SDDC HISTORY 1975–82
by Robert H. Lynn, Founding President
In 1975, San Diego was a much different city than today. While there were Democratic office holders at the state and national level, the non-partisan offices were almost all controlled by the Republican establishment composed of developers and builders, the large law firms, the Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Union–Tribune. Gay men and lesbian organizations were barely breaking the surface, bisexuals were assumed to be in transition and transgendered persons were struggling to be recognized as an identifiable group. Hillcrest was a sleepy, senior-citizen backwater leapfrogged by commercial enterprise in the rush from downtown to Mission Valley.
Except for the bars and an ever-changing group of publications, the community was still basically closeted. There were three above-ground gay and lesbian organizations: the Metropolitan Community Church, the Royal Court and the Gay Center for Social Services on “B” Street. Aside from these, social structure revolved about the bars. The state Alcohol Beverage Control officers and the city police vice squad kept a close eye on the bars. It was not unusual to be arrested and charged with a registerable sex offense for holding hands with your life partner in a public place. No San Diego youth facility would deal with gays and lesbians under 18 for fear of being charged by the authorities with child molestation. There were no coffee bars, so gays and lesbians under 21 hung out on the street and in Balboa Park.
Despite the oppressive circumstances, the community thrived, almost completely unnoticed. It was, of course, much smaller then and, since the bars were the focus of social activity, most people knew each other on one basis or another. People one met socially would crop up elsewhere in a business or hetero-social group. Informal, more or less underground, networking groups organized themselves. There was, of course, much anger and frustration at the unfair treatment at all levels of society. There was, however, no political organization that spoke for the community. The three above-ground organizations all had charitable exemptions for tax purposes and could not get involved in direct political action.
The basic purpose of organizing the club was to provide a vehicle to give the community a voice in public affairs. We knew that there were a lot of potential votes that could be focused if the voters had a group they trusted who had checked out the candidates and ballot positions.
The first step was to be officially recognized as a club by the San Diego County Central Committee. This required a petition signed by 20 potential members and payment of a fee. The Central Committee would then send a representative to a meeting to ensure that there were really twenty members. We labored over the name for the club. Other clubs in California, such as the Gertrude B. Stein Club in San Francisco and the Stonewall Club in Los Angeles, has specifically gay or lesbian related names. We decided a less radical approach would work better in San Diego. Vietnam was still a very contentious and divisive issue in the country and liberal Democrats were still being called Communists by Republicans. So, to avoid the demigods, we chose the club name that exists today.
We made our application and the Central Committee advised that a delegation would visit our next Sunday afternoon meeting. These meetings were held in a private home in Mission Hills. The Committee representative, an older African American male, arrived in the company of two very attractive African American females. The women were fine, but the representative was visibly nervous. He no doubt had advance notice of the nature of the club. They came in, had a look around, confirmed we had 20 people present and then they were out the door like a shot. It was some years before the Central Committee was entirely comfortable with having us. To be fair, the Committee did take some heat from the unions and Republicans over our presence.
The founding members came from all sorts of backgrounds: medical and legal professionals, religious leaders, business owners and workers, gay and lesbian members of other progressive movements such as the farm workers and gay and lesbian political staffers from political officeholders. It was the first time in San Diego history that a non- charitable or non-religious gay and lesbian organization had stood up in the community.
Moving into the Mainstream.
The Club had three early objectives: (1) becoming known in the community, (2) becoming active in local politics and (3) becoming active is statewide gay and lesbian Democratic politics. To accomplish the first, we wrote articles for the community newspapers, urged our founding members to contact their friends and urge them to join and sent representatives to community meetings to show our presence. The community adopted a wait-and-see attitude. This had never been tried before and many people were sure the authorities would harass us or even arrest us. Those fears proved unfounded since we were very careful never to make a mistake that would give the Republican establishment an opportunity.
In local politics, we became active in non-partisan races for city council and the Board of Supervisors. Because we generally supported their issues, liberal Republicans running for a non-partisan office welcomed our support. One early supporter was Roger Hedgecock, who represented the northern coastal area of the county. This gave the club the opportunity to join forces with gay and lesbian Republicans, many of whom were closeted, but who could encourage their mentors to give us a hearing. The club was also active in partisan races, particularly for Democrats in the South Bay and Mission Hills areas. These campaigns gave us entrée to legislative offices in later years when legislation important to the community, such as the original AB 1 antidiscrimination bill, was being pushed by Art Agnos in San Francisco.
