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Tracing San Diego’s queer history

By Archives Staff | Out of the Archives

A millennial warmly embraces the events and pioneers that came before

On a bright December day in 1970, 60 or so San Diegans gathered in Presidio Park with balloons, face paint, and guitars to take part in a monumental picnic. Despite homophobia and hostility toward gays prevailing as a mainstream position of society at that time, these folks came together to publicly express and celebrate their sexuality.

The crowd danced, sang, played games, and displayed posters asserting their right to be out and proud. In the spirit of civil rights activism, the event was declared a “Gay-In.”

A small group in 1960s style fashion relaxes on the grass at one of the Gay-Ins.

As a San Diego queer, I was stunned to learn about the inaugural gay pride event of my hometown. Why didn’t I know that the parade I began attending in the late naughts (aka the 2000s) held roots reaching back 40 years? I was further awed when I learned that the “Gay-Ins,” which lasted a few years, were organized by the Gay Liberation Front of San Diego, a radical activist group formed at my alma mater (and now employer), San Diego State.

The weekend I associated with opulent floats and excessive partying was birthed from something far more political.

For the past year, I’ve been tracing the history of San Diego’s Pride and LGBTQ+ movements for a collaborative project of San Diego State University Library and the Lambda Archives of San Diego, sponsored by California Humanities.

In my research process, I’ve read hundreds of newspapers, combed through countless boxes of archival records, and listened to dozens of oral histories housed at Lambda Archives. In one audio interview, Stephen Bell, former president of the Gay Liberation Front of San Diego, described the first Gay-In as a “brilliant and bold afternoon.” Listening to Bell describe that day in fond, descriptive detail, built a warmth inside me that abated the harshness of Lambda Archives’ frigid reading room.

A flyer for the first (official and permitted) Gay Pride march in San Diego, 1975.

I’ve experienced many emotional days working in the Archives on Park Boulevard, because uncovering your community’s painful and powerful history is an emotional experience.

There have been moments where I’ve found myself gasping, and even crying, at the discovery of a significant document or event. With time, I’ve realized that this project has affected me so profoundly because my hometown’s queer history is so much richer than I could have ever imagined.

I know that my former ignorance of San Diego’s gay history is, in part, connected to my youthful age. Before this project, I was essentially isolated from the older LGBTQ+ folk who actually lived this story. Plus, public schools barely touch this subject, if at all.

Yes, I was broadly aware of the Stonewall Riots, of the AIDS crisis, and that social and political conditions for the LGBTQ+ community have improved immensely since the mid-20th century; but I didn’t know the details of this history in my locality. I had no knowledge of the names or achievements of local pioneers, or the physical spaces I’ve moved through that hold historical significance. And I don’t think my experience is singular, or even uncommon.

Walking single file on the sidewalk, unidentified protesters hold various signs during the Gay Liberation Front picket at the San Diego Police Department (SDPD). Some of the signs read “Don’t hate — our feelings may be mutual,” “Gay is just as good as straight,” “Stop police interference — our bed, our choice,” and “Drag queens are people too!”

This is why documenting history in an accessible way matters.

The cumulative efforts of this project will result in an interactive website detailing the history of San Diego Pride from its origins to present day, and the significant events that occurred along the way.

Bringing the story to life are digitized collections of buttons, T-shirts, posters, photographs, and audio and visual recordings. I hope that this resource will serve as a tool to connect queer generations in San Diego both now and in the future.

Through this work, I’ve come to regard the rally on Pride weekend — now called the Spirit of Stonewall Rally — with reverence. The rally has been the site, source, or reflection of the most significant points of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ history.

Yet, I can’t recall with certainty if I have ever actually attended this feature of San Diego Pride. Attendance at the rally has been an issue that San Diego Pride has dealt with since the early 1980s. But it appears to me that in times of particular hardship, the community has flocked to the rally in search of release or fervor.

One such time was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at the rally of June 1987. Following the parade, participants and onlookers gathered at Marston Point, where they met 239 Styrofoam crosses, draped in black ribbons and lavender orchids; a cross for every AIDS-related death in San Diego.

