Recalling 1986's AIDSphobic Prop 64

  • by Ken Yeager
  • Wednesday November 9, 2016
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Anniversaries can sneak up on us sometimes. In recent weeks I've been thinking a lot about the fall of 1986, and how it has been 30 years since I served as the manager for the No on 64 campaign in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Many people do not even realize that there was an initiative on the California ballot in 1986 that attacked the LGBTQ community. I think it is important to recap the events of that summer and fall because the fight to defeat Proposition 64 became a turning point for the community's political activism and engagement both here in the South Bay and statewide.

In the South Bay, the 1980s began with the religious right successfully passing Measures A and B by a three-to-one margin. Those measures overturned ordinances in both Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose that prohibited discrimination of gays and lesbians in housing and employment. The religious right campaigned using fear and intolerance, plastering the region with billboards that read "Don't Let It Spread."

In response to the passing of those measures, Wiggsy Sivertsen and I founded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, or BAYMEC, a political action committee designed to fight for the rights of LGBTQ people by electing candidates who supported us and by confronting our opponents.

The gay community was seen as so politically toxic at the time that few candidates even bothered to return our first questionnaires.

Things only got worse as the 1980s moved forward and it slowly dawned on the LGBTQ community just how devastating the AIDS epidemic would be. The number of AIDS deaths in Santa Clara County grew every year that decade. They would not peak until 1994. Many of us saw friends and loved ones get sick and then die in a frighteningly short amount of time.

Then came 1986. That spring the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law that criminalized oral and anal sex between consenting adults.

In California, political gadfly and cult leader Lyndon LaRouche sensed an opportunity to gain a foothold in the state. That summer he got Prop 64 on the state ballot.

If approved by voters, Prop 64 would have effectively quarantined both AIDS patients and anyone diagnosed with HIV. It would have required the public disclosure of anyone who tested positive for HIV. The initiative would have also prohibited anyone with HIV from attending or teaching school, as well as restricting their ability to travel.

LaRouche and his followers admitted in their own ballot argument that their goal was to keep people with AIDS or the HIV virus "out of our schools, out of commercial food establishments, and ... give health officials the power to test and quarantine."

BAYMEC immediately sprang into action. On July 1, our board voted to put the organization's full resources into defeating Prop 64. The South Bay's LGBTQ community, which had been demoralized by the passage of Measures A and B and the subsequent arrival of the AIDS epidemic, got a renewed sense of activism. The next few months would see a dramatic transformation in the community's profile and relevance.

The statewide No on 64 campaign initially planned to open offices only in San Francisco and Los Angeles. BAYMEC board members thought this was shortsighted. We feared that the San Francisco and Los Angeles-based campaign leadership would ignore the South Bay and put little or no effort or outreach into the region.

We were eager to run a campaign in Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties. We believed that our region needed a strong LGBTQ organization to lead all the subsequent fights we knew would surely come. It would be a lost opportunity to have no lasting legacy of progressive gay politics and coalition building.

The campaign was the definition of grassroots. More than 1,200 small contributors wrote checks of $10, $50 or other like amounts. The average contribution was $60. There were no corporations or wealthy individuals writing us big checks.

We had scores of volunteers staffing phone banks in the South Bay. The No on 64 campaign would contact more than 5,000 Santa Clara and San Mateo voters by Election Day.

A statewide poll conducted during the first week of September by the San Francisco Examiner and KRON-TV found that more than half of state voters had not heard about Prop 64 or were undecided about how they would vote on it.

The good news was that the proposition was not winning. The bad news was no one could predict how the huge number of undecideds would end up. Would disapproval of the LGBTQ "lifestyle" and fear of AIDS lead them to vote yes?

Ultimately the time, money and effort paid off in a big way. Prop 64 was resoundingly defeated, losing statewide by a more than two-to-one margin, 29 percent yes and 71 percent no.

In Santa Clara and San Mateo the numbers were even more impressive. Seventy-five percent of San Mateo County voters rejected LaRouche's initiative. The percentage in Santa Clara County was 76 percent.

The last 30 years have brought many dramatic changes in our community. Medical advancements and improvements in social services have blunted the worst impacts of the AIDS epidemic for most people. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. LGBTQ service members are able to serve openly and proudly in every branch of the military.

However, we can never become complacent; we need to continue to reach out to community leaders and the public on emerging issues confronting us. It was just eight years ago when a majority of California voters cast ballots in favor of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state until it was overturned by the courts.

Those types of regressive steps are the reason that Prop 64's role in solidifying BAYMEC's place in the South Bay's LGBTQ community is so important. The organization is now in its 33rd year of existence and continues to be a voice in the fight for equality for all.


Ken Yeager is the first out elected member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.