LOOKBACK: What gay life was like in San Francisco in 1976

ByReggie Aqui and Ken Miguel KGO logo
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
What gay life was like in SF in the 1970s
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.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- San Francisco's Castro District has been home to LGBTQ people for nearly five decades. The City by the Bay has had a long history as a place where anything goes. Opening its Golden Gate to a world of diverse culture, viewpoints, and sexual orientation.

VIDEO: 'I'm so glad I did this': Coming out, growing up at San Francisco Pride

We've been digging through our archives and found an amazing series to give you a glimpse of gay life here in late 1976. It portrays San Francisco as the gayest city in the country. And now, all these years later, it has become a place where someone like me can be out on TV.

The four part series starts before the rainbow flag was a a symbol for a united community. Before Harvey Milk was elected supervisor, before the White Night riots that followed his death, before HIV and AIDS devastated a community, before same-sex marriage was legal.

The language used in this special has evolved over the years. Though the series focuses only gay men, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were also fighting their own battles for public acceptance.

"BAY GAYS" was shocking for its time and is stunning still today for how many of the issues still exist.

Watch the video above for the ABC7 special reports presented as they aired in 1976.

Read the text from the special reports below:

The Queen City: San Francisco in 1977

During the past six months or so, several of us here at Channel 7 have been focusing our attention on the homosexual community of the Bay Area especially San Francisco, with the hope of presenting for you a report that would shed some light on the darkness of the gay scene and generally show that people of homosexual persuasion are no different except in their sexual preference. Now, we don't intend to take a point of view but rather we intend to suggest that more understanding might be a healthy overture and an enlightened attitude about the largest minority here.

San Francisco the Queen City of the West known to many for the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars known to far fewer as a haven for homosexuals. A city with a uniquely liberal tradition that tolerates and perhaps even encourages the private and public meeting and marriage of men with men and women with women.

You can look around the city's many districts and be sure that gays, as many homosexuals prefer to call themselves, are part of the scene. In the financial district. In the neighborhoods on the waterfront.

In the government. In the colleges and universities. They worked side by side with those of more conventional sexual preference and for the most part they are invisible. But when work is through one hundreds gather here in what many are convinced as the largest and most significant gay ghetto in the United States if not the entire world. Castro village the name given for roughly 20 square blocks of quaint jobs vaguely Victorian structures cut into living quarters and more than 15 gay bars. All nestled into a cozy hodge-podge of unplanned happiness at the foot of Twin Peaks. This is where they play if they dare run the risk of being discovered. Castro Polk and Folsom the Sodom and Gomorrah of San Francisco if you disapprove of their orientation.

Otherwise for gays from Des Moines or Duluth, a sort of heaven on earth. Walk down the street in this crossroad the gay community and you're likely to meet your neighbor, your doctor, the guy who fixed your television set, or perhaps your boss. These statistics are overwhelming. Look at any crowd in San Francisco and the odds are that one out of three is gay. That 150,000 of the City's estimated adult population of half a million.

Says psychologist Dr. Martin Stoll, a former State Department official and now one of the most respected leaders of the San Francisco gay community, "I think San Francisco is attractive to all people who are particularly those minorities and that this has always been known as a place that could accept people with different lifestyles and certainly the gay lifestyle is a different lifestyle."

"I think that we're probably seeing a greater increase in acceptance. However there's a difference between toleration and acceptance. Gays are tolerated and will be for a long time. They are not accepted," said Stoll.

You hear it over and over again. Gays are tolerated in San Francisco that very likely explains why more and more homosexuals are going public or as they prefer to put it coming out of the closet. But it's not a decision to be made lightly.

David Goodstein was the editor of the Advocate Magazine at the time. He said, "I think the closet is really terrible metaphor because it's an ongoing process coming out. You start out by coming out to yourself and finding out that you are gay and then you begin to do something about it and come out to those few other people with whom it's absolutely necessary. Specifically the people with whom you go to bed, and then gradually you build up a support group of friends who are gay and tell them and then you begin to tell your friends that aren't gay, and then it's a gradual ongoing thing until finally everybody in your life knows that you're gay, and you discover you're out there in the world and that hasn't all fallen apart because everybody knows who you are."

