LGBTQ HIstory Month: SF LGBTQ pioneers helped form the community

  • by Chuck Forester
  • Wednesday October 25, 2023
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Chuck Forester. Photo: Courtesy Chuck Forester
Chuck Forester. Photo: Courtesy Chuck Forester

That gay person at the Pride parade is the result of an unusual social experiment that started in 1970 in San Francisco. Could gay men and lesbians from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities without prior experience violate social norms and lead normal lives?

I reveal the origin story thanks to a hardworking immune system that has kept me going since I was infected with HIV before 1978. My blood and the blood of the love of my life for 18 years, Michael A. Schoch, was frozen as part of a 1978 hepatitis B vaccine trial. With a test for HIV, Schoch checked his blood, and it was infected with the virus. Throughout our time together, our sex life was heroic, so my blood must be similarly infected.

Schoch succumbed to AIDS on February 25, 1994. I celebrate my 80th birthday, HIV-positive, on February 23, 2024.

The change happened at a time when the queer community in San Francisco was known as the gay and lesbian community.

In 1970, gay people did not appear in the media, Hollywood shied away from portraying gay characters, churches would not let them worship, and most families refused gay children. As far as straight people were concerned, we did not exist.

But we did, and a gay man had to live in the closet because if his queerness were exposed, he would immediately lose his job, his family, and his self-respect. A man tortured by his sexuality and unable to accept reality could die by suicide. Other men used alcohol to ease the pain of a lifetime of denying who they were. A healthy libido was plum out of luck; there were no socially acceptable places for him to have sex.

The same year, San Francisco was the only city in the country where a gay man held his lover's hand on the street. Word spread through the queer underground, and the temptation of freedom whetted the appetites of frustrated men who yearned to live free. A thousand men a month likely moved to San Francisco in 1970, the first generation that refused to live in the closet.

San Francisco's tradition of welcoming outcastes, the substantial real estate left behind by the middle class that abandoned the city, and generous disability benefits allowed gay people to live normal lives with their unique queer twists.

These five provided the foundation so others could thrive.

Del Martin, left, and Phyllis Lyon were married in San Francisco City Hall in 2008. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
On Valentine's Day 1953, with their love superior to any law, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon moved in together on Castro Street. They wanted lesbians to know the beauty of lesbian love, so in 1955, they founded Daughters of Bilitis, the first social group for lesbians in the country. Lesbians need a legacy of lesbian legends, so they published The Ladder. This happened during the 1950s, the Eisenhower years, when thousands of gay employees were fired or forced to resign from the federal workforce because of their sexuality. Dubbed the "Lavender Scare," this wave of repression was also bound up with anti-communism and fueled by the power of congressional investigation, according to the National Archives.

We moved in different circles but saw each other at political events for 40 years, and Martin thanked me for raising money for the Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center (now the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center) in the new Main Library at the center's opening dinner.

They were the first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women, and on the first day same-sex couples could marry in California they were the first couple to tie the knot in San Francisco City Hall with then-mayor Gavin Newsom officiating.

Martin and Lyon were models for women everywhere, inspiring generations of women to be true to who they are. They were also models for queer couples, by example, giving others permission to be a queer couple.

Martin died in 2008 and Lyon passed away in 2020.

Jim Foster
I recognized Jim Foster as a political activist when we were having sex in the dirty bookstore on 18th Street in 1972, the Golden Years when sex was a privilege of gay liberation and a generation's repressed testosterone was being released joyously in hundreds of bedrooms every night across the Castro.

My political transformation started in a dark place. I was so Republican growing up that I supported homophobe Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. I did not know what to think when the kids in the Universalist Unitarian youth group who talked about ideas were Democrats, but they had me questioning everything.

I bought my first fundraising table at an Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club dinner because the dinner honored Foster. I asked his advice every time an election rolled around.

Foster was a staunch Democrat who believed he could do more for the community working inside the system. If the community was going to win its civil rights, it had to have a queer political presence, and you cannot do that in the closet. He urged intellectuals, artists, and the low-paid workers he worked with to come out to everyone because we had to be honest when confronting people who can't abide the thought of us.

Foster, Martin, and Lyon founded the Alice club, the first queer Democratic club in the country.

After much agitation by gay people, the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida in 1972 failed to add a gay civil rights plank to the party's platform. Fearing what Foster would say, conference organizers scheduled him to speak after the vote on the plank was taken. He was not asking for special treatment; he was asking to be recognized as a fellow Democrat. Never had a gay person stood in front of a national audience and asked to be accepted as a gay person. He opened the door Harvey Milk walked through when he ran for Board of Supervisor in 1974. (Milk would go on to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977.)

Foster died in 1990.

Philanthropist Al Baum. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Al Baum
I could not believe what I just read. This was 1973, 41 years before same-sex marriage was legal, so I read it a second time. Harvard law graduate Al Baum, the deputy director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, one of the first environmental groups, and a hot topic in civic-activist circles, told a reporter he was gay. Working for mayor Joseph Alioto at the time, I was the only out gay man in government, but no one had exposed me in the media. I was thrilled I was not alone. I wanted to know him because, like me, he also had a city planning degree. He was eager to meet and told me he did not intend to come out, but he was proud of who he was, so he did not recant the reporter's story.

Baum had the courage to come out. His breaking the lavender ceiling gave other men working in government permission to come out, but the head of the Parks and Recreation Department, and the power behind the throne at the Redevelopment Agency, remained firmly in the closet.

