Unique local feel gave B.A.R. world-class reputation
by Zak Szymanski
"Gay bars â€“ when they weren't being raided â€“ were the one place where everyone could meet and be themselves," Bay Area Reporter founder Bob Ross said in an earlier interview with the newspaper before his death in 2003.
The restaurant worker, Tavern Guild president, and bar culture insider disliked the "vicious gossip rags" about town, and so at a time when gay organizing seemed to have reached a critical moment, decided to launch his own publication.
The first issue of the B.A.R. â€“ initials that acknowledged gay culture as well as the initials of Ross and original business partner Paul Bentley â€“ was dated April 1, 1971 but hit the streets on April 2, 1971, Ross's 37th birthday. Ross pasted up all the pages by hand, copied them, and delivered them to local bars from his 1969 Ford Mustang. Within a few years, the B.A.R . became known as the insider gay news source about town, and later, as one of the most respected LGBT voices in journalism nationwide.
Like most gay publications, the B.A.R . has an interest in covering certain topics that often are specific to the community: sex and sexuality, AIDS, sodomy laws, the military ban, marriage equality. Yet its increasingly high standards and universal appeal have been earned through its longstanding commitment to a sex-positive platform and unique relationship to the diverse factions of the local community, providing open forums and firsthand accounts of San Francisco culture that captured gay history even before it had been made.
"It was wonderful. We used to get a lot of coverage," said Marlena, owner of San Francisco's famous Marlena's bar, the Hayes Valley establishment that still houses all the early memorabilia of the esteemed royal drag system known as the Imperial Court. "The B.A.R. and the Imperial Court worked hand in hand for years to support each other."
The front covers of many early 1970s newspapers were dedicated to the Imperial Court's Emperor and Empress candidates, contests, and events.
"The presentation of the past Empresses de San Francisco was undoubtedly the best staged event of the evening, as Jose, Shirley, Willis, and Cristal acknowledged the applauding throng from the terraced balcony around the ballroom," read page one of the January 10, 1973 issue of the B.A.R. The story continued, "At midnight, Maxine, of the New Bell Saloon, was announced the new Empress de San Francisco VIII. All the candidates were waiting in the lobby for the final announcement and when it came, Maxine was standing, in a lovely blue satin and white lace gown, with her shoes in her hand."
In those days, said Marlena, it was a different, riskier drag culture where people could not afford high quality wigs and were easily clocked as men in dresses. "You couldn't walk down the street in drag 40 years ago. Today, there's a freedom the queens of my youth didn't have."
There's less media attention on the Imperial Court these days, something Marlena attributes to the fact that gay people now have more options for community. Still, she said, the Imperial Court system remains strong, continuing to raise money for charity, providing entertainment for the larger gay community, and carving out new space for the transgender community as well.
"Every emperor and empress is well respected, and there's still a little bit of magic there," she said, pointing out that a little more newspaper coverage these days could go a long way. "We do need to figure out a way to penetrate the bigger community and let them know we are there with them, not just for them."
Politics was a relatively new area to the gay community, but as local power grew, the B.A.R. had its finger on the pulse of local events with an eye toward influencing the national climate. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the paper's coverage of Harvey Milk, the state's first gay elected official and longtime friend of Ross, and later, the B.A.R.'s political columnist.
"The B.A.R. for quite some time was the only means of communication of any news whatsoever in gay community. Bob took a liking to Harvey as the gay rebel, even though Bob himself could be a bit stuffy," said Jim Rivaldo, Milk's campaign manager. "Harvey respected the gay bar scene more than the gay establishment that he so harshly criticized. [Harvey] was the sort of pushy, 'grab it; they'll never give it to you' advocate of gay rights rather than the 'nurture and educate our straight friends so they'll support us' faction. Harvey introduced in many ways a political consciousness in the main communication medium of our community. The Chronicle and Examiner never would have covered anything gay unless a gay person ran screaming in the street naked. But Harvey brought a political presence to the B.A.R."
Milk's last column criticized the practices of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which had refused to speak out against the homophobic Briggs initiative.
"In case the chamber hasn't noticed ... we are not going away, or back into our closets. ... In fact we are going to take an even stronger part in our government and its decisions. In fact we will become an even stronger political and economic force in the city, the state, and the nation," Milk wrote in the B.A.R.
The events that followed, of course, were tragic. Before the next issue of the B.A.R. hit the streets, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White, an ex-cop with conservative leanings who often clashed with the men.
Much of the B.A.R.'s next issue was dedicated to Milk's memory, though by the time it was printed, the shootings were old news and Milk's ashes had already been scattered at sea.
"The mood was festive. Many had brought along food and drink, joints were passed around," the B.A.R. said of the event that laid Milk to rest.
Milk had already predicted his assassination as an openly gay political man, and in a tape recorded political will had named several possible openly gay successors to his city Supervisor seat. The B.A.R. 's Ross was among those named, but many of Milk's friends believed him to be too conservative for the job, and then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein instead chose Harry Britt, a decision that may have helped to define the gay political split for years to come.