The exodus from the closet is not exactly a stampede though. While thousands of gays don't mind being seen in activities like the Gay Freedom Day Parade or the annual police versus gay softball game in San Francisco, there are at least as many others who say they can't afford to be publicly identified.

They take part only on the fringes of the gay subculture, admitting their sexual preferences only to the very close gay friends.

And make no mistake about this because they're tolerated but not really accepted. Gays have created their own private establishment held together from the inside with pressure from the outside. More than 150 gay bars catering to every sexual persuasion at least 13 gay bathhouses where a sex is simply a slip of the towel away marriages where there is no father to give away the bride and sexual San Francisco. It's practiced thousands of times a day in public and in private.

Neil Roth, a bar patron told us, "Well there is love without sex, Now and very definitely sex without love and there's always sometimes a very distinct very distinct picture in my mind of what I want sometimes. Also if I am interested in just having sex with out loud it's straight to the tubs here you know. And that's very fulfilling to me, takes care of a lot of my needs. And there are other times that I need that combination of love and sex combination. Sometimes they get take care of sometimes they don't, like everybody's needs."

Single Life: Nightlife and Bathhouses

For years the very mention of the word homosexual called up a fairly universal image. A person was said to look vaguely effeminate and have a speech pattern full of siblings some lisping. They look different they acted different because they were different. Now, unless the local gay community is organized or one of its big events, a gay rights parade or Halloween.

Any guessing about who is and who isn't. Seems downright old fashioned. Gays in fact are different but they're fiercely proud of both their differences and their similarities. Here's what the word means to one homosexual who has established a one man relationship.

"It means that I prefer sex with a man. And very little else. My lifestyle is probably the same as anyone else's. And Cal's too, we both go to work we both read the magazine and go to the bathroom just like anyone else would. You know we're concerned about political matters and we're involved in church activities. The only difference. That I can see. In our lifestyle compared, to what might be accepted by. Society in general would be the fact that we sleep together," said San Francisco resident Stan Schobert.

The dating and meeting aspects of the gay world probably are more closely proscribe and more highly ritualized than those of straight society. After all since society basically rejects the homosexual and what he stands for, the gay subculture has come up with its own conventions and sets no rules exist from the outside. There's a freedom about gay bars that may appear as a smug flubbing of unabashed hedonism.

When you ask why a person goes to a gay bar here's what you get.

"Frankly I find a great deal of pleasure in any number of establishments throughout our community. And I do read Herb Caen you know and Herb mentions that fun can be had in any number of ways anywhere," said one bar patron.

"Sometimes just to dance really hard with my lover, sometimes to pick up trash, sometimes to just sit in the middle of the afternoon," said another patron.

"I feel comfortable there. I like to have my eyes filled with smoke and I like to get drunk and I like to meet people which I usually don't. It's really very loud and sweaty. A lot of people are jumping up and down street," said another patron.

"I go to gay bars that make out you fool," said another.

The gay bar is useful for the unattached homosexuals. Probably in his 20s or early but he lives alone. I have to tell the other gay man that he looks to the gay bar for social satisfaction. He also looks there for sexual satisfaction cruising the bar for me the fear of rejection hangs in the air like a cloud of desperation as the 2:00 a.m. closing time approaches.

While many gays patronize their bars in search of an all-night companion. The gay bars of San Francisco offer what should be a more certain solution. Other men were similarly inclined o find safe and conducive atmosphere for uninhibited sensuality, and the expectation that even if your fantasy is not fulfilled, something will be.

The whole experience is invested with a dark sense of adventure that even the owner of a gay bar cannot explain does provide a safe alternative variety.

"A gay can find his variety in the gay man in public places such as parks, movie houses, other businesses of that sort and public places. But those are socially unacceptable and very dangerous. Does an institution that's specifically designed to allow one to be as free as they need to be."

"I think when people think of homosexuals they think of sex, really homosexuality means same-sex, and sex is really of tertiary importance. Of much greater importance to the homosexual is affiliation that is being with someone of the same sex and affection the idea of mutual expression of love between two people. Sex then follows that if sex precedes that as we often see in one night stands then very often the relationship doesn't go any farther than that," said Dr. Martin Stow a gay counselor.

