Moments in Time
with Lambda Archives of San Diego
By Pat Sherman/GSD Editor
Friday, Sept. 13, 1974
On the Radio: Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff”; Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died”
Debuting: TV’s “The Rockford Files”
In the Oval Office: Gerald R. Ford
Shape of things to come: President Nixon, who in posthumously released Oval Office tapes referred to San Francisco as “the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine,” had just resigned from office over the Watergate scandal. His successor, Gerald Ford, would in 2001 become the highest ranking Republican to support full equality for gays and lesbians.
Love for $ale
Press the button marked “B” in the elevator at the Mission Valley Macy’s department store and you won’t be going anywhere.
Though there appears to be no “down” escalator on the ground floor, its entrance has actually been walled over. In its place, three headless male mannequins in autumn attire seem to guard a piece of the past that company executives would probably prefer remain sealed in the dark.
In the early 1970s when the department store was owned and operated by the May Company, what is now used as subterranean storage space was the store’s “bargain basement,” where last season’s red-tagged polyesters and unpopular appliances were sent for “quick sale.”
It was also the location of a men’s restroom that served as a hotspot for furtive sexual encounters. In the summer of 1974, this activity caught the attention of the store manager, and eventually the San Diego Police Department’s Public Inspection Unit (or vice squad).
On Friday, Sept. 13, San Diegans awoke to read in the San Diego Union of a sting operation that resulted in the arrests of 40 men in the May Company restroom, all within one week.
While a first-year graduate student at UCSD, Lambda Archives President Frank Nobiletti wrote a paper about the arrests, which is available at the archives. In it he writes of the Union’s story being “discreetely placed on page three, which not so discreteely told of the arrests for lewd conduct, listing the names, addresses and occupations of 23 of those arrested.”
The sting netted men from their early 20s to their mid-50s, including several doctors, teachers and college students, a chief deputy county assessor, two hair stylists, a truck driver, mail carrier, unemployed salesman, optician, busboy, fence builder, assembler, cook, quality inspector, hospital orderly and one very high-ranking Republican party operative.
Long before Sen. Larry Craig was busted for suspicious foot-tapping in an airport restroom stall, the San Diego Police’s restroom sting had ensnared GOP golden boy Gaylord Parkinson. A gynecologist and former chair of the California Republican Party, Gaylord authored the party’s “Eleventh Commandment” (oft-cited by Ronald Reagan): “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
According to the Union, Parkinson, then 56, was taken into custody with a 43-year-old San Diego City school teacher.
Fred Scholl, a pioneering gay journalist who also worked for the LGBT Center providing legal referrals to gay men arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct, remembers waking up that morning to a deluge of calls, including several from those arrested at the May Company.
“I thought I knew every cruising spot in town” by fielding calls, Scholl said, “but I’d never heard of this place.”
The men were observed in flagrante through a phony air vent police had installed in the restroom. On the other side of the vent was a supply room, into which a viewing platform was built so that guards could watch for so-called “tea room” liaisons.
Pioneering LGBT activist Jess Jessop, founder of the Lambda Archives and co-founder of the San Diego LGBT Center, had to think fast. Though most of the men arrested presumably did not identify as gay or were closeted and married, Jessop knew the arrests would be framed as a “homosexual” issue, and an accusatory finger pointed at San Diego’s nascent LGBT community.
While the majority of the community—particularly lesbians—did not want to go anywhere near the issue, Jessop saw it as a civil rights violation, amassing a coalition to address it that included representatives of the LGBT Center, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Imperial Court de San Diego, the Socialist Workers Party and the local ACLU chapter. The ensuing public statement read, in part:
“We do not now, and never have, endorsed conducting sexual activity in public. Further, we have no knowledge of the sexual tendencies or orientation of any of [those arrested]. But we do know what it is like to be mistreated, ostracized and denied our civil rights if it is suspected that we might not be 100 percent heterosexual at all times. … Every time someone’s family life, livelihood, or social position is destroyed because it is suspected that they do not conform to the majority culture, it is an attack on us…. . We are prepared to join with our heterosexual brothers and sisters in fighting this injustice.”
As a result of names and addresses being printed in the paper, some of the accused received harassing phone calls. One man’s daughter reportedly had a caller explain in graphic detail the acts her father was alleged to have committed. In an interview with Nobiletti in the early ’90s, Parkinson, who denied he is gay, recalled, “Somehow they got my number … the rednecks. And they were calling me at 3 o’clock in the morning and asking me, ‘Have you decided to come to Christ yet and ask forgiveness for your sin?’ … I had to answer the phone because I was in practice—maybe (it was) some girl calling to tell me she was going into labor.”
Demonstrations that drew between 40 and 50 people were held outside the May Company and across the street from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Mission Valley office.
The protesters marched in the east parking lot of the May Company clutching picket signs that read, “SDPD Watches While You Pee!” and “I prefer Gay Company to the May Company!”
“The May Company was scared to death,” Jessop later recalled in an interview. “People brought May Company charge cards and cut them up. They were so afraid we were going to crash our way into the store and disrupt everything inside. The damn fools didn’t understand that half or a third of their staff was gay anyhow, and we had a steady flow of information from inside about what was going on.”
Jessop and other coalition members spoke on television and radio talk shows, framing the bathroom encounters as a result of what happens when a person is forced to repress their sexual orientation.
The center helped line up a legal team for the defendants, including pioneering gay attorney George Haverstick.
However, according to Scholl, it was Parkinson’s high-priced attorney, Fred Link, a former deputy district attorney and future superior court judge, who gave the defense its legs.
“The attorneys would kind of huddle out in the hall of the courtroom,” Scholl recalled. “I don’t think (Parkinson) was aware of the fact that he ended up paying for most of the research for most of the other attorneys.”
The prosecution’s case began to unravel when it was revealed that the restroom surveillance started before the search warrant was issued.
The proceedings continually evoked the specter of Watergate, in which President Nixon ordered the illegal wiretapping of reporters and government employees.
“The gay press and the coalition were explicit about it … often stressing the elements of spying and illegal police activities,” Nobiletti wrote.
Haverstick argued that the observation cubicle served as a two-way mirror, in that the observer could peep through the vent, but the men in the rest room could not look back through it.
A highlight of the case was the revelation that all of the May Company security guards were female. If the scenario was reversed and male guards had been spying on a women’s restroom, the outrage would have been immense, the defense argued.
“Called as witnesses, several of (the guards) testified that they had, unbeknownst to the police, used the observation booth to take a peek at their (male coworkers),” Nobiletti wrote.
Scholl added: “They took their lunch breaks watching this stuff. It was like watching a live porno for them. Some of them would say, ‘Well, I always averted my gaze.’ Of course, even the judge rolled his eyes at that one.’”
In January of 1975, all but one of the misdemeanor and felony charges (those involving actual sexual contact) were dismissed. Superior Court Judge Verne O. Warner ruled that the search warrant was illegal, deeming it “too broad” and “exploratory.” Warner agreed with Haverstick that the vent served as a “two way mirror” of the sort prohibited under a 1971 state law.
Several of the men later filed separate $200,000 damage suits, claiming invasion of privacy and false arrest.
Scholl recalls the episode as the LGBT community’s first real victory, proving that it had a voice to defend itself against injustice.
“It was a really interesting comedy of errors that came up with the right result,” he said.