San Francisco has always been a beacon for progression in the queer community. Despite homosexuality being illegal during the 1960’s, the community always found ways to gather and celebrate together. This was no different for New Years in 1965. The queer community partnered with the Council on Religion and Homosexuality, or the CRH, to plan a New Years ball to spark open conversations between religious communities and queer communities. What they thought was going to be a ball of celebration and harmony ended up being much more than that: a crucial steppingstone for progress towards integrating queer individuals into the public eye.
The Council on Religion and Homosexuality, formed by Glide Memorial Methodist Church and local homosexuals, was created to promote and increase connection and understanding between religious groups and queers. They wanted to introduce people to the idea that queer individuals are just like everybody else and should be accepted into the general population. The laws on homosexuality made it hard for them to have this event in public, as it was illegal for members of the same sex to dance together or even touch each other in public spaces. Therefore, they decided on a ball to be held at California Hall, a private venue since they were sponsoring the event. They pre-sold 1500 tickets, assuring the organizers that people were looking forward to this event.
Due to the issues of police unjustly targeting the queer community, the CRH took every necessary precaution to assure they had all the rights and permits they needed to host this event without police presence. They made sure they had a liquor license and spoke to the sex crime department of the San Francisco Police Department ( SFPD ) to assure that no issues would arise. They were initially met with backlash from the police, claiming that nobody could be dressed in drag for the event, but the CRH reminded them that it was a private event, meaning police could not enforce any sort of dress code. However, when the night of January 1st, 1965, came and attendees started to arrive, they were met with multiple SFPD members harassing attendees and blocking the intersection, making it difficult and daunting to enter the venue. Multiple photographers and videographers showed up too, taking pictures and videos of everybody who came and left. Despite the CRH taking all steps needed to guarantee no police presence, they still managed to insert themselves into the event, going as far as entering the venue, claiming it was for fire inspections. “Three gay male attorneys and one female secretary were arrested by police on obstruction charges when they challenged continued police entry into the private event.” [ref.2] Unfortunately, police raids were not uncommon back then. They frequently harassed and invaded queer spaces, oftentimes shutting down establishments and events created for the queer community. This discrimination and mistreatment of the queer community went overlooked for years before this, but this night was different.
In the past, raids and abuse from police were hidden from the public, purposely so. This time, due to the physical evidence and first-hand witnesses of the unethical discrimination of the queer community, the police were held accountable for their actions. It helped that there was a mixed crowd of heterosexuals and homosexuals, allowing for the heterosexuals to see the violent mistreatment with their own eyes. With pictures and videos showcasing the shameful police raid came public outrage. Newspapers and press conferences brought light to the abuse that queer people frequently endured by people in positions of power, which caused a spark of sympathy for the queer community. The negative press became so powerful that police had no option but to decrease their harassment of queer individuals. “The SFPD stopped arresting gay men for doing ‘what was wrong’ and only arrested them for a ‘violation of the law.’” [ref.1] It was a start to progress, ultimately changing and challenging the climate of San Francisco.
The publicity that was created from this raid ultimately led to further conversations being held to hold police accountable for their hate crimes against the queer community. San Francisco Mayor John Shelley heard about what happened and attempted to hold Police Chief Thomas Cahill accountable for the events that occurred. Ultimately, his career was not affected whatsoever, suffering no consequences for his actions during New Years. However, this spread more awareness of the CRH and what they stood for, furthering their influence and power. The group didn’t let this raid stop their work but continued to make progress and fight for change in San Francisco. First, they had the ACLU represent the four individuals arrested, and they were all acquitted, as the trial was thrown out by the judge. Their next initiative was organizing San Francisco’s first forum for gay and lesbian voters, which they ultimately succeeded in. Within a decade, their efforts blossomed to the point where Harvey Milk became one of the first openly gay officials in the country, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Over the years, we’ve seen San Francisco become one of the most queer-friendly places, but it’s always good to look back and recognize the groups and individuals who were responsible for making the changes and progression we have today. Many people know about Stonewall, the riot that happened in 1969 during a routine police raid of a gay bar, but not everyone knows about this event, which truly began the movement against discrimination from police against queer people. Despite the New Years ball not going how it was originally planned, the outcome was a win for the queer community in San Francisco and elsewhere. Remember, pride has always been a protest to fight for equal rights, and the resilience of everyone who fought for those rights when everything was stacked against them will never be forgotten.