"If you look in gay bars generally speaking the people are younger and then as people get on in life they tended to entertain more at home. The much more what we call in our society, stable. I don't mean it has anything to do with being gay or being straight. I think it has everything to do with maturating," said David Goodstein, publisher of the Advocate.

Couples: Finding a Place in Gay Life

You're watching pictures of a religious ceremony sanctifying a homosexual relationship. It was performed at St. Aiden's Episcopal Church in San Francisco. That is the closest to people of the same sex can get to legal marriage by taking these vows Stan Schobert and Cal Wilson are making a solemn commitment to each other. They're making public their homosexuality their love for each other and their determination to share their lives.

"But I think most gay people do not believe in the institution of marriage except as an encumbering thing because we have a view that our relationship has a very much more voluntary quality to them. We stay together because we want to stay together. In a sense there's a kind of rejection of the fact that we're forced to stay together. In that sense I've always thought that we have a lot to teach the non-gay community about relationships because we have to really want to stay together, to stay together. And in fact, most gay people do have a significant other person in their lives. Most of the time," said David Goodstein, publisher of the Advocate.

If having a significant other person is the rule. Stan and Carl are the exception. They have each other and at least for now that's all they need and all they want and when Stan comes home from work, "My first thought is that I'm really glad to see Cal. It's been eight hours. And. It's nice to know that there's someone there waiting when I get home. It's also nice to know that I have someone to come home to, and to share the evening with, to share the day with, the things that have gone on at work. What we're going to do tomorrow?" said Stan Schobert.

Stan and Cal are in their late twenties, and they've known each other about a year. I wondered if that's long enough as a foundation for a marriage. They don't legally need.

"How does anyone know each other well enough to make a step like we have? It takes, a lifetime to get to know someone well, and even then do you really know that person. We would like to try that together to get to know each other and to grow together be open for change, to be able to learn how to communicate well, these things are a very important part of any relationship, whether it's between a man and woman or two women two men or even a business partnership for that matter. You have to be able to communicate and grow together and share," said Schobert.

Just as the homosexual culture uses the word gay to describe themselves. The word "lover" means a person living with someone of the same sex as though they were married. Rick Stokes and David Clayton both in their 40s had been lovers for nearly 17 years. Not only did they live together they worked together, their law firm is probably the largest in the area catering to the legal needs of gays. They say the law discriminate against in very subtle ways. "What's important for me is that people not. Make the assumption that because we've been a couple for twenty seventeen years that that's some sort of index of the relationship for so long gay people have been told that you can't stay together for any period of time and maintain a stable relationship as a result of that a lot of people that you meet, ask how long you've been together and you say X number of years as if that were some magic index to the quality of the relationship and I think that says really very little about whether you have a good relationship. I think we have a very good one but I know lots of people straight people who've been married for a long time and that really tells me nothing about them and their relationship. Says that they don't have enough stamina and maybe to get out of it if it happens it does," said Rick Stokes.

"It does give you an opportunity to develop the similarity of interests a background that you've grown together with it enriches life. I think a great deal of the experience of sharing with one person for that length of time you've got so much more common backgrounds so many more experiences that you've built on together. I think it's a better life than doing it alone," said David Clayton his partner.

"It can be kind of fighting though in that after so many sharing to the same outside experiences you suddenly find that you think the same way and you see something new stimulus and immediately both that one of you will say just exactly what the other one is thinking and that gets so scary when you realize how much individuality you give up over a long-term relationship and how much alike you grow over the years and the way you perceive and see and think and deal with people get," said Rick Stokes.

Jerry Jensen asked, "After 16 years you're not bored with each other?"

"No, no, not at all. I can imagine that," said Rick Stokes.

Open for Business: A Community Finds a Home

Ten years ago the cultural and social center of Bay gays was Polk Street. Here they worked and played. And here they spent their money. Not just on a proliferation of special interest bars unparalleled in the growth of San Francisco but on the finer things in life. The conspicuous consumption of certain commodities that sets the trend for any special lifestyle. The germination of the gay clothing business was right here, The Town Squire is the iron magnet of the homosexual high-fashion world and started 16 years ago by a gay couple August Territo and Terry Popek, who still keep it at the top of the fashion heap, and what's the reason for gays interest in this?