Speakers that day included activists Gloria Johnson and Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who delivered impassioned speeches on the AIDS epidemic to a crowd of 8,000. Thousands of people then marched from Balboa Park to Downtown and placed the crosses on the steps of City Hall.

A list of demands calling for funding and anti-discrimination ordinances was slipped under the door. Facing a threat dismissed by the government, the community came together to mourn those lost and demand action toward a solution.

The rally continues to be a politically charged space asserting calls to action and mobilizing around the most vulnerable in our community. We look forward to seeing you at the Spirit of Stonewall rally this year when it returns to the Pride Flag in Hillcrest.

Lambda Archives and San Diego State University are excited to showcase materials from our collaborative project at the Lambda Archives booth at the Pride festival on July 15 and 16.

This article was authored by Angela M. Risi, an archival processing assistant and researcher at San Diego State.

Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at lambdaarchives.org.

4 Comments

  1. Bridget Wilson says:

    Saying it again: The first Pride march in San Diego was in 1974. The ’74 march was as official as it gets if the people who are marching are making that determination. It was not given a permit because the police refused to issue a parade permit to “criminals” and “deviants.” To imply that the first March was somehow not legitimate because the cops would not approve of it, does not change that it was the first Pride march in San Diego. BTW, (I think Nicole would agree with me on this, we were there). And we feared for our safety. There were a lot of cops following us that day, when we were pushed onto the sidewalks, Some wore bags over their heads, for example, service members who would lose their careers if identified. We did not know if we would be arrested, or beaten. It insults those who risked their well being to dismiss that 1974 march because we had to defy authority to do it. Our lives were criminal until 1976. The police viewed us as unapprehended criminals. The first Pride March was in 1974. The first to be issued a parade permit, under the threat of lawsuit from my friend the late Tom Homann was 1975. I was there for both and 4 decades more. See you at Pride.

  2. Meredith Vezina says:

    Thank you for writing this article reminding everyone about the meaning and history of the Stonewall Rally in San Diego. Connecting our past to the present provides our LGBTQ community with a foundation to move collectively forward to meet the challenges awaiting us.

    As a recipient, along with my wife Ellen, of this year’s “Inspirational Couple” award, the event has a special meaning of being connected to all those who have come before us.

    Whether Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Queer or Trans our history is interwoven together. At this year’s 4th annual Trans Pride, Ellen and I will be hosting a booth featuring a timeline of local trans history. The T has been ignored for too long and it it time that we take our place next to our LGBQ siblings.

    We invite everyone to visit Trans Pride on Friday July 14th at 6th and Laurel beginning at 1PM. The event will culminate in a march at 5PM to the Stonewall Rally. Please join us.

  3. Thanks for publishing this enlightening article. Big props to Angela for writing it and for all the great work she does at Lambda Archives. To paraphrase Angela, this is why preserving this history and documenting it in an accessible way matters. Kudos to all who work every day to create and to document! Onward in Pride!

  4. Kristin M. Shelley says:

    1974 is Correct.
    I support the previous individual in response.
    My dear love, best friend shared Gay Pride with me.
    Told stories. Walked in the 1974 parade, feared their lives, wore brown bags with holes cut out to see.
    Aids/Hiv.. Yes all of it.
    I have been attending this event for over 20 years or more.
    15 years I got to experience it with my beautiful best friend and my love. 1996-2011
    I learned about Lambda archives and how important this was, the history all related to her history and gay community/family involvement.

    15 years of Pride with her. We saw Religious Protesters that would yell with Megaphones at us while watching the parade.
    i
    1998 We were “Tear Gassed”.. We lived it..She was on the News. It was a Very Bad thing for so many innocent people.

    2011 even after ChemoTherapy treatment,
    She attended her Last Pride Parade.
    If this isn’t History ?? What is ??
    She passed November 1st 2011.
    I will always go to Pride in Honor of Geri M. Wilson.

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