by Lillian Faderman, Ph.D.
The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Spring 2019, Volume 65, Number 1
LGBTQ San Diegans had long been victims of widespread discrimination born of ignorance, and they suffered persecution under local and state laws. But in the 1970s, they began to understand themselves as an oppressed minority, and as a community they formed organizations to fight for their rights; that fight has been on-going. Prejudice against them has not been totally eradicated, yet their successes in battles to become first-class citizens have been truly remarkable.
California’s history of persecution of people who did not conform sexually or in terms of gender goes back long before statehood. Some eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Spanish explorers and missionaries professed to be appalled by their discovery that indigenous people up and down California were “addicted to the unspeakable vice of sinning against nature,” as Captain Pedro Fages declared in 1775. “Horrible customs,” Father Geronimo Bóscana wrote when he discovered that among the Indians of Alta California men were permitted to marry men, and some males dressed and behaved “so that in almost every particular, they resembled females.” Father Pedro Font vowed that “the Holy Faith and Christian religion” would eradicate such “nefarious practices” among the natives.
In 1850, when California became a state, a statute was immediately adopted which aimed to eradicate such behaviors among everyone. The penalty for those who committed sodomy was set at five years to life in prison. The 1872 Penal Code of California confirmed the punishment. A 1915 law also targeted sexual acts between women. Those found guilty of oral copulation (cunnilingus as well as fellatio) would be sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. Similar laws appeared in San Diego. For example, in 1917, a sweeping local ordinance addressed fornicators of all stripes, criminalizing any sexual behavior outside marriage with a fine of up to $300 and/or 150 days in jail.
Yet despite draconian laws that threatened to sweep up anyone hapless enough to be caught in a homosexual act, same-sex love flourished in San Diego, even in the city’s highest social circles. In 1885, Jesse Shepard, thirty-seven years old and an internationally known pianist, met Lawrence Tonner, a young man of twenty-two. Together, in 1886, they moved to San Diego at the invitation of two wealthy real estate investors, William and John High, who offered to build them a mansion—Villa Montezuma—in which Shepard could hold musical salons for the elite of the city. Shepard and Tonner remained a couple until Shepard’s death in 1927.
A female couple, Alice Lee and Katherine Teats, were also among San Diego’s early upper crust. Transplants from the east, they settled in San Diego in 1902. Lee became president of the San Diego Museum, president of the Balboa Park Commission, director of the Natural History Museum, and a leading civic figure. In 1905, the two women commissioned the city’s preeminent architect Irving Gill to build them a home, where they entertained such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, who was Lee’s cousin by marriage, as well as President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland. Though San Diego society did not put a label on their relationship, in the 1930 census, Teats is listed as Lee’s “partner.” The two women remained together until Lee’s death in 1943. Protected by their socio-economic status from dishonor and prosecution, upper class couples such as Lee and Teats or Shepard and Tonner did not suffer from stigma or the punishing laws with which less fortunate homosexuals of their day had to contend.
During World War II, the population of America’s port cities expanded with an influx of military personnel and defense industry workers. Gay historian Allan Bérubé has famously suggested that America’s war effort also served to bring together many gays and lesbians who had hitherto been isolated in small towns and cities all across America, and a significant subculture was thus on its way to being formed. Bérubé’s thesis is borne out in the history of San Diego. For instance, gay bars such as Bradley’s and Blue Jacket in the Gaslamp District proliferated during the war years; locker clubs such as the Seven Seas Locker Club and Jack’s Steam and Locker Club became not only facilities where military men could change into civvies before a night on the town but also cruising grounds where those who were gay found sexual opportunities. Many gays and lesbians who had been introduced to port cities such as San Diego during the war chose to settle in them after the war because they had learned they could feel freer there than they had back home.
By 1952, there were so many venues in downtown San Diego catering to gay men that the city was featured in USA Confidential, a sensationalistic book about America’s “sin spots.” “The fairy fleet has landed and taken over the nation’s most important naval base,” the authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer proclaimed, facetiously lamenting for the “B-girls and other hussies…moodily getting drunk alone” while sailors queued up on the streets to get into the “fairy dives.” The authors singled out the Cinnabar “in the 800 block on 5th Avenue, [where] waiters are prancing misfits in peekaboo blouses with marcelled hair and rouged faces,” who “flirt and make love with sailors.” Lee and Mortimer intended their fulminations to shock and titillate, but surely a collateral effect was to inform even more gay people of San Diego’s thriving gay life and to draw them to the city.