"Part of the reason gay people I think are avant garde in fashion is you've got extra money to stand in that direction. It's pretty difficult as you've got three kids to come in here and spend money. But guys do it to you. But it's much easier for a guy who's got nothing to worry about but his apartment, his food which he eats at practically all the time, and buy clothes to look good at the bar on Saturday or Friday night. When we went into this business because we felt it was that demand we were buying clothes that way and going out and there's nothing like being 20 and wanting to look super, you know. They think that older people that are not as concerned about dressing up kids think that you've got to change every five minutes to keep up," said Popek.

If the action ten years ago was Polk Street. Now it's what the gays call Castro village. That strip of Castro Street South of Market at the foot of Twin Peaks. It's the model of a strongly gay oriented community, of them, by them, and surely for them. It's unofficial mayor. Is Harvey Milk part owner of a camera store unsuccessful candidate for supervisor at a settlement and full-time philosopher.

I ask him why the gays had chosen The Castro?

"Why not? It's a lovely area climate's good. The neighborhood was kind of like rundown for a while and there were a lot of empty stores that needed to rethink clean up and painting in. The city's crime area here. But most important was that the people living in the area had no objection, when some gay people started to move in and started to make it a healthy climate economically and socially."

"They accepted us, and that's the phenomena and from the island and we build the bridges between the communities and just keep expanding and make it more exciting. We started a merchants group here with about twelve gay merchants and the banks wouldn't join, and traditionally banks joined local neighborhood merchants groups. And so when we had about 20 or so merchants threatened to take the account out the banks joined the association," said Milk.

"Once the banks did then other merchants did then the non-gay started to join. And finally we now have about 90 to 100 merchants. That is all out of economic power right across the street was a garage where someone used to park the car, that's been changed now as a travel agency. Not exclusively gay but catering to the gay people run by gay people operated by gay people. It's thriving and successful they may open a branch. That's right across the street," said Milk.

"Upstairs was an apartment which is now a health food organic food store run by some young gay people. For everybody it's successful and it goes, on and on and on. There used to be a beauty shop down the street in an old dilapidated buildings that's been ripped out. They've gone all the way through put it out to a garden cafe restaurant there that's open day and night. They put a lot of little shops in the arcade. It's been so successful that the same people are now going to do the same thing in another part of the city to help renovate that area. It works," said Milk.

We've seen how the San Francisco gay community works with its own structure of goods and services that can exist independent of the potential hostility of the straight world around it. We've seen their bars and we've seen their bars but we haven't seen the Grand Arena roller rink.

It's like rolling back the years and dropping into a small Midwestern town. But this is Tuesday night gay night at the Grand Arena roller rink in South San Francisco.

If unabashed happiness seems a hallmark of the homosexual you might be wearing rose colored glasses. They still operate in or at least interface with a society which generally disapproves of them of what they do and what they stand for.

Whether those feelings have their root and jealousy over the freedom and lack of societal and moral constraint of some gays might be debated by psychologists for years.

"But one of these professionals looked ahead for us. But there is a report that shows that young people today in the United States. This is straight young people will accept a friend who they find out is gay but at the same time they will not accept homosexuality as a life concept," said Dr. Stokes.

"Do you see in the next generation or two some kind of change in his attitude?" asked Jerry Jensen.

"I think so. I think that when people can reduce their homophobia their fear of homosexuality when they recognize that there are aspects of themselves that are homosexual that they will be able to accept this more," said Stokes.

And that's our look at bay gays, in the late fall of 1976, in San Francisco.

I think a couple of footnotes are in order to this series. First of all I'd like to sincerely thank all of you there who have indicated your response with a card or a letter expressing your interest in the series and to compliment you on your enlightened mature attitude. This kind of open reception makes our job an awful lot easier in dealing with a subject as sensitive as this one, and is going surely to encourage similar treatment in the future. Also, I could restate right now that we purposely chose to concentrate on male gays in this series of programs. It was our judgment though shared by people from female gay groups that the problems and lifestyles of lesbians are sufficiently different from those of gay male to be separately considered.