TV & Radio
For gay culture, L.A. rivals S.F. in importance, new book says
- Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
Los Angeles is not a city that struggles for attention, and its massive population dwarfs San Francisco's, but when it comes to the popular understanding of gay and lesbian history, the City of Angels might as well be under the bay.
Two prominent historians are trying to change that. In a 361-page tome called "Gay L.A." that chronicles that city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender past, journalist Stuart Timmons and scholar Lillian Faderman have made a case for adding Los Angeles to the pantheon of gay culture that now centers on New York and San Francisco.
"I think the idea that San Francisco was 'it' on the West Coast definitely needs to be reformulated, just in fairness," said Timmons, who was raised in the East Bay and has lived in Los Angeles for 30 years.
Topping the list of Los Angeles' contributions to the nascent gay and lesbian community are the formation of the nation's first "homophile" organization, the Mattachine Society, in the early 1950s and later the establishment of what is now the country's most significant gay community center; the publication of the Los Angeles Advocate, which would become the nation's first gay magazine; and the creation in 1968 of the Metropolitan Community Church, which today has 300 congregations in 22 countries and is the largest gay and lesbian organization in the world. More gay-oriented organizations have been founded in Los Angeles than in any other city in the world, the authors found.
"To put it in a word, without Los Angeles, we wouldn't have institutions. We wouldn't have the institutional press and we wouldn't have the institutional church," Timmons said. "It has been somewhat of a national model, and models have to come from somewhere."
Yet San Francisco and New York are credited far more often as the main pillars of the American gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
The arguably most prominent events in gay history did happen in those two cities -- the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village 1969 and the election of Harvey Milk to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977 and his assassination a year later.
Timmons and Faderman argue that Los Angeles' geography has played a large role in its historical obscurity.
"L.A. is 450 square miles. It's so much easier to get the word out when something is happening in San Francisco. Wild things happen in Los Angeles, but they are vitiated by the fact that the city's so huge," said Faderman, who is on the English department faculty at Fresno State University.
According to a UCLA study published in October on the size of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender populations in U.S. cities, based on census data, Los Angeles had 442,411 gay residents in 2000, while San Francisco and the Bay Area had just over 256,000. New York City had the largest population, at just under 569,000.
In addition to its size and diffuseness, Los Angeles' gay scene is distinct for its ethnic diversity, its wealth and its proximity to Hollywood, which has shaped the world's understanding of the gays and lesbians.
The proliferation of organizations for Asians, Latinos and African Americans makes Los Angeles' gay and lesbian community perhaps the most diverse anywhere. There are enough people from different parts of the world that, for example, a group for gay and lesbian Vietnamese people split into two: one for people who speak Vietnamese and the other for those who speak English. Such diversity challenges the popular representation of the community as dominated by gay white males.
The authors focus on several celebrities they describe as "un-straight," including Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn, and credit them with, among other things, popularizing the wearing of pants by women, which was common among lesbians. Hollywood has been both praised and scorned for portrayals of the gay community and is famous for its "closet," with constant rumors -- still -- about who is gay.
But Faderman and Timmons say the images shown in films have been more important than the personal lives of celebrities. They point to the success of films like the Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain" and the proliferation of gay and lesbian story lines on television.
"This area is now the stuff of drama and those messages and images are so unstoppable now and not hinged to the fortune of any actor," Timmons said.
Los Angeles has begun making up for its past obscurity, said Nan Alamilla Boyd, author of "Wide-Open Town," a book that chronicles the early history of gay San Francisco.
"With the way L.A. has developed and matured, it's really important in the present, which makes its past really significant and important to understand," she said.
Sometimes referred to as the ATM of the gay rights movement, the city is a major fundraising venue for gay and lesbian causes.
"I think there are some grounds to say that L.A.'s place in it all hasn't been recognized, but you could say the same thing about Chicago, Atlanta or Miami," said Terence Kissack, former executive director of San Francisco's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society.
The authors said there is plenty of unexplored history to examine in gay and lesbian California in general and the relationship between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"I think that even more than New York, California is the place people from around the world dream of going to," Faderman said.
Highlights of gay culture, history
New York: The modern gay civil rights movement marks its beginning in a police raid in June 1969 at a bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn that triggered several days of riots. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world commemorate the incident's anniversary every year with parades and other events.
Also in New York, ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, started in 1987. That group's chapters across the country held demonstrations and protests that raised public awareness of AIDS and forced politicians to take action in the crisis. It has long been home to the nation's largest arts scene, and it has the country's largest LGBT population.
Los Angeles: The nation's first "homophile" organization, the Mattachine Society, was founded in the early 1950s in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Advocate, started in 1967 as a newspaper, became the nation's first gay magazine. The city also is home to the Metropolitan Community Church, which today has 300 congregations in 22 countries and is the world's largest gay and lesbian organization. More gay-oriented organizations have been founded in Los Angeles than any other city in the world, the authors found.
San Francisco: This city fostered the nascent rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, with the formation of the Daughters of Bilitis, the Society for Individual Rights and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. When the Mattachine Society moved to San Francisco in 1955, all the national gay and lesbian organizations were based here.
The city's rich gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history also includes the election in 1977 -- and assassination a year later -- of Supervisor Harvey Milk, the formation of the Gay Games in 1980, the creation of the rainbow flag in 1978 and the creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
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