The Society for Individual Rights' Roots
by Jim Stewart
It was February, 1976. Sheldon Kovalski and I walked into the Castro Cafe. We shared an apartment a few blocks away on Noe.
"There's Jack Fritscher," Sheldon said, nodding toward a table near the back.
"Hey guys," Jack said. "Want to join me?" We sat down as Jack gathered his papers toward him into a neat pile.
"What you been up to?" I said.
"Getting ready for auditions for my play, Kweenasheba, " Jack said.
"Great!" I said. "Who's producing it?"
"Yonkers Production Company at the SIR Center," Jack said.
"What's the SIR Center?" Sheldon said. He had just moved to the City from L.A.
"SIR, the Society for Individual Rights, was established in San Francisco in 1964," Jack said. "Five years before Stonewall," he added. "They sponsor all types of gay community activities like dances, art classes, bowling leagues, drag shows, softball games, you name it, and theater, too, of course," he said. "It's the biggest gay group in the country. They also work with the Public Health Department to help us keep VD in check." Jack glanced at me.
"Where're the auditions going to be held?" Sheldon said.
"Their Center's at 83 Sixth Street," Jack said. "Jack Green's directing."
Fritscher grinned at me.
I'd met Jack Green at the Jaguar Adult Bookstore.
"There'll be try-outs for Lanford Wilson's Madness of Lady Bright as well," Jack said. He nodded at Sheldon. "You should try out."
"Think I will," Sheldon said.
The Society for Individual Rights Center on Sixth Street between Mission and Market was in a two-story four-unit building with a social hall. Opened in 1966, it was the nation's first gay and lesbian center. A large poster of Queen Victoria hung in the lobby declaring, "Even a queen can get the clap!"
There were sample copies of SIR's slick publication Vector. I'd seen it at newsstands around town. It was fifty-cents an issue or eight bucks a year mailed. It included a Playboy of the Month centerfold and highlighted gay trends in San Francisco. It also reported on gay political progress. SIR held Candidates' Night in bars, and had boycotted and picketed Macy's of California for prosecuting rest-room sex cases.
Bob Paulson got the role of John Stack in Fritscher's Kweenasheba that Sheldon wanted. Instead Sheldon got the role of Leslie Bright's Young Man Voice in Madness. The star of the stage, however, was Mike Lewis, who played both Curtis in Kweenasheba and Leslie Bright in Madness. The double-billed production was covered not only by the Bay Area Reporter but was also in Date Book – Arts & Entertainment, the Pink Section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle.
After the final performance, the cast, crew and stage-door-johnnies were all invited by the Tavern Guild to celebrate at the Kokpit on 301 Turk Street. It was another example of the mutually beneficial relationship between SIR and the Tavern Guild. SIR would hold fundraiser auctions in the bars and the bars would donate food and drinks for SIR functions.
Laws changed. Negative attitudes slackened. The Alcohol and Beverage Control Board relaxed its rules against same-sex dancing in bars. Some of the social and political activities provided by SIR were taken over by other groups or were no longer necessary. Having no strong top-down organization and with a generational rift within it, SIR dissolved by the late 1970s.
c. 2014 writerJimStewart@hotmail.com For further true gay adventures check out the award-winning 'Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco.'