The following are excerpts from "94114"---the unpublished recollections
and history of the early Castro by Ron Williams.
Things have certainly changed. Truly we have become a viable political machine of our own making. Once we were a unified group of people with a common goal -- sadly, depending on your perspective, we evolved into many splinter groups with narrow agendas. Time marches on, along with are attitudes and culture. This is why it is so important for us to document our gay and lesbian history.
The largest percentage of gay men in San Francisco worked downtown in the financial district, department stores, retail shops and hair salons around town. Three piece suits and Montgomery St. wedgies (wing tip shoes) were the uniforms of day and leather jackets with appropriate boots, the fashions of the night. Leathermen in the early Sixties were part of a very special fraternity of sexual outlaws and renegades. Leather was an attitude not a fashion accessory or statement. The Tool Box at 4th and Harrison was the grand-daddy of leather bars in the City and the 1964 Life magazine article would put it and all of San Franciscos gay underground on the map. As you entered the bar there was a mural (the original Chuck Arnett fresco) on the wall near the door. The mural showed a group of leathermen, in the original true leather style. A photo of the mural was part of the 1964 Life magazine feature about the gay underground in San Francisco. Little did Chuck Arnett realize that his mural on the wall of the Tool Box, of men in leather, would become a fashion icon of gay men around the world. Closet doors flew open around the country after that Life magazine article, and the rush to San Francisco was on.
As the City opened it arms to Gay men from all over the country, they arrived via every imaginable form of transportation. More bars opened their doors, cautious political efforts were organized and Gay men within the City began to form their own affinity groups. The full-time drags and cross-dressers of the Tenderloin, the fluffy sweater set, the Levis and western boys and the leathermen South of Market, all had their own bars that they frequented. The guest lists of smart cocktail parties, was the gauge of who was "In" and who was not. Sexual attitude was still South of Market, gay men had camaraderie in their relationships. The clichés, "got a match" or "excuse me, do you have the time?" were real. The baths were still a secret place and only the desperate frequented them. Within a short time that misconception changed and gay owned bath houses began to flourish.
For young men under 21 the early sixties were difficult, as most of the action was going on in the bars. There were a few coffee houses around town. One place that will always remain branded on my memory, The Head Hunters on the Embarcadero. You had to be 18, the place was a dive -- sleaze with a capital "S" and red glitter, but it did have just a pinch of real character, one would have to have been there to appreciate it. We would sneak vodka in and drink it in the rest room and occasionally get caught and thrown out. Around the corner and up to No. 10 Market St. (also know as the "Last Resort") was another coffee house, a maze of rooms on the lower floor of a very old building -- I believe the Hyatt Regency stands there today. There was the main coffee bar, then a large living room with 5 or 6 very old over stuffed couches and still another large room with a tiny theatrical stage. On stage they were doing a pantomime production of "Oliver." Most of us that were under 21, as the evening wore on, would wait with great anticipation for 2 a.m. to roll around, as both the Head Hunters and the Last Resort would fill up with the gay men from the bars. We would sit around just waiting to get picked up, young and naive as we were.
Being under age was a real handicap for Gay men, it was then and it is now, as most of the action was happening in the bars. With a little luck and the right attitude, I could get into the Rendezvous. The Rendezvous was on Sutter Street just up from Powell. The bar itself was up a long flight of stairs on the top floor. The stairs werent carpeted and the noise of all these men going up and down was heard by everyone. Once I had worked up enough nerve, I would wait for a group of 4 or 5 guys to begin the walk up the long flight of stairs, and I would follow close behind, hoping the door man wouldn't ask me for my ID, once we reached the top. Usually I would make it in the door OK, get myself a beer and try not to act too scared. After a few beers I would start to loosen up and began to open up to the other people there. This was the beginning with my long partnership with alcohol.
I never did feel comfortable with going into bars while I was under age, so intense cruising on Polk and Powell Streets was a nightly adventure. My route would start at the Rendezvous on Sutter, up to Polk and down Polk to the Jumping Frog near Broadway. I wore out several pairs of shoes during that period of my life. Waiting at the bus stops along Polk Street was the best ways to cruise, however, the police would usually harass us, knowing what we were up to. Thinking we had one up on the police, we would hang around the bus stops with an expired bus transfer in hand. Just in case the police stopped and started asking questions. Of course, we never got on a bus. We were waiting for that certain flash of the eyes -- maybe this will be that special guy walking our way or driving by. The nights were full of excitement and equally contrasting disappointments.
Politically, the gay movement was on the verge of coming out of the shadows. In 1962, an event that pre-dated the Stonewall riot in New York in 1969 is often overlooked as a major gay political event, but in fact was the major turning point for gay liberation in San Francisco if not the country.
An early political organization (disguised as religious) -- "The Council on Religion and the Homosexual," held a dance that was attended by many early gay political leaders. The event was raided by the police dept. and that brought several legal professionals out of the closet in defense of the arrested participants of the dance. Legally and politically this was a first. We had legally won the right to congregate publically as gay men and lesbians.
After those first brave men stuck out their necks to defend gay rights, many new thing began to surface. An early gay radical, Guy Straite, started the first free local gay publication. Guys organization was the League of Civil Education and he published "The LCE News." This badly mimeographed publication began showing up on the tops of cigarette machines in most of the gay bars in town. His publication was infrequent and never really caught on, he was just too far ahead of his time. Guy never gained the recognition as a pioneer of gay liberation that he so honestly deserved. His publication went unnoticed and the LCE News faded away as did Guy Straite.
Another early pioneer, Hal Call started his organization in the early 50s. The Mattichine Society published, on a national level, the professionally produced magazine, "One." Hal was constantly a victim of the oppressive action of the porno laws of both local and federal authorities from the post office. On several occasions, Hal was arrested for distributing his mildly pornographic magazines through the mail. And during the early 60s, his dedication to the freedom of speech finally won a federal ruling allowing him to distribute his gay oriented magazine through the US Postal Service.
The pre-Stonewall gay history of San Francisco is fascinating, it has many heroes and champions of freedom and sadly has become obscure.