The San Diego Police Department (SDPD) was informed too—and because homosexuals were presumptive criminals under state and local laws, the SDPD went to great lengths to hunt gay men down, even staking out the streets where gays were known to cruise. One such instance occurred in 1962, when vice squad officers on Fifth and Market Streets spotted a black man, Eldridge Rhodes, walking in the company of a white man, Thomas Earl. Officers Grimm and Beaudry tailed the couple for a block and a half to a shabby hotel, watched them take the stairs up to the second floor, and then flashed their badges at the hotel clerk and demanded to know the men’s room number.
Though the door to room 214 was closed, the officers heard a bed squeaking and “kissing-type” noises, as they later claimed in court testimony. Officer Grimm ran downstairs and demanded the clerk give him a stool so he could peer over the transom. The court judged that the officers were justified in breaking down the door to arrest the men because Grimm had spied them engaged in oral copulation. Earl and Rhodes were found guilty of violating Penal Code 288a, which made oral copulation a criminal offence. However, in lieu of being sentenced to jail for up to fifteen years, as the law specified, they were sent to Atascadero—California’s state hospital for mentally-disordered sex offenders—for an indeterminate period. That was not an uncommon penalty for homosexuals found guilty under the law.
People who did not conform to what was considered appropriate gender presentation were also harassed by the SDPD. Many cities, big and small, had cross-dressing ordinances on their books since the mid-nineteenth century. Surprisingly, San Diego had no such law until 1966, when Ordinance 9439 (Section 5619) prohibited the appearance “in a public place, or in a place open to public view, in apparel customarily worn by the opposite sex, with the intent to deceive another person for the purpose of committing an illegal act.” Such a law was deemed necessary in 1966, defenders of the ordinance claimed, because young sailors were passing through San Diego on their way to the war in Vietnam, and they might be victimized by men posing as women who would take them to a hotel room and rob them.
But the potential victims of the cross-dressing law were trans people (men and women: some straight; some gay) who wore the clothes in which they were most comfortable. The SDPD felt justified in criminalizing them because in an era when no distinction was made between sexual orientation and gender identity, it was assumed that all trans people, ipso facto, committed illegal homosexual sex acts. The 1966 ordinance remained in place until 1998, when—in very different times—the LGBTQ community succeeded in convincing the San Diego City Council to overturn it.
By that time, San Diego’s LGBTQ community was strongly political, but the road to successful politicization had been a long one. It began with the social upheavals of the 1960s, when the black civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-war movement captured headlines everywhere. Those movements inspired incipient attempts by gays and lesbians in San Diego to organize. In 1967, Rev. Ed Hansen, a closeted minister at San Diego’s Chollas View Methodist Church, who had recently completed an internship at San Francisco’s ultra-liberal Glide Memorial Methodist Church, started San Diego’s first organized gay group, “Daughters and Sons of Society.” The group offered much-needed emotional support to the community, but as its neutral name suggests, members essentially kept who they were a secret, which meant that they could have little impact in fighting discriminatory laws and homophobic prejudice. Early in the last year of that tumultuous decade, Bill Gautier, who identified as Glenda the “drag queen,” founded Gays United for Liberty and Freedom in his 30th Street apartment. It was a noble, pioneering effort, but Gautier got little help with it because few gay people in San Diego were ready to work openly on behalf of the community.
But at the start of that summer, an event at a gay bar in New York triggered a transformation in the way gay people everywhere would view themselves and their right to freedom and equality. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn. But instead of going quietly into the paddy wagon as gay people had almost always done when arrested in police raids, the patrons, influenced by the many dramatic protests of that decade, fought back and sparked four nights of riots. As one wit dubbed the riots, they were the “hairpin drop heard round the world.” A week after the riots, a group of young radicals in New York founded the Gay Liberation Front, named to evoke the communist National Liberation Front of Vietnam, an organization admired by many young American leftists. Gay Liberation Front (GLF) groups were eventually established in cities across the country.