The general San Diego population, including their elected representatives, tended to believe that all the gay men and lesbians in the state lived either in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Creation of the club gave notice to local politicians of both parties that the community was a new force to which they had to adjust. When district elections arrived a few years later, the club was well-placed to ensure that the third council district reflected the concentration of gay and lesbian voters in Hillcrest and the surrounding areas.
Statewide Democratic politics were a bit more complicated. The regular Democratic Party was still supporting the government in Vietnam. Earlier in the 70’s, this had created such a split in the California party that a separate, parallel organization, the California Democratic Council (CDC), was formed specifically to oppose the war. It set up a party structure, held its own conventions each year and took positions on a variety of subjects that were much more liberal than the mainline party. Both the CDC and the regular party had minority caucuses for racial minorities, labor and other groups. But, the regular party would not allow a gay and lesbian caucus to form, while the CDC would. So, all the gay and lesbian Democratic clubs in California affiliated with the CDC.
The caucus structure was controversial. These were the days of the “co-chair wars.” Most clubs were organized in the traditional Robert’s Rules format or president, vice-president, secretary, etc. However, gay men and lesbians were still feeling their way toward a structural relationship with which both groups could live. The men tended to want the traditional structure while the women wanted equal power sharing in the form of male and female co-chairs. The clubs tended to have more male members than female because many lesbians were suspicious that the clubs were just another male power play and refused to have anything to do with them. Some clubs, like Stonewall in Los Angeles, controlled in those days by Morris Knight, were in favor of co-chairs from the beginning. Others, like the Stein club from San Francisco, one of the first gay and lesbian oriented clubs in the party, were much more traditional. This was before Harvey Milk organized the Street gays in San Francisco and virtually took over politics in that city. The maelstrom eventually wore itself out with co-chairs winning the day. In a final compromise, neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco could elect either co-chair, so the first ones came from San Diego and Fresno.
Once the Vietnam War ended, CDC lost its reason for being and the regular party was convinced to accept the gay and lesbian clubs and let them have a caucus. In the meantime, in 1978, a new danger arose from a different quarter. John Briggs, a state senator from Orange County, qualified an initiative that would have amended the California Constitution to, among other things, bar homosexuals from teaching in the public schools and forbid even the discussion of homosexuality in the classroom. After a hard-fought battle by the community together with other liberal elements in California politics, the initiative was defeated. In the same year, the CDC convention came to San Diego and the club agreed to provide the convention manager. This was a huge job. The convention was held in the old El Cortez hotel at Seventh and Ash. The club was in charge of all the arrangements except for guest room allocations. It was a tremendous effort by all involved but the club gained in prestige with the leadership of the CDC.
After the defeat of the Briggs initiative in 1978, both the club and the community had reached a plateau from which they could not be dislodged. Gentrification had overtaken Hillcrest and was moving north and east. With a few exceptions, politicians could no longer avoid answering election questionnaires. More importantly, the community was no longer willing to hide in bars and be grateful for handouts and condescension. In 1979, the business community formed the Greater San Diego Business Association (GSDBA) illustrating the economic power of the community. Elected officials such as the mayor and local police officials were happy to appear at functions at the GSDBA and other organizations. Many of the club’s leaders were also leaders in other organizations and this fostered substantial networking among the organizations. The Gay Pride parade was fast becoming the largest annual parade in San Diego. Continued growth in club membership increased the power to influence elections via voting recommendations, monetary contributions and work by volunteers in specified races.
These first seven years provided the solid foundation upon which the club has grown to its present stature as the largest and most active political club in San Diego County. Its early leadership lighted the way for those that followed by proving that the gay and lesbian community could participate in the business and political life of the city without fear of retribution. Coming out was not a business, professional or social death knell. Its participation in statewide gay and lesbian politics educated communities to the north that leadership and innovation were not their exclusive preserve. This was sometimes painful for those being educated, but it was in their best interest.