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.”
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.
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.
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.