Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It Didn’t All Start at Stonewall

San Diego Democrats for Equality’s Membership Changes Dishonor 20 Years of Pre-Stonewall Queer Activism

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

At its meeting this Thursday, April 21, 6:30 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center on Vermont Street in Hillcrest, the San Diego Democrats for Equality (formerly the San Diego Democratic Club) will consider two changes to its bylaws. One would allow people as young as 14 to join even though they’re not yet eligible to vote. This one I strongly support. The other two I equally strongly oppose. The changes being proposed, as well as a change in the membership branding the club’s executive board has already put through without member approval, can be read at http://democratsforequality.org/change-is-afoot/#comment-1368.


TO: San Diego Democrats for Equality Members

FROM: Mark Gabrish Conlan

DATE: April 19, 2016

RE: Proposed San Diego Democrats for Equality bylaws changes

I am VERY strongly opposed to two of the changes in the San Diego Democrats for Equality’s rules referenced in the April 11, 2016 e-news posting by new club president Will Rodriguez-Kennedy.

I have never approved of ANY organization that forced all its members to begin and end their membership on the same date. Demanding that new members pay a full year’s dues for less than a full year of member services is fundamentally a rip-off. Whenever I’ve been in a club that has considered that policy, I’ve opposed it; and when I’ve been in clubs or other organizations that already had that policy, I’ve worked to change it. I think it’s wrong, verging on evil, to shortchange new members, and it’s especially bizarre that a club whose officials say they’re worried about new-member growth to adopt a policy that will discourage, not encourage, new people to join. It is particularly wrong, deceitful and objectionable to consider this change when the only stated reason for it is “to help keep track of expiration dates” — i.e., to make the club’s administration easier. It is the job of the club to serve its members, not of the members to serve the club.

I also very strongly oppose the rebranding of the membership levels. I remember when the club was considering its current name, one of the alternatives brought forward was “San Diego Stonewall Democrats.” I opposed that name then and I equally strongly oppose the use of the term “stonewallers” to describe three out of the five proposed new membership brands, for the same reason: I don’t want us to do anything to perpetuate the offensive and absurd myth that there wasn’t a Queer (the inclusive, if edgy, term I prefer to that rancid set of initials “LGBT” as a description of our entire community) rights movement in the United States before the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June 1969.

In fact, Queer activism in the U.S. has been traced as far back as 1926, when the first U.S. Queer-rights organization and publication were created in Chicago. Continuous Queer activism has taken place in the U.S. since 1950, when the Mattachine Society was organized in Los Angeles. Indeed, when I launched Zenger’s Newsmagazine in 1994, I put Harry Hay, the principal founder of the Mattachine Society, on my first cover and devoted my first feature to an interview with him in order to let the community know that there was a long and honorable history of militant Queer activism in the U.S. before it all supposedly started at “Stonewall.” In fact, I timed the launch of my magazine when I did because I had an opportunity to interview Harry Hay and thought he would be an appropriate feature subject for my first issue.

Indeed, so many of the landmarks in the history of American Queer activism took place in the state of California that it could be argued that the movement for Queer equality REALLY is a California product. Among them are:

• Start of continuous Queer-rights activism: Mattachine Society, Los Angeles, 1950.
• First Queer-rights organization of, by and for Lesbians: Daughters of Bilitis, San Francisco, 1955.
• First successful legal challenge to police entrapment of a Gay man for public cruising: Los Angeles, 1950.
• First ongoing Queer publication aimed at Gay men: One, Los Angeles, 1955.
• First ongoing Queer publication aimed at Lesbians: The Ladder, San Francisco, 1956. (Even earlier Lesbian newsletters were being privately typed and printed in Los Angeles in the 1940’s.)
• First openly Queer candidate for elective office in the U.S.: José Sarria, San Francisco, 1961.
• First occasion on which Gay-bar patrons fought back against a police raid: the Black Cat Tavern, Los Angeles, 1967.
• First pickets against a private employer for employment discrimination against Queer people: States Steamship Lines, San Francisco, March-April 1969.

This issue is personal for me not only because, as a lifelong Californian, I am (I think) justifiably proud of the pioneering role my state has played in the history of American Queer activism, but also because two of my closest friends, Leo Laurence and Pat Brown, were organizers of the demonstrations against States Steamship Lines three months before the Stonewall riots. The ritual invocation of “Stonewall” as the place where it all began dishonors the contributions of my friends and the others who stood up for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people long before it was politically easy or fashionable; indeed, while just being sexually active with members of your own sex was illegal in every U.S. state.

“Stonewall” as a term has other meanings which people of our political orientation should find objectionable. The name originated as a nickname for a general in the U.S. Civil War who fought on the side of the Confederacy — i.e., for the slaveowners — and in the early 1970’s the term “stonewall” in U.S. politics primarily referred to the Watergate cover-up and the illegal attempt of President Nixon and his campaign staff to corrupt the 1972 election and ensure Nixon a landslide victory. But my main objection to the use of the term “Stonewall” as shorthand for the Queer movement’s beginnings is it ignores and trashes the contributions of activists in the 1950’s and 1960’s who stood up for our rights at a potential risk and cost most of us can’t even imagine today.