San Diego was among the first. In March 1970, radical gay and lesbian students at San Diego State College founded a GLF group on campus. “The Gay Liberation Front hopes to promote communications between homosexuals and heterosexual students,” the Daily Aztec, San Diego State’s newspaper, modestly announced. The organization’s goals were in fact less modest. GLF was focused not on “promoting communications” with straight students but on serving gay students. It set up a hotline to foster community among gays in the student body and to help them navigate problems in a homophobic world. Volunteers even hung posters all over campus announcing that “San Diego’s First Gay-In”—a public celebration of gayness—would be held at the Eucalyptus Grove in Presidio Park. (The Gay-In marked the first time in San Diego that a group of self-declared gays and lesbians dared to show themselves openly in the daylight.) In the spring of 1971, thanks to promotion by the GLF, the San Diego State Experimental College—established to permit students to explore non-conventional studies–offered one of the first gay studies courses in the country, “The Homosexual and Society.”
Word of GLF reached Chancellor Glenn Dumke, the head of the California State College system, who informed San Diego State’s president, Malcolm Love, that no group called “Gay” may be associated with a California State College campus. President Love, not unsympathetic to GLF, told the group’s leadership that he would continue to approve their status as a campus organization if they would only excise the word “Gay” from their name. They refused and chose instead to move off campus, to the Good Neighbor Center of Rev. Hansen’s Chollas View Methodist Church.
The move gave GLF more freedom. On November 28, 1971, they staged San Diego’s first gay protest: about fifteen GLF members marched in front of the San Diego Police Headquarters carrying signs that demanded an end to harassment and mockingly declared “10% of You Are US” (a reference to the Kinsey statistic that revealed that one-tenth of Americans were practicing homosexuals at any given time). GLF activist Jess Jessop announced to all the local news media that would listen (KOGO TV, KFMB, and The San Diego Union were there), “We are standing together to meet this problem [of police harassment] and will continue to do so in ever increasing numbers until all policemen learn that gay people are no longer easy targets for their sadism. We are not afraid of their threats, their clubs, or their jails.” San Diegans had never before heard such militancy from the city’s gays.
But the FBI was hearing it, too. An April 1972 report reveals that the FBI knew of the Gay-In, knew of the Homosexual in Society course—indeed, had been tracking everything the GLF was up to since its inception. Simply being openly gay was radical and therefore reason for the FBI to keep an eye on GLF, but the FBI had a further excuse too: their investigation of Gay Liberation Front groups, including the one in San Diego, was intensified because the FBI feared that gay radicals would disrupt the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami by invading the convention hall and demanding civil rights for homosexuals.
In San Diego, police harassment of gays continued as usual. One of the worst instances occurred in the summer of 1974, when SDPD officers hid themselves behind a phony air vent constructed so they could watch the goings-on in a men’s restroom of the May Company in Mission Valley. They had been informed that the restroom was a gay trysting place. Thirty-one men were arrested and charged with sexual perversion, lewd conduct, and solicitation. The San Diego Union publicly shamed the men even before they were tried in court in an article that ran the length of the paper and included their names, ages, addresses, and occupations. Among the arrested were several who were married and did not identify as gay, including Gaylord Parkinson, an El Cajon gynecologist and prominent Republican strategist who had been Richard Nixon’s campaign director.
The next month, on October 5, carrying signs that read “SDPD Watches While You Pee” and “I Prefer Gay Company to the May Company,” the Gay Liberation Front staged a march from the May Company to The San Diego Union parking lot, where members held a rally. The protestors made clear that they were not condoning public sex but rather were condemning entrapment and public shaming. GLF encouraged the arrested men to fight the charges against them. They did, and all but one of the cases were dismissed on the grounds that the search warrant was too broad and permitted the police to spy on anyone entering the restroom.
The boldness of the young radicals of the Gay Liberation Front gradually gave courage to a broader cross-section of the gay community, and “mainstream” gay organizations began to emerge. In 1975, gay lawyer Bob Lynn founded the San Diego Democratic Club. The Teddy Roosevelt Republican Club was started by activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez in 1977. In 1979, Dr. Al Best, who helped found San Diego’s Gay Alliance for Equal Rights, ran for a seat on the City Council. Best finished fifth in a field of eleven—clearly San Diego was not yet ready for an openly gay politician. But the next year, Dr. Brad Truax founded the United San Diego Elections Committee, a gay political action group that would work to help gay and gay-friendly politicians get elected.
