1970’s “McGovern to Milk”
The second article of this column explained the formation of Alice. This article will review the 1970’s, from the Presidential Campaign of George McGovern, to the time of Harvey Milk at City Hall.
Alice’s Important Role in the McGovern for President Campaign:
Soon after Alice was chartered, the club became very involved in the George McGovern for President Campaign. McGovern was a grassroots candidate that ran against the party establishment to win the nomination, and he needed all the support he could get. In this uncertain political context, Alice Founder Jim Foster was able to play a key role in helping McGovern to win the Democratic Primary in California.
The California ballot organized candidate name placement in order of who gathered signatures first. Jim Foster came up with a creative idea to help McGovern win first ballot placement, working with Alice. At 12:01AM the first day signatures could be gathered, Alice members hit the bars in the Castro and gathered the needed signatures to put McGovern on the ballot first, six hours before any of his competitors were able to deliver their signatures. McGovern won California by a five-point margin, and his top placement on the ballot was considered part of the reason for his victory, and Alice was credited with making his ballot placement happen.
First national appeal for gay rights at the Democratic Convention of 1972:
McGovern was thankful to Foster for his signature gathering campaign, and because of this, Foster was able to strike a deal with McGovern to give the first gay rights speech in American History before the Democratic National Convention.
July 12th, 1972, at 5AM in Miami, during the marathon convention which still was being waged by McGovern to win his nomination, Alice President Jim Foster gave a powerful gay rights speech that was the first of its kind in America. He said “We do not come to you pleading for understanding or begging for your tolerance – we come to you affirming our pride in our lifestyles, affirming the validity of our right to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships, and affirming our right to participate in the life of the country on an equal basis with every other citizen.” He called for a “Gay Plank” to be added to the Democratic Party Platform, as part of the Democratic Party’s civil rights vision.
The Democratic Party was not ready for this message, and voted down Foster’s “Gay Plank”, but it was the very beginning of advocacy for LGBT Rights in the Party.
AB 489 removal of California Sodomy Laws:
In 1975 Alice helped win a major victory that had been years in the making, with the passage of Willie Brown’s AB 489 (The Consenting Adult Sex Law), which decriminalized sodomy in California. For years, bars had been raided by police with the justification that patrons of LGBT bars were criminals by virtue of sodomy laws. AB 489 was first brought to Willie Brown and John Burton by Alice President Jim Foster, and each year Foster and Alice made it their top legislative priority until it finally passed in 1975. This was perhaps Jim Foster’s most lasting legacy, the decriminalization of homosexuality in California, which he basically created Alice to achieve.
Progress in law enforcement:
Locally, Alice worked hard to change the culture of law enforcement, which had a history of abusive treatment of LGBT people. Sherriff’s Dick Hongisto and Mike Hennessey were both elected with LGBT support, and worked publicly to make changes in law enforcement relations with the community. Mike Hennessey became an especially close ally of Alice, meeting with the club to work through changes in policy, marching in the parade carrying Alice’s banner, and even participating as a regular DJ at Alice Christmas parties. Alice was also successful in working with Mayor Feinstein to make former Alice President Jo Daly the first lesbian Police Commissioner in San Francisco.
Much work to be done in the area of diversity:
While progress was made in many areas, challenges of diversity continued to present an enormous learning curve for many gay community organizations, including Alice. Women often felt that men weren’t sharing in the fight for women’s rights, or supporting women getting into positions of power; Transgender people felt left out of the prioritization of our movement, not even part of the nomenclature of community organizations; communities of color felt that their goals were not a priority; and many divisions combined to threaten the very idea of a shared LGBT community. It would take a yet unknown battle in the next decade against AIDS for our community to begin making greater progress in healing these divisions.
Competing visions for the future:
As San Francisco exploded in the 1970’s with a booming LGBT Community, Alice as an organization began to grow quickly as well. Many people in the growing club had different visions of what they wanted the political agenda to be. Jim Foster and the original organizers of Alice believed politics was rooted in institutions that were not easily changed. They believed that if the gay community was to become influential in politics, the community needed to win by the rules of political institutions. But a new paradigm of politics emerged in the early ‘70’s that challenged this thinking. After the Vietnam War protests and the radicalism of the ‘60’s, people were moving to San Francisco with a different orientation for politics. It was in this context that Harvey Milk came to challenge the existing political paradigm.
Formation of new Democratic Clubs:
Harvey Milk and others created a “Gay Democratic Club” (which later became the Harvey Milk Democratic Club) partly as a reaction to Alice not being a fit for their politics. Morris Kight also created the Stonewall Democratic Club in 1975, and for a time, there was a “Stonewall San Francisco Chapter”, affording San Franciscans three different options for gay Democratic Party clubs to choose from. These new organizations also struggled with the issue of diversity that challenged our community, but new organizations provided a new way to respect different visions.
During this time of change with new and competing visions, one thing that Alice could absorb was the idea that politics could be much broader than the founders of Alice had originally envisioned. The organization would work to expand its vision over the following years, even as Alice continued to respect the great achievements and courage of the early pioneers of our club.
Next Month, this column will continue as we move forward into the 1980’s, a decade of challenge and change for our community.
Nathan Purkiss, Emeritus Board
Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club