Ronald Reagan and the Briggs Amendment

March 24, 2011

TORONTO, ON, Mar. 24, 2011/ Troy Media/ – Thanks to the centenary of his birth and the 30th anniversary of the attempt on his life, Ronald Reagan is very much in the news these days. But here’s a story that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

On the first Tuesday of November 1978, California voters rejected Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Amendment. Sponsored by State Senator John Briggs, the measure’s declared purpose was to make it possible for school districts to fire teachers who “advocate” homosexuality.

When subsequently asked, Briggs had a very clear explanation for his proposition’s defeat. It consisted of just two words: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s opposition clear

Although personally skeptical of Proposition 6’s merits, Reagan had initially avoided taking a public position, preferring instead to get a sense for all of the ramifications. Then in August 1978, a delegation of the proposition’s opponents met privately with him to put their case.

By September, his office had prepared a statement to be used in response to any queries. It made his opposition clear. When the September 24 San Francisco Chronicle quoted extensively from the statement, this opposition became part of the public record.

Subsequently, Briggs sent his own delegation with a view to changing Reagan’s mind. The meeting didn’t go well, particularly when one of Briggs’ men warned that there’d be a political price for standing against them.

Late in October, Reagan addressed the issue in one of his regular newspaper columns, framing it this way: “Proposition 6 rests on several assumptions. The most frequently mentioned are that teachers can influence the sexual orientation of children because they are ‘role models’ and that homosexual teachers will molest their pupils.”

Reagan was not impressed, noting with respect to child-molesting: “The overwhelming majority of such cases are committed by heterosexual male adults against young females.” As for influencing sexual orientation: “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles.”

Reagan then went on to address other problems, particularly the question of what was meant by the term “advocacy.” Here’s how he put it: “Since the measure does not restrict itself to the classroom, every aspect of a teacher’s personal life could presumably come under suspicion.  What constitutes ‘advocacy’ of homosexuality? Would public opposition to Proposition 6 by a teacher – should it pass – be considered advocacy?”

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Finally, there was this: “And, how do you prevent an overwrought child with bad grades from seeking revenge by accusing a teacher of a homosexual advance or ‘advocacy?’ Under Proposition 6, you don’t.”

At the time, Reagan was planning to run for president in 1980 and, from the perspective of the impending campaign, his Proposition 6 position wasn’t an obvious plus. While very few liberals were likely to be won over to his side, there was a material risk of alienating some religious fundamentalists, a constituency that would be critical to putting together a winning conservative coalition.

Of course, looking at Reagan’s subsequent presidential landslides one can argue that, given his overwhelming strength, opposition to Proposition 6 entailed no significant political risk. But that’s the convenience of hindsight. Back in 1978, most of the smart money believed the odds were heavily against his ever being elected president, considering him to be too old, too extreme, and too much of a lightweight.

So why would an ambitious politician run the risk of alienating a critical segment of his base for no apparent compensatory gain? The key to the answer lies in personality and background.

By instinct, Reagan was a live and let live kind of guy, albeit one with strong, sometimes immovable, views on a range of public policy issues. He also had a bit of a libertarian streak, chafing at anything he saw as unwarranted interference with private life or property.

Although sympathetic views of homosexuality wouldn’t have been part of his early 20th century midwest upbringing, the decades spent in Hollywood were a different matter. While there, he worked and socialised with homosexuals.

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For him, private sexual proclivities were not an issue. Indeed, he liked to quote the remark attributed to Mrs. Patrick Campbell in relation to Oscar Wilde: “I have no objection to anyone’s sex life as long as they don’t practice it in the street and frighten the horses.”

This is not meant to suggest that Reagan had what would now be considered an enlightened view of homosexuality. Like most people of his generation, the medical profession included, he considered it to be abnormal, even an illness. And always the gifted raconteur, his private repertoire of humour included gay jokes as well as a full range of ethnic ones.

As for the idea of same-sex marriage, he would doubtless have found it incomprehensible – as would virtually anyone else born in 1911. But one’s sex life was still one’s own affair, not the business of neighbours, work colleagues, or community.

Reagan also disliked bullying or anything that he considered unfair. Although he and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau were ideological and temperamental opposites, Trudeau biographer John English relates a kindness shown at the June 1984 G7 summit in London.

A good man

After being humiliated by Margaret Thatcher, Trudeau sat “dejected and isolated” at the end of what was to be his final conference. Reagan, Thatcher’s closest ally, could have gathered up his papers and walked away.

Instead, as others watched and listened, he took care to recognize Trudeau and wish him well. English quotes Trudeau: “Reagan didn’t have to do that. Whatever else he may be, he’s a good man.”

There are perhaps two messages from this little story. One is that there’s often more to people, even very famous people like Reagan, than the dominant media narrative suggests. The other is that character counts.

A native of Dublin, Ireland, Pat Murphy has lived in Toronto since 1965.