Dr. Best could contemplate making a serious run for elected office as an openly gay man in 1979 in part because gay organizations in big cities across the country had been making significant inroads towards changing institutions and public perceptions. In 1973, thanks to gay protests, debates, and appeals, members of the American Psychiatric Association voted to take “homosexuality” per se out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatrists’ bible that defined who was emotionally sick. By a stroke of the pen, “homosexuals” achieved immediate health. The United States Civil Service Commission had kept gay people out of government employment since 1950 with the justification that gays were so repellent to society that they could be blackmailed into divulging state secrets. But in 1973, the Civil Service Commission declared that an individual may no longer be deemed “unsuitable for federal employment merely because that person is a homosexual or has engaged in homosexual acts.” Again by a stroke of the pen, gays ceased being “subversives.” In 1975, the California legislature repealed the state’s sodomy laws—and so by another stroke of the pen, gay people in California ceased to be outlaws.
It was beginning to seem that gay progress was unstoppable. In 1978, the voters of California rejected a ballot proposition that would have prohibited homosexuals from teaching in the public schools. 1979, San Diego’s assistant police chief Bob Burgreen announced that the SDPD would hire openly gay and lesbian officers. Gay people were coming closer than ever before to winning first-class citizenship.
Organized community life and social life also burgeoned for San Diego’s gays and lesbians in the 1970s. A congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, which had been established in Los Angeles in 1968 to serve Protestant gays, was formed in San Diego in 1970. In 1973, members of GLF opened the Gay Center for Social Services not only to support gay people in crisis and to help them find employment and housing, but also to be a place where the gay community could gather for social events. No longer were the bars or semi-public cruising areas the only places where gays might socialize or make romantic and erotic contacts. Organizations were established to serve diverse demographics of the community. The Imperial Court de San Diego was founded to celebrate “drag queens” and through its gala Coronation Balls—annual events that showcased drag pulchritude—to raise money for charities. Gay newspapers and magazines such as The Prodigal, San Diego Son, San Diego Update, Pacific Coast Times, and The Inside Scoop proliferated.
The grandest statement of community, San Diego’s annual Pride Parade, began modestly in 1974, when a small group of gays and lesbians paraded without a permit—marching on the sidewalks and stopping for red lights to avoid confrontation with the SDPD. Nicole Murray-Ramirez recalls that when he and activists Jess Jessop and Tom Homann had gone to SDPD headquarters to request a permit the sergeant in charge told them, “There will never be a homosexual pride march in this city, and you guys are deviants and you’re queers and if you don’t get out of here we will arrest you.” In 1975, gays again applied to the SDPD for a parade permit. This time, after some delay, they received one. On June 28, 1975, four hundred of them marched from Hobo Park to Balboa Park, for the first official Pride Parade and Rally. It was the start of gigantic annual celebrations of gayness and demands for equality in San Diego. The parades have grown exponentially: in the 1980 parade there were seven hundred participants. There were 100,000 in 1997; 200,000 in 2017; and 300,000 in 2018.
But the successes of the community also ushered in complications. One was a split between lesbians and gay men. In earlier decades, when the community was small and homophobia was rife, San Diego gays and lesbians, like their counterparts elsewhere, often formed friendships based on shared interests, genuine affection, and a common enemy. When necessary, they would “front” for one another—passing themselves off as heterosexual couples at office parties, family dinners, or anywhere that their homosexuality would have created problems. In the 1970s, as hostility towards homosexuals lessened, it became less necessary to pretend to be straight—which meant that lesbians and gay men were no longer crucial “beards” to one another.
An even more significant cause of the split between the two groups in the 1970s was the radical feminist movement. To lesbian feminists everywhere, gay men were deemed to be as guilty of male-chauvinist piggery as straight men. San Diego lesbian feminists made their feelings known by breaking away from gay men to form their own organizations such as Tres Femmes and the San Diego Lesbian Organization. They published their own exclusively lesbian periodicals, such as Goodbye to All That and Thursday’s Child. They established their own lesbian-run hotline and their own “cultural center,” La Hermanas Women’s Cultural Center and Coffee House. It would take a major tragedy to lessen the rift that was ubiquitous between lesbians and gay men.
