Film recalls pivotal 1965
SF gay rights episode
by Matthew S. Bajko
Four years before New York City police battled LGBT patrons of the famous Stonewall Inn, San Francisco's gay community had its own pivotal showdown with the city's homophobic police department.
Yet the police raid of a gay dance held on New Year's Day 1965 at the California Hall on Polk Street has largely been forgotten to history.
The incident and subsequent court trials it spawned have been eclipsed in the public's imagination by the June 1969 riots outside the gay bar in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. That episode has long been mythologized as giving birth to the modern gay rights movement and spawned the annual Pride gatherings now held each June in numerous cities.
Long before the Big Apple incident, there were several West Coast stands against police harassment of LGBT people and gay establishments that had taken place. On New Year's 1967 a police raid of Los Angeles' gay Black Cat Tavern in the Silver Lake district led to LGBT rioting and a demonstration.
The year prior, in August, transgender patrons rioted at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco's Tenderloin district due to police harassment. In recent years documentaries have brought greater public awareness and recognition to the actions taken at both the Black Cat and Compton's.
A new film premiering at Frameline, Lewd and Lascivious, aims to give the same cinematic treatment to the story of the 1965 gay dance raid. Told through the first-hand accounts of 10 participants, including several religious leaders who co-hosted the party, the documentary recalls a pivotal early moment in LGBT history.
"It kind of started the LGBT civil rights movement here in San Francisco. It was the event that was sort of the catalyst," said Jallen Rix, 49, who directed the 65-minute film. "When I heard about the story I thought it was such a great story. Why haven't we heard this before?"
An openly gay sexologist, Rix is also a professor at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, where he earned a doctorate of education in sexology in 2006. After hearing about the gay dance and raid, he decided to write his dissertation on it.
"It always amazed me what stuff came before Stonewall," said Rix. "As we look back on history things are whittled down. For me, I think they all have a place at the table."
In 2007 he returned his attention to the raid of the Mardi Gras-themed dance, this time setting out to film interviews with some of the key players, such as dance organizer Chuck Lewis, a Lutheran pastor, and attendee Jon Borset, who was arrested and put on trial for dancing with a man.
Several people Rix interviewed subsequently passed away, such as organizers Del Martin and Herbert Donaldson, who both died in 2008. At the time a young attorney, Donaldson was one of four people arrested for refusing to allow police into the dance.
"I feel so fortunate we could get these people's stories before they were gone," said Rix, who splits his time between San Francisco and Palm Springs.
Two other attorneys, Evander Smith and Elliot Leighton, along with activist Nancy May were arrested and put on trial with Donaldson, who later became the first out gay man appointed as a judge in California.
While in jail that night, however, "I saw my career going down the drain," Donaldson says in the film. After being released, he recalls being held by his partner, Jim Hardcastle, who tells him, "I am so proud."
Their being charged with obstructing the police attracted local and national media attention, particularly since the religious leaders who helped throw the dance to raise money for six LGBT groups held a press conference to lash out at the police.
The Council on Religion and the Homosexual also sued the police department over the matter, leading to more headlines, though it settled the matter out of court. The ministers met several times with the police as they sought a permit for the dance, so the raid wasn't entirely a surprise.
"We expected the police to overreact," the Reverend Ted Mcllvenna, who at the time worked for Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and co-founded the pro-gay religious council, admits in the film. (In 1976 Mcllvenna helped found the San Francisco-based Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.)
A jury found Borset and Konrad Osterreich guilty of lewd and lascivious behavior for dancing together, but the judge overseeing the case fined them $25 and ordered their records to be expunged after six months.
The prosecution of the other four defendants on obstruction charges attracted the most attention. Their acquittal chastened the police brass – the following year they offered to assist in ensuring the second dance party was a success – and led one gay bar to advertise it would now allow same-sex dancing.
The episode taught the LGBT community and its straight supporters that "we had to get together and protect each other," May says in the film. "Our concern had to be the whole community."
Asked why it took so long to turn his taped interviews into a film, Rix said, "We had no money."
He estimated the film has cost upwards of $80,000 to produce, with most of the money coming from private donations and "my own pocket."
Rix and his co-producers on the film unearthed about two-dozen photos taken on the night of the dance, as well as incidental video and pictures. Footage and photos taken by a police still photographer and movie photographer of people as they entered the dance were later lost.
"I searched and searched to find those," said Rix. "But, evidently in the 1960s, the official statement they gave me was that the record-keeping in the San Francisco police department was very unorganized. Just tons of evidence just walked out the front door and never came back in."
He is currently trying to raise $20,000 to cover post-production costs and use of archival footage. Donations are tax-deductible, as the GLBT Historical Society is serving as the film's fiscal sponsor, and can be made through the website http://www.cometrueproductions.com.
The film screens during San Francisco's international LGBT film festival at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 22 at the Victoria Theater. A Q&A with Rix and several people from the film is expected to take place after the screening.
For tickets, visit http://www.frameline.org.