the past.

"We're now at a point if you've got a gay in the neighborhood," he says, laughing, "than your property values are going to increase because you know they're going to take care of their property."

--

dana.parsons@latimes.com

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