Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club’s Three Commemorations of Their 40th Anniversary

There was a historic meeting of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and the San Francisco Police Department on July 11 during a forum at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

Alice’s founder, Jim Foster, partially conceived of the political club as an activist group to oppose police raids and threats. Foster got an eyeful of what less affluent gays faced at the Society for Individual Rights (S.I.R.) headquarters on 6th Street in San Francisco, and he thought that a more political organization would help when he founded Alice 40 years ago. Raids on gay bars and hang-outs such as Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin were common. A lesbian bar named Peg’s Place was attacked by an inebriated bachelor party that included police officers as late as 1979. The Alice Club was quick to denounce these outrages and local politicians heard loud and clear that this kind of behavior would not be tolerated.

Club co-founders included lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who founded the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in 1955, and their house party guests feared a police raid every time the doorbell rang. Lyon and Martin were active with the Council on Religion and the Homosexual which hosted the “Meet the Lesbian and Gay Community Weekend” events at Glide Memorial Church. Social workers, physicians, psychiatrists, attorneys, priests, family planners, and police officers met lesbian and gay couples and were invited to join them in their homes and restaurants. In the early 1970s a passionate gay teenage couple was introduced to the Weekend conference attendees, and this journalist and his boyfriend were that couple.

From a time when LGBT police officers had to be closeted to the present when open recruitment of out-of-the-closet officers has resulted in increasing numbers of police who have an insight into alternative lives. LGBT-friendly San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr joined three lesbian police commanders at the Alice meeting: Lea Militello, Sandra Tong, and Denise Schmidt.

Alice member Terry Gauchet coordinated the panel and there was a lively Q&A. Over and over both Suhr and the commanders stressed that bring a police officer is the best job in the world because they can help people and see their positive impact on people's lives. Recruitment, maybe possibly from the ranks of the Alice members, was an ongoing theme of the evening. Another was the importance of police academy classes to add new officers that will replace retiring members of the department, and that the city budget should include funding for the classes.

The big news of the evening was that the SFPD will make an “It Gets Better” video to join the thousands that columnist Dan Savage and his lover Terry Miller inspired.

During a dialogue with Chief Suhr this journalist spoke about the early years in San Francisco when upfront gays were harassed by the police and when they were bashed by others, instead of helping them, law enforcement arrested them. The Frank Sinatra film "The Detective," which Suhr said he had seen, was cited as a view of that era. In contrast, now police officers are trained well in settling LGBT lovers’ and roommates’ disputes, and other sensitive situations.

Police deployment at Halloween in the Castro and Pink Saturday was discussed, and Suhr stated that he liked both events, but back when they were a few thousand neighborhood people and their visitors. Curtailment of publicity for Pink Saturday was mentioned as a logical action for 2012.

The Alice Club is also celebrating its “40 Years Together, 40 Years Strong” with a GLBT History Museum exhibit opening on August 1 which includes a visual history of the Alice Club and a recording of Jim Foster giving a lesbian and gay liberation speech at the Democratic Party convention that nominated George McGovern for president in 1972. Curator Nathan Purkiss’ phenomenal commentary about the Club’s history strongly affected the packed museum, and the people admired the event program which is crammed full of photographs and historical descriptions.

The following week there was a panel discussion about the Club’s history on Aug. 8, led by activist Phyllis Lyon, who spoke in detail about the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis, and about how its members were blue- and white-collar workers. She revealed that the group had been secretive during its early years,—they were more open later,—thanks to powerful political friends, some of the same friends that supported the Alice Club since its founding.

The courage of early lesbian and gay activists is astonishing, considering how much they had to lose, and Alice founders Foster, Lyon, and others deserve credit for their efforts.

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