Trailblazer Charlotte Coleman remembered

  • Wednesday March 9, 2016
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Charlotte Coleman
Charlotte Coleman

Longtime San Francisco bar owner Charlotte Coleman is being remembered as a pioneer in the gay community, someone who was drummed out of her job with the federal government and later parlayed her auditing knowledge into a string of successful businesses.

Ms. Coleman died November 13, 2015 after suffering two strokes. She was 92 and for the last three years had lived at Brookdale, an assisted living facility in Vallejo.

As a 1996 article in the Bay Area Reporter noted, Ms. Coleman, with a "mere $1,000," opened "what may have been one of the first lesbian-owned bars in the world �" the Front, located at Front and Jackson streets, not far from the infamous Black Cat."

The Black Cat, of course, was where the late Jose Sarria performed as a drag queen.

Ms. Coleman was also well known for her early support of the Gay Olympic Games, which was forced by a U.S. Supreme Court decision to remove the word "Olympic" from its name, becoming the Gay Games.

"She had a fabulous life," said her longtime friend Roberta Bobba, 86, who looked after Ms. Coleman for many years. "She and I traveled all over the world, she lived well, and made money."

Bobba said that she met Ms. Coleman, her friend of 61 years, on the steps of the Paper Doll, an old gay bar. Ms. Coleman was crying.

"I put my arm around her and asked why she was crying," Bobba said. "She said, 'It's OK to be queer in there but you can't be a Democrat.'"

The bar owner, apparently a Republican, had tossed Ms. Coleman from the establishment, Bobba recalled.

According to an autobiography that Ms. Coleman wrote, she was born in Rhode Island on September 5, 1923. She was raised in Somerset, Massachusetts and after high school worked in Newport, Rhode Island making torpedoes for the U.S. Army. She later joined the Coast Guard and after receiving an honorable discharge, took a train tour of the U.S. She ended up in San Francisco.

She later passed a government exam and became an auditor with the Internal Revenue Service, a job she had for 10 years. In her autobiography, Ms. Coleman wrote that during a time when the government decided not to hire any new employees, the IRS' new-employee investigative staff had no work. "They decided to re-investigate all employees who were being given a 'grade' raise," Ms. Coleman wrote, and she was one of them. She was called into an office where investigators had a file, four inches thick.

Ms. Coleman wrote that they had read her mail, tapped her phone, and followed her to parties and on weekends to Sacramento and Santa Cruz. Her hostesses in Santa Cruz "often remarked about seeing a car continually going around the block day and night all weekend," Ms. Coleman wrote.

Presented with this information, Ms. Coleman was fired. "They were unable to really prove she was gay, so they used 'association with persons of ill repute' on their report," Ms. Coleman wrote.

About a month later, Ms. Coleman was called by the IRS to appear at a ceremony to receive a Superior Performance Award. She received about $1,000 from the government retirement account, which she used to open the aforementioned Front beer and wine bar.

Being a gay or lesbian bar owner was challenging in the 1960s, as Ms. Coleman experienced. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control prepared a list of "morals" charges against the Front, such as a man seen putting his arm around another man. For these infractions she lost her license.

After the Front, Ms. Coleman bought the Golden Cask on Haight Street, using her friend, Peggy Forster's name on the license. Soon after the bar opened, a restaurant was added. The night of the grand opening, five police cars and a paddy wagon showed up with sirens blasting. Cops swarmed in, Ms. Coleman wrote, and took Forster from behind the bar and arrested her because of an old parking ticket.

"The police department had always denied that they harassed gay bars," Ms. Coleman wrote. "The Golden Cask was harassed for many months." If customers were arrested, Ms. Coleman wrote that she went down and bailed them out and had her attorney, Herb Donaldson, get the cases dismissed.

Ms. Coleman held fundraisers at the Front, including raising money for ministers who were arrested at the New Year's Eve ball for the Council for Religion and the Homosexual.

In 1969, Ms. Coleman bought the Mint on Market Street, which she owned until 1975. Also a bar and restaurant, the Mint was known for its celebrations of various holidays. One of her employees, Les Balmain, started the Great Tricycle Race, which continued long after Ms. Coleman sold the bar.

Over the years, Ms. Coleman bought other bars and restaurants, such as the Trapp, Gilmores, and others. She was also a silent partner in the Twin Peaks in the Castro.

Said Bobba, "She learned at the IRS that the business to hide the most money from the government was the bar business. She was very smart and very good at it."


Great disappointment

Other endeavors of Ms. Coleman's weren't as successful. She tried to open the First Women's Savings and Loan of SF. The organizers were both straight and gay, but they couldn't secure the investments needed and it never got off the ground.

Later came Atlas Savings and Loan, the first all-gay financial institution with all gay organizers. Ms. Coleman wrote that they had to raise $2 million, not an east task in the late 1970s. With the help of Forster, Ms. Coleman sold the largest number of shares, many of them in gay bars around the city.

"Opening Atlas showed the world that not all gays were in bars and bathhouses, but that we were successful businessmen and women," she wrote. "Atlas was successful from the start, Money came in from all over the world."

After its first office at Duboce and Market, Atlas soon had its own building on Castro Street, in the heart of the gay community.

Unfortunately, the San Francisco real estate market was in a depression and Atlas was forced to invest its money outside of the city, with other savings and loans. Ms. Coleman wrote that it was later discovered that the properties were over-appraised and Atlas was the loser. Stockholders lost their money. The government took it over in what Ms. Coleman described as the "most devastating" day in her life. She lost $50,000.


Civic involvement

Ms. Coleman served on the board of directors of the Gay Games and served as treasurer and was proud that the first two events, held in San Francisco, broke even. The late Rikki Streicher later served as treasurer.

In her autobiography, Ms. Coleman praised the late Dr. Tom Waddell, founder of the Gay Games. Ms. Coleman and Bobba attended all the Gay Games, including Vancouver and New York.

"Amsterdam was unbelievable," she wrote. "The whole city seemed to be gay."

Locally, Ms. Coleman supported various politicians over the years. A folder of memorabilia contains letters from now-Senator Dianne Feinstein (Ms. Coleman was a member of "Dianne's California Cabinet"), the late state Senator Milton Marks, and lesbian former state Senator Carole Migden.

"You are a splendid one-of-a-kind pioneer and you've made a great success in life," Migden wrote in a May 2014 note to Ms. Coleman after she had moved to the assisted living facility.

Ms. Coleman also helped raise funds for various LGBT causes, including the old Godfather Service Fund. She served on the board of the Tavern Guild, the Society for Individual Rights, San Francisco Pride, and Operation Concern, for which she helped raise the first dollars to get the LGBT mental health services group off the ground.

At the time of her death, Ms. Coleman had no surviving partner or family members, but about eight close friends survive her.