Queer Liberation Started in San Francisco, Not at Stonewall

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine

It Didn’t All Start at Stonewall!

Activists Hear from Pioneers of San Francisco’s Queer Rights Movement

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R: Pat Brown and Leo Laurence

“In the mid-1960’s I led a double life,” pioneering Queer activist and Zenger’s associate editor Leo E. Laurence told members and supporters of Activist San Diego (ASD) at the Pleasures & Treasures adult store in North Park January 16. “By day I was a reporter for KGO-TV” — the San Francisco affiliate of ABC — “and by night I was a writer for the Berkeley Barb,” the Bay Area’s pioneering “underground” paper. Laurence also led a double life of another sort — as a closeted Gay man in an era when almost nobody was “out” in the modern sense — until March 1969, when the firing of a friend with whom he’d appeared in a provocative Barb photo led him to found the Committee on Homosexual Freedom (CHF) and lead the first protests in U.S. history against a private employer for firing a Queer employee.

In the late 1960’s Laurence was volunteer editor for Vector, a monthly magazine published by a conservative Queer organization called the Society for Individual Rights (SIR). Laurence had met a young man named Gale Whittington and asked him to do a photo shoot for Vector; he also invited Whittington to write a monthly column on Gay fashion for Vector.

“He and I arranged a photo shoot in his bedroom,” Laurence recalled, “and for some reason I invited Ron Hoffman, a photographer for the Barb, to be at the shoot. After I got the photos I wanted for Vector, I turned to Ron and said, ‘You know, I’d like a shot with Gale.’ He said, ‘What do you want?’ I just went up to Gale, who didn’t have a shirt on, put my arms around him and said, ‘How about this?’” Hoffman’s photo was published in the Barb, illustrating an article by Laurence called “Don’t Hide It,” and the Barb editor cropped the photo to make it look like Whittington was naked.

In March 1969, a few days after the Barb came out with the photo — and three months before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that are commonly considered the birth of the Queer rights movement — Whittington called Laurence at 11 p.m. and said he’d been fired from his job in the mailroom at the States Steamship Line after someone at work had seen the picture. Tearing up at the memory, Laurence recalled to ASD, “I told him, ‘We have to do something big.’ I was using the word ‘big’ in a sense that the Gay community never knew before. We weren’t planning on launching a worldwide movement, but that’s basically what happened.”

What they did was mount a picket outside the States Steamship headquarters from noon to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Laurence recalled that his group started with 13 “core” members and ultimately grew to about 25, plus other people on a contact list they could bring out for the States pickets and other demonstrations. Brown recalled that he was made picket captain “because I already had experience leading demonstrations with the anti-Viet Nam War movement.” He sought out training from the American Friends’ Service Committee (AFSC) on how to do nonviolent protesting, but that group — which, Brown recalled, had “organized in the South and risked their lives for Black civil rights” — refused to help a Queer group mount a protest. So Brown bought a dozen copies of the AFSC’s instruction manual on nonviolent civil disobedience and the group’s members taught themselves.

The nascent Queer rights picket also needed an organizational name, and Laurence recalled brainstorming one on his own, writing on a napkin at a coffeehouse at midnight. His first thought was to call it the “Homosexual Freedom Committee” — at the time the few Queer activists there were called themselves either “homosexual” or “homophile” for public consumption, and the word “Gay” was private community slang almost never used in the outside world — but then he realized the initials “HFC” were already being used by the Household Finance Corporation, a local Bay Area savings-and-loan. So he changed the order of the words and called the group CHF, for “Committee on Homosexual Freedom.”

“The first meeting was held in Leo’s house,” Brown recalled. “People had seen it announced in the Barb. [Barb publisher] Max Scherr had been a labor lawyer, and the Barb was distributed on the East Coast. The protests had spread to Los Angeles, where Rev. Troy Perry [the founder of Metropolitan Community Church for Queer and Queer-friendly Christians] was leading pickets against the States Steamship offices in L.A. Before we started, the only [Queer-rights] picketing going on was one time a year outside the White House on the Fourth of July. We did the first long-term, consistent picketing because we realized we had to.”

According to Laurence and Brown, it was that organizational consistency that differentiated their activities from the Stonewall riots and marked their group as the real founders of the ongoing Queer liberation movement. “Stonewall was a clash between Puerto Rican drag queens and the police,” Laurence said. “What was happening in San Francisco was a carefully planned civil-rights action.” Indeed, Laurence said that the first he heard of the Stonewall riots was from a friend in New York, accountant John Marks, who lived across the street from the Stonewall Inn and, while the riots were going on, called Laurence “and said, ‘We like what you’re doing, and we’re doing it in New York.’ So it’s safe to say the inspiration for Stonewall was what happened in San Francisco.”

“Stonewall was the spark that set the fire, but we were the bricks and mortar,” said Brown. We picketed every workday from noon to 2 p.m. to get the lunchtime crowd. We were there from late March until mid-July 1969, two weeks after Stonewall. I knew we had to maintain order on the picket line, and it was always present in my mind that [the police] could just come in and wipe us out.”

