Snapshots unearthed in historical society archives show queer life in 1970s in San Francisco / LGBTQ Nation


The California Historical Society is digitizing two collections of photographs and negatives from the wild and heady early days of LGBTQ liberation in San Francisco.

The snapshots were discovered in boxes in the company’s archives, according to Al Bersch, a trans man who is a digital archivist for the company, which is based in the city’s southern Market district.

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“Over the years, CHS employees in different departments picked up items themselves and brought them to the vaults,” Bersch said. “For some of these older collections, there weren’t enough staff to process them at the time, so there is a backlog. These two collections have been identified more recently as high priority.

Bersch said if the company had more donations, it would be able to upload the photos faster. The company is currently focused on digitizing a large project at the California Flower Market, also in San Francisco, at the turn of the 20th century.

“My ethics don’t say ‘we won’t deal with this without funding’, but we are looking for support,” Bersch said, adding that the flower market project must be done first.

Steven S. Norris Collection

The company knows the origin of the first collection because it was discovered with a typed letter to then-Historical Society Library Director Bruce Johnson from Douglas Haller, Curator of Photographs, dated March 11, 1986.

Haller wrote that he “got a bunch of materials from a garage sale on Masonic [Street] in the district of Haight which seem to have belonged to a certain Steven S. Norris.

Norris worked for Walter Jebe’s camera store in the Excelsior district, according to the letter, before opening his own store.

“The materials are from November 1978 to 1983, but they are in bulk in 1979,” the letter said. “They are primarily important for their documentation of San Francisco’s gay community and for recent San Francisco snapshots that are missing from the library’s collections. Main topics include: San Francisco’s gay community: family life, the leather community south of Market and Castro Street, gay parades, Leonard Matlovich’s run for Supervisor and Portraits, Closet Ball 1979, The Balcony Restaurant and Bar on Market Street near Castro, Milk-Moscone assassination by Dan White, Women’s Building prior to renovation. Sacramento Gay Community: “Gay Day” 1979. “

As the Bay Area Journalist noted in a recent article, Matlovich became an overnight media sensation when a photo of him in uniform appeared on the cover of Time magazine in September 1975 under the title “I am a homosexual” at a time when most homosexuals were afraid to come out of the closet. Technical sergeant, Matlovich served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

Former resident of San Francisco’s LGBTQ Castro neighborhood – a plaque is affixed to Castro’s building and 18th Street where he resided in the late 1970s and early 1980s – ran unsuccessfully for supervisor of San Francisco in 1979. He died of AIDS in 1988 a month before his 45th birthday and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC

The Closet Ball was a charity event that spanned a dozen years from the early 1970s and featured men wearing incredible drag.

Norris’ fate is unknown.

“We believe Steven Norris himself took them,” said Frances Kaplan, director of the company’s library and collections. BAR “We don’t know how they got to the garage sale. It’s like ‘Antiques Roadshow’.

The collection includes some fifty black and white prints, 25 negative envelopes, an envelope of color transparencies and a handful of color prints and Polaroids. Norris too took a picture for the BAR in its issue of August 2, 1979.

It was also discovered with the photos, some of which show leatherworkers in ceremonial dress giving themselves “the look” inside long-gone bars, presumably south of Market, were “ephemeral objects linked to the gay community. “.

These items, along with others, have already made their way into the company’s digital collections and can be viewed online.

Ephemeral documents available online include an envelope to contribute to the 1979 National March in Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, campaign material against the 1978 Briggs Initiative (which would have banned gay men and their supporters to teach in California public schools), a flyer for a lesbian picnic for all ages at Golden Gate Park on Saturday, June 25, 1977, and a flyer from Lesbians and Gay Men Against the Death Penalty proclaiming “Dan White Gets Special Treatment “and announcing a demonstration at 8 p.m. at Town Hall. Of course, that protest on the night of May 21, 1979 became known as the White Night Riots, following the lenient conviction of White, who was convicted of the 1978 murders of gay supervisor Harvey Milk. and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

Leonard Matlovich sat on an American Flag Lambda during the San Francisco Pride Parade in June 1979. Joe Altman collection; California Historical Society

Bill Pope & Joe Altman Collections

The Bill Pope collection consists of three black and white prints, two films and six rolls of negatives.

The pope is also a mystery to society, Bersch said.

“There was one event he did – a screening of an autobiographical film called ‘Portrait of an Indigenous Son’ – in 1985,” Bersch said. “I couldn’t find an obituary.”

The Pope died on May 15, 1986, according to an obituary in the BAR He noted that his film offered “a rare and necessary reflection on the gay movement awakening in San Francisco since the early 1970s” and that many PBS stations aired it in response to outrage from the LGBTQ community. during a controversial 1986 event. First line episode on AIDS. Pope’s video has become part of the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the California Historical Society, among others, the obituary noted.

The company does not know how the Pope’s documents came into its possession. Thus, he is concerned about potential copyright issues due to lack of documentation, such as there was for the Norris collection.

Both rolls of film show LGBTQ businesses, activists and artists participating in the Christopher Street West Parade on June 25, 1972 – a predecessor of today’s San Francisco Pride Parade – which took place at the occasion of the third anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York. City that started the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States.

Pope’s negatives and prints also show Halloween festivities, early gay scenes from Polk Gulch and Castro neighborhoods, and anti-Vietnam War protests.

The company touts the Joe Altman collection, available online, as an example of what the Norris and Pope collections will look like when digitized.

The Altman Collection contains 77 black and white prints of the Pride parades (called San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1979 and 1980, then San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade) from 1979 to 1985.

In the photos, we can see contingents of what was then called the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club (now the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club); the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching and Twirling Corps (the city’s official band now known as the San Francisco Lesbian / Gay Freedom Band); the Golden Gate Business Association; bicycle dikes; Synagogue of the Sha’ar Zahav Congregation; and numerous shuttered baths and bars – but rich in floors – such as the Boot Rack, the Watergarden in San Jose, the Bulldog Baths, the Club Baths, the I-Beam, and the Trocadero Transfer south of Market.

Altman was born in 1945 in New York and moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s. He died on April 4, 1991 in Santa Rosa.

“The Joe Altman collection has come down to us in a simpler way,” said Bersch. “We have a deed of donation and it is very clear.

“It’s very interesting – three gay photographers in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s,” Bersch added. “I’m very excited to have them all in place.”

John Ferrannini is associate editor at the Bay Area Reporter.


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