That tragedy began early in the next decade. As the Centers for Disease Control announced in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in June 1981, five previously healthy young men in Los Angeles had been diagnosed with a rare pneumocystis pneumonia. Two of them had already died. Soon after, doctors discovered cases of another rare disease, Kaposi’s sarcoma, among men in New York. All those who were stricken appeared to be homosexual, and the disease was dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome (GRIDS). When intravenous drug users and patients who had had blood transfusions were also found susceptible it was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
A month after the CDC report appeared, two San Diegans were diagnosed with the disease. In the next four years, seven hundred more San Diegans were diagnosed, and four hundred died. (From the first outbreak to the present, AIDS has killed approximately eight thousand San Diegans.) In 1984, the Bible Missionary Fellowship, a fundamentalist church in Santee, responded to the tragedy by sending a contingent of parishioners to Hillcrest. Wearing hazmat suits to make their hysterical point that you could catch AIDS if the infected so much as breathed on you, they positioned themselves in the way of heavy gay foot traffic and displayed placards declaring AIDS to be a sign of God’s displeasure with homosexuality.
The government did not do much better. The AIDS crisis continued to deepen in San Diego as elsewhere, but it was not until 1985—with the death of screen star Rock Hudson, who had been a personal friend of Ronald Reagan—that the President of the United States even uttered the word “AIDS.” Taking a cue from the Commander-in-Chief, Congress dragged its collective feet in funding research for a cure. In 1987, the Senate finally agreed to an appropriation of $300 million for AIDS education, but it came with an amendment stipulating that “education” meant teaching “sexual abstinence only.” Right-wing Senator Jesse Helms (North Carolina), who had introduced the amendment, admonished his fellow senators about homosexuals: “We’ve got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”
With so little sympathy from the outside world, gays had to learn to help one another. In San Diego, the community mobilized to assist people with AIDS in their every need. The Imperial Court staged galas to benefit an AIDS Assistance Fund which provides direct services for those living with AIDS. An annual AIDS Walk was established to raise money for multiple AIDS agencies. Mama’s Kitchen and Special Delivery prepared meals for people with AIDS. Auntie Helen’s Fluff ‘n Fold took care of their laundry. Lesbians—even lesbian feminists who had severed relations with gay men in the 1970s—concluded that the entire community must pull together in the face of such a disaster. Since gay men were prohibited from giving blood while the plague raged, San Diego lesbians formed Blood Sisters and gave their own blood which could be used for transfusions if needed by their gay brothers with AIDS.
The unsurpassed tragedy of AIDS united gay communities more closely than ever before. The lessons they learned about unity and persistence during the AIDS crisis would be invaluable as they continued to struggle for civil rights. Before the crisis most gays, not ready to deal with the stigma that persisted in many places, remained closeted. But the epidemic brought large numbers of people out—not only those who were infected and so could not hide, but also those who realized that in the face of such catastrophe, the choice to hide was trivializing. The open community expanded to become far more representative of a diverse population. In the 1970s, the San Diego gay movement had seemed to be primarily, in the words of a leading activist of the day Jess Jessop, “a white middle class movement, with white male privilege.” But the 1980s witnessed a diversification of the San Diego movement: Latinos founded the Gay and Lesbian Latino Organization; African Americans founded Lesbians and Gays of African Descent United; Native Americans founded Nations of the Four Directions; Asian Americans founded Gay/Lesbian Asian-Pacific Islanders Social Support; transgender people founded Neutral Corner.
Diversity sometimes brought conflicts and complaints about insufficient representation in the larger community. For instance, from time to time groups splintered from the San Diego Pride Parade and staged their separate events such as Ebony Pride and Latin Pride. But common enemies brought factions together. The battle against the 1986 LaRouche Initiative, which qualified for the California ballot as Proposition 64, is a case in point. If passed, Prop 64 would have given state officials the authority to quarantine HIV-positive patients. The gay community feared it was the start of homosexual concentration camps—and their fears were exacerbated when The San Diego Union reported that it had conducted a poll which found that San Diego Republicans supported the Proposition 58% to 27%, and that undecided voters leaned “in favor of the measure.” “County Support for Prop. 64 Seen Heavy,” the headline announced. Gays united to form San Diego Says No on 64 to raise money for a campaign to educate voters. Gay communities all over the state united in similar groups. On November 4, the LaRouche initiative went down to resounding defeat, 71% to 29%. “Prop. 64 Loss Is Win for Gays,” a San Diego Union headline proclaimed.
