60s photos put SF GLBT community on map

June 25, 2010 7:01:37 PM PDT
San Francisco's reputation as a gay mecca goes back to 1964 when the city "came out" on the pages of LIFE magazine. A controversial photo spread put gays on coffee tables across the country.

"It was against the law then actually, for homosexuals to congregate even, but they could bust you if you just put your hand on someone's shoulder" recalls Mike Caffee.

Caffee is a well-known artist. He remembers the photo well. He was there when it was taken.

"My mother actually recognized me," he says referring to the photo.

He can be seen in the background, partially obscured, at the Tool Box, a gay motorcycle bar.

"We chose the people in the picture on the grounds that they were people who like, were self-employed or worked for gay organizations, so that they could not be blackmailed," he explained.

The article that followed the picture proclaimed San Francisco as the "gay capital" of the nation.

"We were the only place in the country that had let up on persecuting gays," Caffee says.

"So, this was a very important story and a very important photograph," says Paul Boneberg with the GLBT Historical Society.

The original magazine is a treasured possession of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

"This is one of the earliest photos of the GLBT community, particularly gay men, that the nation saw," Boneberg says. "I mean, LIFE magazine was an enormous thing in the middle 1960s."

Many gays across the country saw the photo as an invitation to move to San Francisco.

"It told gays two things, one, that not all gays are effeminate, and second, that San Francisco, they'll pretty much let you be yourself," Cafee says.

"In fact, people have come to me and said, 'This is the first time I saw a photograph of people like me,'" Boneberg says.

A lot has changed for gays and lesbians in the four decades since the photo was taken. Most no longer worry about being blackmailed or touching someone on the shoulder, but Caffee says the fight for recognition and rights has not ended.

"Today, it's gay marriage. What's it going to be tomorrow?" he says.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.


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