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social sciences

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San Francisco  
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The Beginnings of Political Activism

The bohemian milieu of the Black Cat Café produced one of the most influential meldings of countercultural style with political activism in the person of José Sarria, a Mexican-American drag entertainer who waited tables there and performed wildly popular Sunday afternoon "operas" laced with political and social satire.

When Black Cat owner Sol Stoumen became embroiled in controversy in the early 1960s because of his support of gay bar owners who had recently banded together to protest the police practice of demanding payoffs as a condition for remaining in business, Sarria rallied to his defense. In 1961, Sarria ran as an openly gay candidate for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in order to call attention to police harassment of gay-friendly establishments. He did not win the election, but he received 5,600 votes and demonstrated that a gay vote could be tapped for electoral politics.

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The "gayola" scandal that prompted Sarria to run for public office also helped launch the first gay newspapers in the United States--Guy Strait's League for Civil Education and Citizen's News--as well as the first gay business owner's association, the Tavern Guild. Sarria later founded the Imperial Court System, now the oldest gay philanthropic organization in the world, which stages gala drag balls to raise money for various causes.

Transgender people also began to organize and find a political voice in San Francisco in the 1960s. Since the 1950s, transgendered individuals seeking access to hormones and genital surgery had been drawn to the city by the presence of Dr. Harry Benjamin, the world's leading medical expert on , who maintained a practice on posh Union Square.

In August 1966, three years before the more famous rebellion at New York's Stonewall Inn, transgender residents of the Tenderloin rioted against police oppression at a popular all-night restaurant, Compton's Cafeteria. Many of the militant hustlers and street queens involved in the riot were members of Vanguard, the first known gay youth organization in the United States, which had been organized earlier that year with the help of radical ministers working with Glide Memorial Methodist Church, a center for progressive social activism in the Tenderloin for many years.

In the aftermath of the riot at Compton's, a network of transgender social, psychological, and medical support services was established, which culminated in 1968 with the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.

The new style of gay liberation politics, which began in San Francisco with the formation of Vanguard and the riot at Compton's Cafeteria, gained further momentum with the formation of the Committee for Homosexual Freedom (CHF) in the spring of 1969, a few months before the Stonewall riots, which initially received scant coverage in the San Francisco media. The CHF was established in response to the firing of an openly gay man by a steamship company, and helped popularize the new strategy of "coming out" as a means of agitating for gay rights.

The new style of gay liberation drew heavily on the youth-oriented, rock-music-infused counterculture that took root in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where the prevailing ethos of sexual revolution and "letting it all hang out" created a welcoming environment for many baby boomer gay men and lesbians.

"Gay Power" Politics

By the fall of 1969, New Left and student movement activists had imported "gay power" politics to the Bay Area, but these Stonewall-inspired groups did not thrive. A tumultuous protest against the editorial policies of the San Francisco Examiner on Halloween 1969 (dubbed "The Night of the Purple Hand" by local activists, who slapped purple handprints throughout downtown San Francisco after Examiner employees dumped a barrel of printers' ink on the crowd from the roof of the newspaper building) was one of the most visible demonstrations of gay power.

Two other high points were the appearance of the Gay Liberation Front's "Homosexuals Against the War" contingent in a massive 1969 protest against the war in Vietnam, and a 1970 "Gay-In" held in Golden Gate Park.

By 1971, the mantle of gay power politics had fallen on Raymond Broshears, a contentious yet energetic activist whose Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) focused its efforts on providing social services in the Tenderloin and Polk Street neighborhoods. Under Broshears' stormy leadership, San Francisco's GAA found itself well outside the mainstream of local gay politics in the 1970s and disbanded within a few years.

Gay Pride

As sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong has argued, the early 1970s witnessed a shift away from both the homophile activism of the 1950s and early 1960s and the more militant liberation movement that began in San Francisco in 1966. By 1973, a new emphasis on "gay pride" rather than "gay power" emerged, as well as a new emphasis on cultural identity rather than political alliance in broader-based social movements.

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