The San Diego Union was right. Though the suffering and deaths caused by AIDS were devastating in the 1980s and ‘90s, those years also became a turning point in gay progress. The exodus from the closet of so many who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans during that time forced the straight community to understand that “homosexuals” were not “sickos” who lurked in the shadows waiting to pounce on underage victims, as the hurtful stereotype went. They were sons and daughters and beloved friends and neighbors and co-workers. Allies multiplied as more and more heterosexuals learned that they knew and loved someone who was lesbian, gay, or trans. Prejudice did not disappear entirely, but it was greatly mitigated. Doors began to open. In 1985 San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock appointed Susan Jester, an out lesbian, to his Advisory Board on Neighborhoods. An openly gay man, Dr. Brad Truax, was appointed that same year to the San Diego County Human Relations Commission. In June 1986 Maureen O’Connor took office as mayor, and in July she became the first San Diego mayor to march in the Pride Parade—a remarkable official statement of support for the gay community.
More remarkable events occurred in the early 1990s. Representatives of the San Diego Police Department—which had long evoked fear and loathing among gay people—marched, in uniform and with friendly smiles, in the 1991 Pride Parade. In 1992, Police Chief Bob Burgreen placed himself at the head of the SDPD contingent in the Parade. That December, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department announced that it would “officially forbid discrimination or harassment against lesbians and gay men,” and that deputies would undergo “several hours of ‘cultural awareness’ training.” That same week, the Board of Trustees of the San Diego Unified School District voted unanimously “to ban discrimination against gay and lesbian students and employees.”
As could be predicted, not all San Diegans were happy with the trustees’ decision. Several came to the board meeting hearing carrying Bibles. “This may be politically correct in the 1990s, but I believe it is morally wrong,” they testified. “This policy would directly conflict with the biblical principles I try to teach in my home.” But the trustees stuck by their vote—which was followed by a prolonged standing ovation from those in the audience who favored the policy.
The next year, 1993, saw another tremendous milestone. San Diegans elected an out lesbian to the City Council, the first openly LGBT elected official in the county. Christine Kehoe had been the San Diego County chair for the campaign to defeat Proposition 64 in 1986. The following year, she had worked as the aide to openly-gay candidate Neil Good in his bid for a seat on the City Council. (He lost the primary by 385 votes.) By the time Kehoe ran, voters had approved district elections. She vied to represent District 3, which stretched from Balboa Park to Kensington and City Heights. It was the district that included San Diego’s largest swath of gay people, and the gay community was determined that this time one of theirs would win. With the help of gay organizations such as the San Diego Democratic Club, the campaign money she raised exceeded that of any of the other candidates.
Kehoe had made it very clear in her campaign that yes, she was a lesbian, but she hoped to serve all her constituents by working on issues that concerned everyone: she would reduce crime, and she would increase public services. The reporters for The San Diego Union, however, were interested mostly in the lesbian part. Throughout the campaign, they could hardly write a news story about her without mentioning her sexual identity. Nevertheless, Kehoe won the primary by beating nine other candidates, and she won the general election by five percentage points. As promised in her campaign, she was not a one-issue councilmember. She led the charge to have a $4 million mid-city police substation built. She convinced state and federal legislators to fund the completion of Interstate 15. She fought for bright street lights in high-crime neighborhoods. And she also won domestic partner benefits for gay city employees. When she ran for a second term on the City Council, she won with 79% of the vote.
Chris Kehoe had brought about a sea change in San Diego. Her exemplary work taught voters, even those outside gay and liberal neighborhoods, to think beyond old prejudices. In 1994, Bonnie Dumanis, an out lesbian (who would later become the first openly gay district attorney in the country) won her first election bid as Municipal Court judge. By then, thanks in large part to Kehoe, sexual orientation seemed less relevant to one’s candidacy, and the media barely mentioned that Dumanis was a lesbian. In 2000, sexual orientation was absolutely a non-issue for San Diego voters. Chris Kehoe was elected to the California State Assembly with 61% of the vote. She became the founding chair of the Assembly’s LGBT Caucus. She also became Assembly Speaker pro Tempore. In 2004, Kehoe was elected to the California State Senate, where she served until 2012.