I was the first Ivy League-educated, sexually active gay city planner San Francisco's civic-minded intelligentsia had ever seen, and Baum was the first Ivy League-educated, generous donor, gay Jew the Jewish community had ever seen. We did not need to come out to each other; we came out to the larger community.

Baum's donation to the old Lavender University began his queer giving. He liked to make friends with the executive director and board members of the nonprofits he supported. Given the number of times he was honored at nonprofit dinners, his gifts were critical to the early stability of the community. I find it curious that Baum never knew exactly where his money came from; he just knew there was enough in his account when he needed it.

Baum loved travel, which made setting up a lunch date difficult because he was either just coming back from an extended trip or he was about to embark on one. Baum always wanted to know what I said about him, and while this barely scrapes the surface, he would be pleased to be here.

Baum died in 2021.

Jerry Berg
Oregon-raised, Stanford law graduate Jerry Berg was a tall, blond attorney with a commanding presence whose phone calls to then-mayor Dianne Feinstein were promptly returned. He thought I deserved to spend a weekend at Esalen with a group of exceptional men. I was new to California, but Esalen was mythical, so the thought was thrilling, but I was out of my league when he listed the men attending the retreat. I was a mid-level civil servant; other participants were Tom Waddell, an Olympic medalist, and Jim Hormel, a wealthy philanthropist.

Berg's mission was assuring the queer community had the social services the straight community took for granted. Our early nonprofits disintegrated either because they did not care to raise money, or the founder absconded with the bank account. The founder's best intentions were not worth much when he didn't turn those intentions into a service. As an attorney, Berg could secure the federal 501(c)(3) legal status nonprofits must have to operate. He knew our nonprofits had to be run professionally, so he identified queer leaders and experts and placed them in the appropriate places in queer nonprofits.

His group organized a $1,000-a-plate gala (an outrageous amount of money in 1978). They used the money raised at the dinner to pay for polling that helped defeat the 1978 Briggs initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. After the initiative was defeated, the group helped each other establish nonprofits such as the Freedom Day Marching Band, the Gay Men's Chorus, and the Gay Olympics (later renamed the Gay Games after a court fight with the U.S. Olympic Committee). They were with me when I was raising money for the Hormel center in the New Main Library.

I believe San Francisco is the national model for AIDS care and treatment because Berg saw the need for a network of queer social services.

Berg died in 1991.

Philanthropist James Hormel. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Jim Hormel
Hormel, heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune, was born in Austin, Minnesota, a year after aviator Charles Lindberg's baby was kidnapped. Fearing for his safety, his father had a guard watch Hormel as he grew up. That kept him from experiencing what kids often go through, so he turned that energy into being an accomplished pianist and reading books. To me, Hormel was a genius with the composure of a sage.

He took his philanthropy seriously and housed the operation in a building on Market Street near City Hall. His office was on the top floor. His desk and the credenza behind it sagged under the weight of annual reports, obscure publications, and funding proposals, and there were piles of scientific papers on the floor. On a visit, he plucked a paper from deep within a mound and asked if I knew this person's work on why suppressed people laugh. I did not but thought the author's unusual take on suppressed people's laughter was brilliant.

He devoted the second floor to his philanthropy, the Loose Change Fund. The receptionist was bright and quick to set up my lunch dates with him. Hormel was careful when donating because he didn't want a nonprofit to depend on him. His donation to the gay and lesbian center in the New Main Library came with the stipulation that if the library's funding for the center fell below what it allocated to the center the year the center opened, he would take his money back. Hormel wanted his money to spur the nonprofit to become self-sustaining.

Once word got out that Hormel made a large donation, nonprofits afraid to raise money saw him as their silver bullet, and his office was inundated with requests from queer groups thinking he alone could save them. His assistant Ray Mulliner was a brilliant statesman when fending off proposals that just needed Hormel's money.

As a nonprofit consultant, I rented an office in Hormel's building. I frustrated a nonprofit client because the executive director thought that by hiring me, she was buying a ticket to Hormel. Our friendship was too precious to sully by using it. Hormel knew more about nonprofits than I did, and he made his decisions. A friend worked with her and did not have nice things to say, so even if Hormel had asked my opinion, which he never did, I would have argued against giving her a dime.

Hormel asked my partner Schoch to design and install a garden for his home on Buena Vista Avenue. The three tiers astounded him, and his favorite spot to relax was under the oak. Hormel allowed me to hold Schoch's memorial service in the garden. When Hormel made a gift to the National AIDS Memorial Grove, he put Schoch's name near the center of the Friends Circle.

I think of Hormel as my wealthy gay uncle whose generosity gave the queer community a good deal of its social infrastructure.

Hormel died in 2021.

The experiment's results
In the early 1970s, lesbians and gay men in San Francisco created a politically active, cohesive community that celebrates differences. They transformed the Irish working-class Eureka Valley neighborhood into the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood, the first queer neighborhood. The Castro Pride celebrations and Folsom Street Fair weekend made San Francisco a gay mecca for queers around the world. San Francisco was a forerunner of the gay and lesbian rights movement that inspired civil rights for LGBTQ people across the country and continues as a resource for scholars and activists.

Chuck Forester served as a special assistant to San Francisco mayors Joseph Alioto, George Moscone, and Dianne Feinstein. He was a board co-chair of the Human Rights Campaign and led the team that raised $3.5 million for the San Francisco Main Library. His memoir, "I Throw Like A Girl," was published in 2021.

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