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The History of LGBTQ+ in California

The History of LGBTQ+ in California

From the Compton cafeteria riots to L.A.’s 1959 Cooper Do-nuts uprising, LGBTQ+ history has long been woven into the fabric of California.


5 min read

June 26, 2021

What comes to mind when you think of LGBTQ+ history? Is it the Stonewall Riots, legalization of same-sex marriage, and the rainbow flag proudly flyin’ high in the sky? You might be surprised to know that years before Stonewall, on the West Coast, strides for love, equality, and acceptance were gaining quite the momentum of their own. 

You’re probably familiar with the June 1969 rebellion at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, widely regarded as the opening salvo in the American LGBTQ+ rights movement. However, California is considered the gay capital of the country. From the infamous Compton cafeteria riots to Los Angeles’ 1959 Cooper Do-nuts uprising, LGBTQ+ history has long been woven into the fabric of the Golden State. 

Stonewall is so synonymous with gay pride that it obscures the fact that the movement for gay rights in the United States was born in Los Angeles.

History of LGBTQ+ Rights in Los Angeles

Long before the vibrant West Hollywood became the hub of SoCal’s LGBTQ+ culture, the City of Angels remained at the vanguard of queer activism. L.A. is home to the country’s first PRIDE organization (Personal Rights through Defense and Education, 1966), first gay parade (by the ad hoc Los Angeles Committee to Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals from the Armed Forces), the earliest known lesbian publication (Vice Versa, 1947), the first documented Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay rights (One Inc v. Olesen, 1958), and much, much more. And while all are no doubt momentous, the latter was a milestone unheard of at the time—plus quite the entertaining story. 

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ONE Magazine was one of the first queer publications in the United States, depicting the lives, culture, and voices of LGBTQ+ Angelenos. Their routine operation was disrupted in 1958 when the Post Office refused to deliver the magazine on the grounds of the subject matter being “obscene” for the casual reader. The Post Office took particular issue with an article titled Sappho Remembered, calling it nothing more than a cheap act calculated to promote lesbianism.

The magazine did not take this lightly (rightfully so) and decided to sue the U.S. government for this painful act of discrimination. At first, everyone sided with the Post Office, with both trials and appeals court ruling in their favor. The Supreme Court, however, saw this ruling as unjust and overturned the appeal court’s decision, effectively ruling for the Post Office to deliver ONE—victory secured.

The San Francisco LGBTQ+ community first fully formed in the 1920s and 1930s. The most prominent LGBTQ+ area then was North Beach.

LGBTQ+ History in San Francisco

The day was June 26th, 2015. San Francisco’s streets buzzed with unique commotion—love had won that day. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, and tearful embraces flooded every corner. This was a victory long-sought and awaited by the LGBTQ+ rights movement, and everyone was ready to party it up at the 45th annual Pride Parade that upcoming weekend.

San Francisco has many reasons to be proud of playing an essential role in the gay rights movement. The first gay bar, first pride parade, the nation’s first issued same-sex marriage license—the city’s truly a trendsetter. So many “firsts” have taken place here that we felt compelled to write a little list to commemorate some of these milestones. 

As the symbolic heart of gay rights progress for decades, San Francisco has so many reasons to be proud.

1908: First Gay Bar Opened in S.F.

While there might have been other gay bars around at the time, none ever came close to being as notorious as The Dash. Waiters were allowed to crossdress, customers were free to be themselves, and couples were able to express their love in a space otherwise rare at the time. Unfortunately, this freedom was soon repressed as the vice squad discovered and eventually shut down the iconic bar.

1955: First U.S. Lesbian Organization Founded

Daughters of Bilitis (DOB)—the nation’s very first lesbian organization—was founded in S.F. The name was derived from a collection of poems written by Pierre Louys called Songs of Bilitis. Bilitis was a female character who was romantically linked with Sappho, the female Greek lyric poet.

In 1961, José Sarria became the first openly gay candidate in the U.S. to run for public office, a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

1964: San Francisco is Named Gay Capital of America 

In an article titled “Gay San Francisco,” Life Magazine officially labeled the city as the Gay Capital of America. More and more people joined the movement for equality and LGBTQ+ rights.

1966: First U.S. Gay Community Center Opened 

After transgender customers had a “loud” conversation in a 24-hour San Francisco cafeteria, the management decided to call the police. And when the police officer manhandled one of the patrons, a riot ensued, eventually spilling out onto the street.

Following the riot, LGBTQ+ activists established the National Transsexual Counseling Unit—the first peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.

In the wake of the Stonewall riots in New York, Newspapers were established and parades were organized in major cities like San Francisco.

1970: First Gay Pride Parade is Held 

Thirty brave individuals risked it all to march down Polk Street to City Hall in a time when any association with homosexuality risked discrimination. The following day, a sit-in took place in Golden Gate Park, drawing in hundreds more. Combined, these events marked the genesis of the Gay Freedom Day Parade, more widely recognized as Pride today.

Today, Polk Street is home to a wide range of LGBTQ+-friendly restaurants, bars, and disco diva clubs. If you’re not a night-dweller, there’s still an array of boutiques, antiques, and restaurants that cater to every taste. Most of the businesses here are small and locally owned, so you can get a true taste of S.F.’s flavor and leave a piece of your heart here every time you leave.

1972: First Openly Gay Bar in S.F.

With windows wide open, Twin Peaks Tavern became known as San Francisco’s first proudly gay establishment. Before its opening, other gay bars were required to install blackened windows or worse, have no windows at all. This was not the case with Twin Peaks. People were allowed to be themselves here and claim their rightful space in the vibrant city.

Artist and gay rights activist Gilbert Baker raised the first LGBTQ+ Pride flag at San Francisco Pride on June 25, 1978.

1978: Rainbow Flag Designed in S.F.

Did you know that the history of the Pride flag weaves its roots to San Francisco? Well, back in 1978, the artist Gilbert Baker—an openly gay man and drag queen—decided to design something he saw as the most powerful symbol of pride; a flag. The artist later revealed that he was urged by Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S., to create this important symbol of visibility.

And as for inspiration, Baker looked above literally. He saw the rainbow as a natural flag from the sky, going on to adopt eight colors for the stripes—and all had their unique meanings. Hot pink symbolizes sexuality, red is life, orange is healing, yellow is sunlight, green is nature, turquoise is art, indigo is harmony, and violet represents an unrelenting spirit. 

Riots broke out after Dan White, the person who assassinated Milk, received a manslaughter conviction and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

1978: Harvey Milk is Elected 

Harvey Milk—the first openly gay elected official in the history of the Golden State—took his place on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on January 8th, 1978. He was the first, and, for years, the most visible openly gay politician in America. To this day, Milk is recognized as a pivotal figure in the history of LGBTQ+ rights and a powerful catalyst for change.

2004: First Same-Sex Marriage Licenses Issued

S.F. residents Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are iconic figures in the history of gay rights. Not only did they co-found Daughters of Bilitis, but they also became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the United States—talk about women shaping history. Fun fact: the house they lived in is now an officially recognized San Francisco landmark.

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