The seat that Chris Kehoe vacated on the San Diego City Council when she won her bid for the State Assembly has since been filled only by gay people. Toni Atkins, an out lesbian, was the first to follow Kehoe. Elected in 2000, she ran again in 2004 and won by a landslide. In 2010 Atkins ran for the Assembly, and again she won by a landslide. In 2014, she became the first lesbian Speaker of the Assembly. Two years later she was elected to the State Senate with 63% of the vote, and in 2018 she became the first woman and first out LGBTQ person to serve as the Senate’s President pro Tempore.
San Diego voters also sent a gay man to the State Assembly. Todd Gloria served for two terms as District 3 representative on the City Council before winning his 2016 Assembly bid with a 37-point margin of victory. His rise has been meteoric: In 2018, the thirty-nine-year-old Gloria was named by the Speaker of the Assembly to the position of Majority Whip. In early 2019, he announced that he would be a candidate for San Diego mayor.
It has long ceased to be unusual to have an LGBTQ presence on the City Council. In 2008, the year Todd Gloria was elected from District 3, another openly gay man, Carl DeMaio, was elected from District 5, an affluent area that includes Scripps Ranch, Carmel Mountain, and Sabre Springs. In 2016, Georgette Gomez, who identifies as queer, was elected to represent the predominantly Latino District 9, and a gay man, Chris Ward, replaced Todd Gloria in District 3. In 2018, an out lesbian, Dr. Jen Campbell, was elected to represent District 2, which includes areas such as Pacific Beach and Point Loma. Of the present nine members of the San Diego City Council, one-third belong to the LGBTQ community. At the end of 2018, Georgette Gomez was unanimously elected President of the City Council.
But such tremendous victories have not entirely ended homophobia, neither in San Diego nor anywhere else. In 1991, the same year that members of the San Diego Police Department showed their support for the community by marching in the Pride Parade, Hillcrest witnessed thirty attacks motivated by hatred of gay people. The worst occurred on December 13, when three high school students were walking to the Soho, a coffeehouse on University Avenue that was popular with both straight and gay teens. They were jumped by combat-boot-wearing “skinheads” who screamed “faggot” while beating and kicking them. The assailants had been on a rampage in the neighborhood that Friday night and had already beaten gay men in two other incidents. When seventeen-year-old John Wear (who was straight) fought back, one of the assailants pulled a knife and stabbed him in the chest. Wear died of his wounds.
San Diegans were again reminded of the pockets of hate in 1999, only months before Chris Kehoe was overwhelmingly elected to the California State Assembly. At that year’s Pride Parade an unknown assailant threw a military-style tear gas canister into the seventy-person Family Matters contingent, which included small children and babies in strollers. Though only three people had to be hospitalized, the emotional scars were widespread.
And the reminders do not stop. The 2016 massacre of forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida horrified LGBTQ communities everywhere. In San Diego, the giant rainbow flag on University Avenue and Normal Street was lowered to half-staff and thousands attended a candlelight vigil memorializing the victims. The tragedy had made clear that despite significant triumphs in recent years, the LGBTQ community had cause to feel vulnerable as of old.
But there is reason for hope, even in this regard. In other eras, gay tragedies had brought little response from the straight world. For instance, the 1973 arson fire that killed thirty-two people at the Upstairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar, was ignored by the media and became the subject of heterosexuals’ sick jokes. (“Where do you bury the ashes?” one joke started. “In the fruit jar.” “Did you hear about the weenie roast?” went another joke.) Though the arson at the Upstairs Lounge had caused more fatalities than any fire in the history of New Orleans, the mayor of the city kept mum. In contrast, the Orlando massacre was followed by official expressions of empathy for the victims and strong condemnations of homophobia from the White House down. In San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer was emotional in assuring the community that “San Diego stands united with the people of Orlando.” Even ultra-conservative San Diego congressman Darrell Issa—who had opposed same-sex marriage and supported discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds—proclaimed in urgent tweets that society had an obligation to make resolute efforts “to find and stop those who plan and commit these unacceptable acts.” Martin Luther King’s hopeful observation seems very apt with respect to the history of San Diego’s LGBTQ community: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”