"Bob's sense of politics was extremely personal. There were a number of instances where he â€“ and by extent the newspaper â€“ was all over the place as a result of Bob's personal clashes and positive experiences with various people, gay or otherwise," said Rivaldo. "But to his credit he pretty much relinquished day to day operations to his staff. He developed the paper into a powerful voice that was unambiguous and forceful about the gay stuff on the ballot and candidates' positions on gay issues. And today the quality of writing and level of sophistication and analysis of complex social issues is impressive. The B.A.R. goes into a lot of detail, even to the point that the big papers now quote the B.A.R."
No gay issue helped to shape the need for timely and accurate news as much as the first several years of the AIDS epidemic. The B.A.R . became a weekly publication in the 1980s in part to fill the need for information on the disease that was devastating the community (The B.A.R. itself lost more than 10 employees, according to Ross).
Back then, full-page advertisements from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation warned B.A.R. readers that rimming and fisting were considered unsafe activities until more research was done on HIV transmission.
Back then, it was front page news in 1986 that some Bay Area corporations had decided not to fire their employees with AIDS and would continue to provide them with healthcare coverage.
"Our philosophy is to treat all employees with dignity and respect and our policy about AIDS reflects that it's like any serious illness," a Levi's spokeswoman told the B.A.R.
But many companies did not operate the same way, and thus the gay community also found itself with an economic crisis on its hands.
"Our friends were getting sick and losing their jobs and getting thrown out of their places because they couldn't make rent, and we thought that shouldn't be happening," recalled Rick Booth, a co-founder of the AIDS Emergency Fund. "So that's how we got started â€“ right here in my living room."
Ross and the B.A.R. faithfully supported AEF in its mission to make emergency grants to people in need, and the paper publicized AEF events and made financial contributions as well.
"A lot has changed in terms of the laws and the treatments, but back then it was pretty grim," said Booth. "We constantly relied on the B.A.R.; we had to keep informed. And I think the paper also really enhanced the organization tremendously. That period brought out the best in an awful lot of people."
A powerful symbol of the personal toll of AIDS was evident in the November 16, 1989 issue when then-art director Richard Burt compiled the pictures and names of everyone who had died that year. The section ran for eight pages and to this day, people still occasionally call to inquire about it.
AIDS news in the B.A.R. has consistently made national headlines â€“ from the famous "No Obits" cover of 1998 to the paper's coverage of some significant political protests and events.
"Castro Held Hostage," read a 1989 headline to a front page story detailing the police occupation and excessive force used during a peaceful neighborhood AIDS protest organized by ACT UP. That event became known as the "Castro Sweep" and media attention shed light on the contentious relationship between gays and police, prompting calls for reform.
The B.A.R. has always been known for its unique feature stories that only a gay community newspaper would cover.
"Ammiano loses a parachute," read a 1978 headline about the openly gay teacher who was profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle for having an unconventional classroom. Turns out, the Chronicle piece mentioned that Tom Ammiano's classroom contained a silk parachute, which the San Francisco Fire Department deemed a fire hazard.
"In a visit to Buena Vista Elementary School, [fire inspectors] found Ammiano to be surprised but cooperative," said the B.A.R. "My kids don't smoke and I'm the only flaming thing in that room," Ammiano quipped.
If there's one feature of the B.A.R. that has always been lively, it's the letters section. Even in the early days it was not uncommon to feature pages and pages of community in-fighting.
Letters from the 1980s included a "Cover Up" letter to fat lesbians that sparked months of responses; a weeks-long debate about whether bodybuilding was a sport; and a handful of public admonishments against gays who were not considered representative of the community.
Though some may believe that ACT UP only recently became controversial in San Francisco, many community leaders wrote to the B.A.R. to protest the historic group's militant tactics and street blockades even way back when.
Racial tensions also were addressed in the letters pages, especially after some gay leaders blamed the 1989 defeat of a domestic partners measure on communities of color due to neighborhood voting statistics. Others wrote in to point out that the B.A.R. had mistakenly identified the nonprofit organization Shanti as "no longer gay identified" due to its new executive director Eric Rofes's decision to do more outreach to communities of color.
And of course, local and personal concerns always were given ample space.
"Is anyone aware that the city is building a rail connection along the Embarcadero that will connect Fisherman's Wharf to Castro Street?" an alarmed man wrote in the 1980s. "Can you see it now? T-shirt shops and hot dog stands serving a million tourists on upper market ... the death of our neighborhood focal point."
Another man ran an open letter to community members who perfumed their genitals.
"When I want to suck cock," he wrote, "it is not the flavors of Chanel or Dior I crave!"
The B.A.R.'s mix of humor, analysis, community input, and political advocacy tapped into local sentiment and helped to set the tone for the LGBT movement worldwide.
"It has become a valuable awareness tool. Plus the second section is still entertainment so it hasn't given up its role as the source of cultural information, fun, gossip, and all that stuff," summarized Rivaldo. "We have a real precious thing in San Francisco that no one else in human history has. We were right here to really get the movement under way no matter how exotic and strange the world may have thought it was. There was an early legitimacy and we have inspired people around the world to do it."