Rick Stokes, 'the other gay man' who ran against Milk, dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Thursday May 5, 2022
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Rick Earl Stokes. Photo: Courtesy Steamworks
Rick Earl Stokes. Photo: Courtesy Steamworks

Rick Earl Stokes, famously "the other gay candidate" who ran against Harvey Milk for San Francisco supervisor in 1977, died May 3. He was 87.

Mr. Stokes died in San Francisco after a brief battle with congestive heart failure, according to an obituary prepared by Curtis Jensen, director of marketing and graphics for Steamworks, the gay bathhouse location in Berkeley of which Mr. Stokes was one of the founders.

"Rick was a role model, leader, activist, philanthropist, and business owner who dedicated most of his life to LGBTQ equality and was an early pioneer in the LGBTQ civil rights movement," Jensen stated.

In that pivotal District 5 supervisors race, which Milk won, Mr. Stokes was viewed as the more establishment candidate.

"Rick was from the older school of activism," Jensen said in a phone interview. "Harvey and his group were more cutting-edge."

In the Bay Area Reporter's archives, the paper endorsed Milk in its October 13, 1977 issue. At the time, though, the columnists for the paper had their own say. The late Wayne Friday, then a political columnist for the paper, endorsed Milk in the October 27, 1977 issue. He noted that Mr. Stokes had not gotten the endorsement of "his own political club, the Alice B. Toklas Demo Club." In the same issue, columnist George Mendenhall endorsed Mr. Stokes.

Milk had his own column in the paper and, in that same issue, wrote that Mr. Stokes said at two debates that the only reason he was running against Milk was because of the latter's use of "a 10-letter word denoting a sex act" when urging people to vote for George Moscone for mayor at his Castro Camera store.

Milk and Mr. Stokes had differing approaches to how to achieve LGBTQ equality, and in many ways the race was a generational contest between the more "conservative" approach Mr. Stokes represented, one that had been successful for him for well over a decade at the time, and the more "radical" approach that Milk represented, one more reflective of the youth culture-led ideals of direct action and unapologetic confrontation, Jensen wrote in the obituary.

Thomas E. Horn, a gay man who was publisher of the B.A.R. following the death of founding publisher Bob Ross, stated that he knew Mr. Stokes pretty well.

"He was an out gay lawyer back in the day when it was hard to be out," Horn wrote in an email. "He ran for supervisor and sort of was the 'establishment gay' candidate in the election when the city converted from at-large to district elections, but Harvey Milk beat him. He was acceptable to the straight liberal establishment. I liked him, but I still supported Harvey."

Former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos said that Mr. Stokes was a mentor to him when he arrived in the city in 1966, explaining to him about gay people and gay rights. Agnos recalled the 1977 supervisors race between Mr. Stokes and Milk.

"It was a little tense," he said in a phone interview. "I supported Rick — he knew how to make government work. He was so much more prepared, in my opinion."

Agnos said that Milk went on to quickly learn the legislative ropes during his short time in office before he was assassinated in November 1978.

"Harvey had to learn it all, and he did," Agnos said.

Terry Beswick, a gay man who's executive director of the Golden Gate Business Association, in which Mr. Stokes was also involved, noted in an email, "When he ran against Harvey Milk for supervisor, he represented the more moderate suit-and-tie element of the community, but through his businesses and groundbreaking advocacy, he touched many lives."

Mr. Stokes, reflecting on their differences in an interview with ABC 7 in 2019 said, "I thought we'd get further along by pointing out the similarities, finding natural friends to link up with, and seeking different rights." Asked what the future might have held if the election had turned out differently, he said, "I think that things might have gone more slowly with me, looking back from this vantage point." Mr. Stokes was portrayed in the Oscar-winning film "Milk" by actor Stephen Spinella.

Mr. Stokes was born in Oklahoma on February 27, 1935. After years of struggle with his gay identity, including suffering through regressive reparative therapies and an unhappy marriage, he moved to California determined to find "his guy." He found him in David Clayton, who was his lover, mentor, and partner in business and life for the next 35 years until Clayton's death in 1995, the obituary stated. With Clayton's love and support Mr. Stokes returned to school and became first a teacher then a lawyer. Jensen noted that Mr. Stokes always acknowledged that he was privileged to have Clayton's support and that it allowed him to dedicate his career to advancing LGBTQ equality, particularly in those pre-Stonewall days when the mere knowledge that someone was gay could get them fired and ostracized from public life.

Clayton and Mr. Stokes moved to San Francisco and began a law practice. Mr. Stokes helped "gays and lesbian people caught up in bar raids and police sting operations," Jensen said, adding that he also assisted them with child custody cases and other issues.

As a member of the San Francisco Bar Association Mr. Stokes worked on the non-victim crimes committee and, as a delegate to the State Bar Association, worked for legal reform efforts on behalf of LGBTQ people.

Part of the movement

First in Sacramento and later in San Francisco, Mr. Stokes set about being part of the early gay rights movement. He formed a gay organization called Association for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) and became an active participant in the Society for Individual Rights. ARC published the Archer, an early magazine dedicated to the gay movement. Mr. Stokes organized previously unthinkable actions like sponsoring a booth about gayness at the California State Fair, an effort that was blocked at the last minute by fair organizers. The obituary noted that he learned a great lesson with that action when he and other activists handed out their flier outside the fair, garnering the group much media attention, including frontpage coverage in both major San Francisco papers, attention they likely would not have received had they not been banned from the event.

Agnos gave Mr. Stokes a lot of credit for going to the state fair, noting it was a rural-focused event and Mr. Stokes was there to talk about gay people.

"He was thoughtful, smart, and strong, breaking up our stereotypical images," Agnos said. "His soft voice masked a steely, strong resolve."

