The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Ronald Reagan on Rainbow Rights

In 1978 anti-gay campaigns were all the rage! Anita Bryant succeeded in repealing the gay rights ordinance in Miami. In short order evangelicals led the repeal, or rejection, of gay rights laws in St. Paul, Wichita and Eugene. Oregon. Arkansas and Oklahoma banned gay teachers. In Indiana the born-again crowd organized a campaign to make homosexuality a felony and brought Bryant and Jerry Falwell to appear at a rally.

At this point the campaign for gay rights seemed to be in retreat. Worse yet, in California an extreme Right state legislator named John Briggs was pushing a ballot initiative, Proposition 6, which, as he described it, “would defend your children from homosexual teachers.”

Newly elected San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, was leading the campaign against the Briggs Initiative. But why? Why was a newly elected local official the highest ranking politician to take on Briggs? Simple: everyone else could see the trend. And in politics principles often give way to vote counting.

Riding the anti-gay wave seemed a sure recipe for success. One poll showed voters inclined to support Briggs by a two to one margin. Ronald Reagan had been California’s governor from 1966 to 1974. He was seen as the leading voice of the “conservative” movement because of his brilliant speech during the 1964 Goldwater campaign (Goldwater was a critic of the religious Right who later became notorious for saying “Jerry Falwell can kiss my ass.” Goldwater also was supportive of gay rights. Coincidentally both Reagan and Milk were involved in the Goldwater campaign in 1964.)

Reagan had tried to run for the presidency but the Republican Party shunned him, first in 1968 for Nixon and then later for Gerald Ford. But from the time he left the governor’s mansion in 1974 he was campaigning with the White House in mind. So Reagan was an unlikely candidate to come out against the Briggs Initiative.

Liberal civil rights activist David Mixner described the genesis of the Reagan stand.

Despite all our good work, everyone involved had taken the Proposition from 75% in favor of firing homosexual school teachers down to only 55%. We were having a helluva a time gaining that last 6%. We knew we needed something big to push us over the top and we needed it soon since we were in the last weeks of the campaign. There is no doubt in my mind that the man who put us over the top was California Governor Ronald Reagan. His opposition to Proposition 6 killed it for sure.

Mixner wrote about his dealings with Reagan in his autobiography. A former staff member of Reagan’s called the No on Prop 6 officials and told them he could arrange a meeting with a Reagan staffer. That staffer told the No campaign that he, in turn, could arrange a meeting with the future president. While it is long, I prefer to quote Mixner’s entire passage since it illustrates my point.

When the time came he warned us that we we’d have only a few minutes to make our case. He urged that we stick to libertarian principles. He reminded us that there were many on Reagan’s staff opposed to the meeting and it was the Governor himself that made the final determination to see us. The staffer felt that Nancy Reagan, who had many gay friends, would play a part in his decision on the initiative. Rarely have I been more on tenterhooks.

Peter and I were escorted into a bright office with windows overlooking West Los Angeles. Reagan rose from his desk, gave us his famous smile, extended his hand, and said, “How nice of you boys to come over to chat with me about this issue.” He made us feel more at home than most Democrats did. He directed us to chairs and offered us soda. It was hard to believe that this smiling gentle man was the same person who had sent in three thousand bayoneted National Guardsmen to ‘protect’ People’s Park in Berkeley.

He opened the discussion, “I understand you boys have a case you want to make to me,” he said.

“Governor, you know about the initiative that would allow any school child to file a complaint against any teacher that he thought was homosexual.” I began. “This initiative would create anarchy in the classroom. Any child who received a failing grade or was disciplined by a teacher could accuse that teacher of being a homosexual. Teachers will become afraid of giving low grades or maintaining order in their classrooms.”

We could see a surprised look come over Reagan’s face. I think he expected to hear a human rights argument. “I never thought about that. It really could happen, couldn’t it?”

“Governor, the kids control the classroom.” Peter said, “Teachers are terrified of their students. It will be chaos.”

“You mean, any accusation by a student must be heard by the school board?”
I knew we were making progress. “Exactly,” I answered. “The law requires a public hearing before the local school board to decide if there are grounds for the charges or not. Each school district’s school board meetings will become a circus.”

Reagan smiled at us. “This might be a good day for you boys. Don’t think we can allow something like that to happen here in California.”

Clearly our argument was having an impact. He asked a number of questions about the wording of the initiative. He seemed to be well informed, and he spent a lot of time discussing the details. While he officially refused to tell us that he would oppose it, we left the meeting with very little doubt. He stood up, shook our hands, patted us on the back, and said, “Thanks, boys, for coming to see me. You are fine young lads. Your parents must be proud.”

