Gay rights pioneer looks back at Harvey Milk and '1976 Bay Gays'

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It was groundbreaking for the time. And now 43 years later, one of the people featured in the four-part series made in 1976 is speaking out to talk about his place in history as one of the "Bay Gays" who helped shape San Francisco into what it is today.

"Rick Stokes and David Clayton, both in their forties, have been lovers for nearly 17 years," was the line that introduced us to a gay couple.

That showed Stokes in 1976, when he appeared in a groundbreaking series on ABC7 about gays in San Francisco.

LOOKBACK: What gay life was like in San Francisco in 1976
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It was a time before the rainbow flag, before the White Night riots and before HIV and AIDS devastated a community. This ABC7 special report, shown in its entirety, gives a glimpse into what gay life was like in San Francisco in 1976.

"I tried so hard to try to put a face, because for so many people at that time, gayness was a thing, and they didn't have any really accurate idea of what gay people were like," said Stokes recently at his San Francisco home.

Now 84 years old, Stokes reached out to us when we re-released the series last month.

The series sheds light on what the series called, "the gayest city on earth," taking us into gay bars, stores, and the bathhouses.

It was a time of transition for the gay community, when gay people were moving out of the shadows of the gritty Tenderloin and Polk Street into the more wholesome Castro District.

"Well, it was a safe place, so many people had grown up in the Midwest, somewhere far away from here, in a place where they had to be totally hidden," said Stokes.

At the time, he and his partner were attorneys fighting for the rights of gay men.

Stokes ran for San Francisco supervisor against Harvey Milk.

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Back then, the gay community was divided into two camps, the suit-wearing professionals like Stokes who believed they would get more acceptance trying to quietly fit in, and those like Milk, who were willing to take to the streets to fight for their rights.

"I thought we'd get further along by pointing out the similarities, finding natural friends to link up with, and seeking different rights," said Stokes.

In an interview with ABC7 in 1977, then candidate Harvey Milk told us, "If I win I have an incredible responsibility to the district and city, but I also know I will carry the responsibility of the gay community."

Stokes lost, making Milk the first openly gay elected official in the country.

A year later Milk was assassinated, igniting the LBGTQ political power in San Francisco.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: ABC7's report the day Harvey Milk, George Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco
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On Nov. 27, 1978, former San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Dan White shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Here's a look at ABC7's report the day of the assassinations.

Stokes says if he had won, the fight for gay rights may have been much different.

"I think that things might have gone more slowly with me, looking back from this vantage point," said Stokes.

At the time, no one could have predicted the epidemic that was about to tear the community apart. Within a few short years, the AIDS crisis would devastate San Francisco.

VIDEO: SF doctor shares experience at beginning of AIDS crisis
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For Mike Gorman, Ph.D., the early days of the AIDS crisis were like a detective story with an ominous plot. He was working with a small research team from UCSF tracking a mysterious cancer outbreak.

"It really was hard," Stokes said. "I mean, it's hard to even describe. There are times that you'd go to the hospital like four or five times a week and maybe have one or two funerals a week, you can't but just take so much of that."

Those deaths included his partner of 35 years David Clayton, who died in 1995 of an AIDS-related illness, ending what Stokes once thought would be a lifelong relationship.

In 1976, Stokes said, "For a long time people have been told that you can't be together for any length of time and maintain a stable relationship."

"We knew that, that was wrong," he told us today.
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