Thursday, October 16, 2008

GLBT Historical Society Celebrates Third Decade

By Dennis McMillan
Published: October 16, 2008

Board co-chairs Denise Dellotti and Don Romesburg, Supervisor and soon-to-be Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, and ED Paul Boneberg. The dramatic 1978 No on 6 campaign was brought back to life by speakers and film. Photo by Rink.

Celebrating 30 years of queer history in the making, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society held its annual gala fundraiser, “Modern History: From Milk to Marriage,” at Elan on Oct. 9. The event honored author Armistead Maupin and two groups of activists who coordinated the fight against the 1978 Briggs Initiative. Maupin and representatives from the Bay Area Coalition Against the Briggs Initiative (BACABI) and The No on 6 Committee were presented with the Walker Award. Named after Willie Walker, a co-founder of the GLBT Historical Society who passed away in 2004, the award honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to the civic, cultural, and political life of the LGBT community. “Armistead Maupin and the groups that organized against the Briggs Initiative are both such pivotal figures in GLBT history,” said Executive Director Paul Boneberg. “They are a perfect fit for our Walker Award this year as we take a moment to look back on thirty years of GLBT history in San Francisco.”

In 1976, Maupin’s “Tales of the City” serial in the San Francisco Chronicle was the first gay-themed fiction to ever appear in an American daily newspaper. Its publication in book form in 1978 marked a cultural turning point that many believe helped to launch the past 30 years of political and social progress for the queer community. In 1978, the Briggs Initiative was a measure on the California State ballot that would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools. The failed initiative followed similar legislation that had passed in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and followed the highly explosive campaign to repeal one of the first gay rights ordinances in the U.S in Dade County, Florida that was led by Anita Bryant.

The Society also previewed several key pieces from their upcoming exhibit scheduled to open at 18th & Castro streets later this fall, which will feature historic photographs, objects, and documents that chronicle the evolution of the queer community in San Francisco and the emergence of the Castro as the nation’s “Gay Mecca.” On display upstairs were a photo of activist Del Marin at the 1966 Federal Building protest; disco diva Sylvester’s costume from the ‘70s; a hand-painted 1977 Harvey Milk for Supervisor campaign poster; a 1977 No on 6 poster; and Gilbert Baker’s sewing machine used to create the first Gay Pride Rainbow Flag in 1978. Downstairs footage of past LGBT events screened, and then the awards ceremony began.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano joked that back in 1978, he was a mere child, “and if you believe that, you believe Yes on Prop 8.” He said he was excited about the Oct. 28 opening of the MILK movie, based on Harvey Milk’s life, which was greatly contributed to by the Historical Society. “Tonight is a memorialization and validation of the many years we’ve been in San Francisco and accomplished so much,” he said. “In San Francisco, we know the difference between a soccer mom and a drag queen.” On a serious note, he said, “It’s important that we honor our history, because the attacks on us never really stop; but when we’re in crisis – whether it’s Anita Bryant or Sarah Palin – we always do come together.”

Boneberg said that beginning November 1, for an entire year, the Society will sign a lease to have the storefront at 18th and Castro rent-free, thanks to Supervisor Bevan Dufty. They intend to be up and running by the time MILK comes to town. Levi Strauss will be the presenting sponsor of the exhibit with its $50,000 donation. “We’re building a museum; we’re preserving history; and we’re telling the stories,” Boneberg said.

“We are at a historic moment,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno. “Twenty-six days from now, this country will decide … whether we can move forward with the ‘wild concept’ of equality for all taxpaying, law abiding citizens or not.” Leno said people must not get discouraged but should redouble their efforts, “so that we will wake up on November 5th, cheering our victories both here in California and across the country.”

Co-chairs Denise Bellotti and Don Romesberg spoke about the awardees. Board Member Michael Nava gave an award to Maupin, saying this man used to be a protégé of the infamous Sen. Jesse Helms, but in 1974 he came out in San Francisco. Maupin said “many lovely things” have come his way this year, making him maybe “an advertisement for being a happy old queen.” He said many elders in the room had made the decision years ago to be out and proud. He gave high praise to MILK, saying, “It’s a brilliant movie, hitting every button just right.” He compared the scary 1978 election that could have put queer teachers back in the closet and set back gay rights considerably, to this current “referendum on our humanity,” adding, “but if we lose it, we’re still here, and our love is still out there and beautiful to other people.” Leno married him and his husband Christopher Kenner here last weekend, after having been married a year and a half ago in Canada. “And we might just get married somewhere else,” he joked. He said, “If the 11,000 marriages stand here, should the referendum pass, I think those 11,000 should get on a marriage-mobile and tour the country.”

Gwenn Craig, a lead organizer with No on 6, and Paula Lichtenberg, a lead organizer with Bay Area Coalition Against the Briggs Initiative (BACABI), each accepted awards. “The Briggs Initiative represented one of the most far reaching assaults on the LGBT community at that time,” said Craig. “That political fireball, Harvey Milk, asked me and my friend the late Bill Krause to manage the electoral campaign to defeat Prop 6.” She said everyone expected to lose, as homophobic rhetoric became rampant; but politicos came together to become strong LGBT activists, rounding up over 800 fully committed volunteers. Craig said at the same time, BACABI emerged to carry out a grassroots crusade to educate of the evils of Prop 6. Lichtenberg spoke of leafleting in Sausalito when a homophobic man asked if she were “one of those cock-suckers.” She said with a laugh, “I assured him, I wasn’t.”

She concluded, “Grassroots was just one of the winning strategies, and we were proud to be part of that।”

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