When we came out of the office, Reagan’s staff corned us and made it very clear that if word leaked about the meeting and if we didn’t keep silent about the Governor’s apparent support, our efforts could be derailed. We were on cloud nine when we got back to headquarters but we kept our mouths shut. We held numerous private phone conversations with the Reagan staff on wording and background information. At last, in a mid-September newspaper column, future president Ronald Reagan called for the defeat of Proposition 6, citing ‘the mischief’ it could cause between students and teachers in the classroom. The column became front page news all over California and the polls showed a strong shift against the initiative.

American Spectator noted Reagan made his opposition to Prop 6 known

…first with an informal statement to reporters late that September and again a few days before the vote in a newspaper editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. It is clear Proposition 6 offended Reagan’s libertarian sensibilities and put government in a place where it did not belong. He writes, “Since the measure does not restrict itself to the classroom, every aspect of a teacher’s personal life could presumably come under suspicion.” Reagan then asks, “What constitutes ‘advocacy’ of homosexuality? Would public opposition to Proposition 6 by a teacher — should it pass — be considered advocacy?” In this vein, Reagan would also argue that Proposition 6 had “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy and perhaps even constitutional rights.”

Nearly four million Californians would vote against Proposition 6, representing 58.4% of the vote. Significantly, a majority of Orange County voters would join the rest of the state in opposing the measure, effectively sounding the death knell not only for Proposition 6 but for Briggs’ own political ambitions. Bryant would also never again enjoy the same kind of public influence. This would not have happened without Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s newspaper column openly challenged the assumptions of the Religious Right on sexual orientation. He wrote:

Proposition 6 rests on several assumptions. The two 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. Briggs told an interviewer the other [day] that “Everybody knows that homosexuals are child molesters. Not all of them, but most of them. I mean, that’s why they are in the teaching profession.”

Although statistics are not kept nationally, informed observers usually put the percentage of child molesting cases by homosexuals at well under 10 percent. The overwhelming majority of such cases are committed by heterosexual males against young females.

As to the “role model” argument, a woman writing to the editor a Southern California newspaper said it all: “If teachers had such power over children I would have been a nun years ago.”

Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.

One amusing result of Reagan’s column was Jimmy Carter finally felt it safe to oppose Prop 6. Carter appeared at a rally in California but said nothing about Prop 6 at all. He had actually ended his speech, saying, “Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you all.” He was leaving the stage when Governor Jerry Brown told Carter that he should oppose Proposition 6 and told him Reagan had done so. At Brown’s prompting Carter turned and said, “I also want to ask everybody to vote against Proposition 6.” The problem was the mic was still live and Brown’s assuring Carter it was safe to oppose Prop 6 was recorded.

Bill Boyarsky, former editor for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in 2004 how Reagan “brought life experiences to politics that the ideological right-wingers who had previously dominated the movement simply didn’t have. That enabled him to make friends across the spectrum and to smooth over the rough edges that had previously characterized the state’s conservative movement.”

Boyarksy said the Prop 6 issue was a “significant example of Reagan’s view of life.” “The anti-Briggs forces badly needed to win a prominent conservative supporter to their side and, against all odds, hoped it would be Reagan. They felt that the witch-hunting aspects of the initiative would offend his respect for legal institutions, and they were aware that he and his wife, Nancy, had long associated with gays in their years in Hollywood — but they worried that it would be a difficult political position for a conservative leader hoping to run for president to take.”

Reagan risked a lot in this campaign. The Religious Right was just rising to prominence and it clearly had not yet crested. In spite of this Reagan opposed Briggs and helped turn the tide. In the end the Briggs Initiative was defeated by over 1 million votes. Even Briggs’ home territory, the conservative Orange County, rejected the measure. Without Reagan’s personal, forceful opposition to Briggs it’s likely the measure would have passed.

Reagan and Bob Cummings, in the rather homoerotic 1942 film Kings Row

Andrew Sullivan noted Reagan “barely mentioned abortion in his eight terms of office, and never addressed a pro-life rally in person. He rarely went to church as president and was the first president to have an openly gay couple sleep over in the White House. He and his wife were no strangers to male homosexual company. Reagan also appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court, and in Anthony Kennedy, gave birth to the judicial father of the gay rights revolution.” Kennedy’s writing the Supreme Court’s majority opinion overturning sodomy laws might be seen as one of Reagan’s parting gifts to gay Americans.

Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, was furious about how a biopic The Reagans depicted her father in regards to gay people and HIV. She damned the script for its fictionalizing: “According to the screenplay for The Reagans, my father is a homophobic Bible-thumper who loudly insisted that his son wasn’t gay when Ron took up ballet, and who in a particularly scathing scene told my mother that AIDS patients deserved their fate. ‘They who live in sin shall die in sin,’ the writers and producers had him say.”