Agnos credited Mr. Stokes with being the first generation of strong, influential voices for gay rights. "Today's generation has not been educated enough about these pioneers," he said. "Even today's leaders stand on the shoulders of Rick Stokes. He stepped up and stood out."

While in law school Mr. Stokes organized a public panel discussion between gay men and allies in the religious and political communities that proved to Mr. Stokes the impact one person's efforts could have in moving equality forward.

Mr. Stokes served on the board and as president of another early group, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, in the 1960s. CRH was the first organization in the U.S. to use the word "homosexual" in its name; previous groups commonly used "homophile" or avoided direct reference to homosexuality or "gay" all together. As president, Mr. Stokes organized the annual CRH conference that brought religious leaders and LGBTQ activists together to discuss issues of equality and justice, and to find common ground and encourage the allyship of the religious leaders in their local community and advocacy for the LGBTQ cause.

In today's highly contentious environment, where religion and LGBTQ issues seem to be at odds, the accomplishments and relationships developed by CRH seem like impossibilities, but they resulted in real action and real advocacy on our behalf, Jensen noted, by local religious leaders in the Bay Area and around the world in the 1960s and 1970s.

Business leader

Mr. Stokes will also be remembered as one of the founders and owners of Steamworks Baths, one of the longest continuing gay-owned bathhouses in the world, and an industry leader that long set the standard against which other similar facilities are judged, stated Jensen. His leadership in the international chain was active up through recent weeks, the obituary stated.

Prior to Steamworks, Mr. Stokes and Clayton's legacy included their ownership of the Ritch Street Health Club in San Francisco in 1965. That venture, at 330 Ritch Street, represented the first gay ownership of a gay bathhouse in the U.S., the obituary stated. Before this time, bathhouses were usually owned by people who rarely took care of their facilities or invested in them as part of the LGBTQ community, Jensen stated. Along with a collective of other investors, they created a bathhouse by and for gay men, and made cleanliness and customer service a priority. The couple sold their interest in Ritch Street in 1977 and that same year bought the Mayan Baths in Berkeley and, after a remodel, relaunched it as Steamworks Baths.

Over the next 45 years Steamworks Baths grew with locations in several California cities and locations in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Currently Steamworks has locations in Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia. Under Mr. Stokes' visionary leadership Steamworks has long been regarded as one of the best bathhouse chains in the world, winning architecture awards, setting standards for facilities, and for community and health partnerships during the AIDS crisis, Jensen stated. He added that Mr. Stokes always prioritized being an active business partner to the LGBTQ community.

With the support and friendship of gay businessman David Goodstein, Mr. Stokes became involved in the Whitman-Radcliff Foundation, which was dedicated to identifying and working to change anti-LGBTQ laws that were being used to harass or inhibit the careers and lives of LGBTQ people, and general law reform that touched on LGBTQ equality.

Mr. Stokes was the founding president of GGBA. Beswick wrote in an email that the organization was the first gay chamber of commerce association in the U.S. and "began a movement in LGBTQ economic empowerment." Mr. Stokes was active in leadership there for many years.

"To this day the GGBA and sister chambers around the country have a huge impact on LGBTQ small businesses throughout the country," Beswick stated.

Other work

In 1971, Mr. Stokes began an effort to get gay and lesbian representation on San Francisco city boards and was the first out gay person appointed to the San Francisco Family Services Agency Board of Directors, where he served for four years. In 1972, he ran as the first openly gay candidate for the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees. He narrowly lost that election but always contended that running as an out gay man, having a very public gay face participating in the normal democratic process for the public to see, was a victory in itself, Jensen stated.

According to the B.A.R.'s archives, Mr. Stokes and Milk both served on the San Francisco Board of Permit Appeals. Mr. Stokes was tapped for the body after Milk was "fired" when he decided to run for state Assembly, the paper stated. (Agnos defeated Milk in that 1976 Assembly race.)

Mr. Stokes and Clayton were both very active in the United Methodist Church, and Mr. Stokes served as lay leader of his local San Francisco congregation and as a delegate to the National Board of Church and Society, which trains members of the denomination to engage in social justice, in Washington, D.C.

The couple were both subjects, along with a dozen or so other gay men and lesbians, in the landmark queer film "Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives." Filmed in 1977, it was conceived and produced Peter Adair, and directed collectively by the Mariposa Film Group, consisting of Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, later Oscar winner Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, and Veronica Selver. The film was the first to dive into the first-person stories of what being gay and lesbian in America was actually like, covering growing up, love, sex, coming out, professional life, surviving oppression, and the changing environment for LGBTQ people. In the film Mr. Stokes tells the story of being in love with a neighbor boy in his youth, disclosing that relationship to his wife, and being put in a mental institution where he endured a host of horrors including a series of 25 shock treatments. He then discusses his journey to self-acceptance, and finding love and fulfillment as a gay man in California. The film is celebrated as a classic and an important historical record of the gay experience.

Mr. Stokes also participated in the film's anniversary documentary "Word is Out: 30 Years Later," which caught up with the subjects and told the story of the making of the film.

Mr. Stokes' dedication to community philanthropy included being the longest-running corporate sponsor of the Frameline Film Festival as well as several other LGBTQ film, theater, and arts charities; a sponsor of San Francisco Pride, Folsom Street Fair, and other community events throughout the U.S.; a backer of LGBTQ health initiatives; and a supporter of many LGBTQ political efforts and candidates.

Mr. Stokes is survived by his husband of the last decade, Alex Kiforenko.

Updated, 5/5/22: This article has been updated to correct the team behind "Word is Out."

Updated, 5/6/22: This article has been updated with comments from former SF mayor Art Agnos.

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