Why didn’t they? “The police had quite a few people on the other side of the street from us,” Laurence recalled. “I walked up to the police sergeant — which I could do since I had a media pass from ABC — and asked him, ‘Why are you on the other side of the street? If this were the Black Panthers, you’d be right on top of them.’ He said, ‘We can’t touch them. If we do, we’ll become them.’”

Whittington never got his job back at States — and neither did Laurence when he was fired from KGO-TV in 1971 — but according to Brown, they did win back the job of a Gay employee at Tower Records (then the largest music retailer in the Bay Area) who, ironically, probably didn’t deserve it. “We opened another front and picketed at Tower, and in two weeks they buckled and took him back,” Brown recalled.

Seeking — and Finding — Allies

Like more recent Queer activists, Laurence, Brown and the other CHF founders realized they needed allies — and they looked for them in the same places modern Queer activists often do: the militant organizations of people of color. In 1969 that meant the Black Panther Party and the United Farm Workers (UFW). Laurence and Brown recalled how CHF joined the UFW’s pickets outside Safeway supermarkets to get people to stop buying grapes. In addition to signs with the UFW’s slogans, they also carried signs reading “Gay Is Good” and other messages from the new Queer movement.

Not everyone on the UFW picket lines liked the idea of marching with a group carrying “Gay Is Good” messages. So, Laurence said, they went right to the top. “We called [UFW president] César Chávez, and he said, ‘Let them picket.’”

Later Laurence got a call from the Black Panthers, who essentially wanted him as a human shield to forestall a police raid on their headquarters they’d been tipped was about to happen. “They wanted some white people there,” he recalled. “I went down and it was obvious that I was Gay. The Panthers were impressed, and they taught us. For example, one lesson we learned from them was that when you do a street march, do it completely legally. Don’t even jaywalk.”

Laurence said their training and relationship with the Panthers stood them in good stead when they started targeting Right-wingers and businesspeople within the Queer community. “The closeted ‘homophile’ community opposed us,” he said. “There was one very elegant Gay bar in San Francisco where one of our members was refused service, and we decided to stage an action there. When the Black Panthers wanted to intimidate people, they would stand with arms locked across their chests and not look around. We went in that bar and stood there in the Panther pose, and the bartender threatened to call the police. We emptied that bar in three to four minutes. People did not want an action in a bar, and before the police arrived, we were gone.”

The next day Laurence heard through the grapevine a wildly exaggerated account of the action in which the members of their group had supposedly entered the bar carrying guns. “We would never think of using guns, but the Panthers would,” he recalled. “They gave us a phone number and told us to use it. I always knew that if this got heavy and one of us feared for their safety, they would be there. The Panthers told us we were more revolutionary than they were, because they couldn’t change the color of their skin — but we didn’t have to come out.”

The Forgotten History

Not surprisingly, both Laurence and Brown are at least somewhat bitter that the pioneering efforts of the CHF have been relegated to footnotes — or ignored completely — in the depoliticized, New York-centric orthodox view of how the U.S. Queer movement got started. They’re also appalled at the changes in how the community named itself. While they applauded the abandonment of the words “homosexual” and “homophile” and their replacement with the term “Gay” in the early 1970’s, they haven’t supported the addition of the word “Lesbian” and are even less enamored of the initials “LGBT” — for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” — that has become the standard term now.

“I remember when the Daughters of Bilitis [the pioneering group founded by Lesbian couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in San Francisco in the 1950’s] went through the name change, and a number of older Gay women said, ‘Aren’t we Gay anymore?’,” Brown recalled. “This was concocted at a Socialist Workers’ Party convention in New York, and I think it deprived Gay women of a common same-sex humanity.”

“One of the most difficult days of the year for me is the annual Gay Pride Parade here, now,” Laurence said. “To the local [LGBT] Center, Pat and I are invisible. The Center’s director won’t even speak to me. There are some books which refer to us in two to three paragraphs. One problem with Gay historians is they prefer to print the myth, and they continue to refer to Gale and I as lovers — which we were not. I lost my job at ABC and went through a lot of emotional hell, and it’s difficult when Gay Pride rolls around and people won’t even acknowledge that things happened in San Francisco before Stonewall.”

“They did eclipse everything we did, but New York City is the center of the news and entertainment industry,” Brown ruefully added. “To call the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade ‘Stonewall West’ is a grave miscarriage of nomenclature. It’s just outrageous. We didn’t try to make any mileage or get ourselves set in stone as the ‘founders’ 43 years ago. In fact, we were relieved when Stonewall happened, fired the public imagination and spread the movement.”

Brown said that “we really haven’t protested” the enshrinement of Stonewall as the official “founding” of the Queer rights movement. “I have friends who were at Stonewall, including Jimmy Fouratt, whom I just saw for the first time in 30 years. Stonewall had its role, but the history should show that we were the brick and mortar, and we were completely nonviolent. It’s easy to throw rocks and bottles at the cops, but what really works is peaceful, consistent, continuous activity.”