Both Davis and Nancy Reagan asked CBS to have the invented dialogue removed. Davis was adamant: “Not only did my father never say such a thing, he never would have.” She then recounted a experience she had as a child when she said something to her father and he explained being gay to her in a “clear, smooth, non-judgmental way.”

My father and I were watching an old Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie. At the moment when Hudson and Doris Day kissed, I said to my father, “That looks weird.”… All I knew was that something about this particular man and woman was, to me, strange. My father gently explained that Mr. Hudson didn’t really have a lot of experience kissing women; in fact, he would much prefer to be kissing a man. This was said in the same tone that would be used if he had been telling me about people with different colored eyes, and I accepted without question that this whole kissing thing wasn’t reserved just for men and women.

Ms. Davis was interviewed on a LGBT web show and asked about gay marriage. She recounted how when her parents were out of town she and her siblings were often left in the care of a lesbian couple who were family friends. “I grew up understanding that they were a married couple. You know I had aunt and uncle this, and aunt and uncle that, and then I had aunt and aunt.” The couple would stay in the Reagan home and sleep together in Reagan’s bed while he was away. She insisted again, “He was a very tolerant person. He did not have prejudices against gay people.”

Asked about the issue of marriage equality she said:

I think he would be puzzled, on the one hand, on why anyone would have a problem with people wanting to be married and wanting to be committed to one another. What difference does it make to anybody else’s life? I also think because he wanted government out of peoples’ lives, he would not understand the intrusion of government banning such a thing. This is not what he would have thought government should be doing.

Asked if she thought Reagan would endorse marriage equality she said, she didn’t believe he would try to stand in the way of it.

“I don’t think he would stand in the way of two people wanting to make a commitment to one another. He told me, when I was very young that some men love other men, some women love other women. Like I said, it was all around, it was in our house, it was on television.”

Two different Reagan biographers also noted the President was strongly opposed to antigay campaigns. Kenneth Walsh, author of the 1997 biography Ronald Reagan said: “Despite the urging of some of his conservative supporters, he never made fighting homosexuality a cause. In the final analysis, Reagan said that what people do in private is their own business, not the government’s.” Biographer Lou Cannon put it more strongly. He said Reagan was “repelled by the aggressive public crusades against homosexual life styles which became a staple of right wing politics in the late 1970s.”

A Washington Post story from March 18, 1984 noted: “The Reagans are also tolerant about homosexual men. Their interior decorator, Ted Graber, who oversaw the redecoration of the White House, spent a night in the Reagan’s private White House quarters with his male lover, Archie Case, when they came to Washington for Nancy Reagan’s 60th birthday party — a fact confirmed for the press by Mrs. Reagan’s press secretary. Indeed, all the available evidence suggests that Ronald Reagan is a closet tolerant.” White House advisor Martin Anderson, recounted “I remember Reagan telling us that in Hollywood he knew a lot of gays and he never had any problem with them.”

James Duke Mason

Liberal gay rights activists James Duke Mason penned a piece in the Advocate stating what he knew about Reagan from his own experiences. He wrote Reagan “wasn’t the devil that many make him out to be. I know I’m going to be torn apart by many of the readers of this article, considering that I am a young gay progressive Democrat who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the defense of a conservative Republican, but ultimately the context matters.”

He reminded his readers,

On a personal level, those who knew him say Reagan was certainly not in any way antigay. My father, Morgan Mason, who served as a top aide during the 1980 campaign as well as in the White House, has attested to this. Ed Meese, Reagan’s attorney general, has said that depictions of Reagan as antigay are “totally unfair and totally unrepresentative of his views or anything he ever said.” Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson said that “the notion that he was somehow callous or had a cruel or cynical attitude towards homosexuals or AIDS victims is just ridiculous.

Mason wrote:

Believe it or not, Reagan was one of the first major politicians in history to come out for gay rights. Just a year before he announced his candidacy for president, he came out forcefully against Proposition 6 in California, which would’ve barred gay people from teaching in public schools. Not only did he have no political incentive to do it, but it could’ve been a huge catastrophe. In speaking out against the initiative, Reagan used language that was way ahead of its time; he argued that “prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” Some dismiss his support as too last-minute to have made a difference. But as his biographer Lou Cannon once put it, Reagan knew the risks but “chose to state his convictions.”

Mr. Mason wrote about Patti Davis arguing her father would have supported marriage equality and says, “I tend to agree.” “She suggests that the former president kept a live-and-let-live attitude when it came to gay people, in line with the broader pro-freedom principles he espoused for America. My father once said that Reagan was ‘the most authentic man’ he’d ever met and that ‘he didn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body.’ Was Reagan a perfect man? No. He wasn’t an evil man either.”

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.