Formation of Alice
Last month this column told the story of how San Francisco became a destination point for LGBT people throughout America. This article will recount the formation of Alice by the work of Jim Foster and an organization called the Society for Individual Rights.
Gay political activism in San Francisco was formed almost entirely out of a reaction to police crackdowns on local gay bars and meeting places.
Bars like the Black Cat, a renowned North Beach bohemian bar known for drag performances and gay clientele, were continuously raided by police in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The heterosexual owner of the Black Cat fought this discrimination, taking his case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 1951 that serving drinks to homosexuals was not a crime. However, Police could still use sodomy laws, dress codes, and any violation of alcohol permits to rule that bars serving homosexuals and people in drag should be shut down. The Police spent more than a decade fighting the battle with the Black Cat alone, and with mounting legal bills, in 1963 the Black Cat closed its doors.
One year after the Black Cat was closed, in 1964, Jim Foster founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) as the first San Francisco organization of gay men to combat this type of discrimination (following the Daughters of Bilitis, a similar lesbian organization formed earlier in San Francisco).
SIR was an organization that began the process of declaring that it was okay to be gay. They renovated a union hall building on 6th Street at Market, turning it into their meeting and working place, with a large room upstairs that could be used as a theater, office space, and at one point they even had a storefront. The upstairs theater became a kind of community center, with drag performances and musicals like Hello Dolly and Mame being shown as community events. SIR also published a glossy, monthly magazine called Vector that was an important vehicle for people in California and around the nation to read about the fact that there were other gay people in the world like them.
SIR was a non-partisan organization, but this became a point of contention when organizers like Jim Foster wanted to invite political leaders to engage the organization. Foster recognized that the gay community in San Francisco was growing, guessing that there may be 50,000-90,000 people in the community. He realized that the community could be outreached to as a ‘gay vote’, and he began to meet with people like Phillip Burton, John Burton and Willie Brown to argue that gay civil rights concerns could be seen as a natural extension of their liberal constituent base, and might prove to be a large new voting bloc.
Foster had his first major political success in 1969 with a brand new candidate on the local political scene: Dianne Feinstein. He asked her to come speak in front of SIR before her first run for Supervisor in 1969. She spoke before the group with grace and a willingness to hear their concerns. A woman had never won a race for Supervisor in this town dominated by Irish Catholic politics, and this sharp, moderate, impressive speaker deeply impressed the members of SIR. After her speech, many members went out and worked on her campaign.
Feinstein shocked the City by becoming not just San Francisco’s first female Supervisor, but she came in first as the top vote getter that year, launching to become the new President of the Board of Supervisors. The ‘gay vote’ was considered a very significant part of her coalition for victory. It was the first time in history the gay community demonstrated that it could turn out voters, and with this fresh momentum and focus on politics, the need for direct political action became more apparent to Foster.
Foster decided to form the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, an organization which could operate directly as a voice for gay rights within the Democratic Party. The club was chartered in December 1971 as the first Democratic club in America to make its mission to advocate for the civil rights of gay people. The founding members were a group of men and women, moving away from the male organizational structure of SIR (but fully representing the diversity of the LGBT community would be a decades-long challenge to address – a challenge that continues to this day).
After Alice became Chartered in December, the club held its first public meeting on Valentines Day, 1972 in the SIR Office Building (the regular meeting place for Alice for its first years) and the first action the club took was to pass a resolution calling for the legalization of Marijuana. The Club also immediately got to work on its first campaign, the 1972 Presidential contest of George McGovern.
It was a great start that would be quickly followed by others. Within four years of the chartering of Alice, Morris Kight formed the Stonewall Democratic Club of Los Angeles in 1975, and shortly after the Harvey Milk Democratic Club would also come along. Later other clubs started to charter in places throughout America, and within the span of a few years, Alice became a model for LGBT civil rights advocacy for the entire nation.
Next month this column will continue with Alice in its first decade, from McGovern to Milk.
Nathan Purkiss, Emeritus Board
Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club