Bill Plath, San Francisco, December 7, 1976
Introduction: this interview focuses on the 1960s in San Francisco, with an emphasis on the Tavern Guild and the Society for Individual Rights. Plath, who was a bar owner, was active in both organizations. He talks about police harassment of bars and the work that these organizations did to stop harassment. Plath gives these organizations credit for provoking change, but also acknowledges that, in comparison to the militancy of younger activists by the end of the 1960s, these were more cautious and mainstream organizations.
Was a member of the Tavern Guild, rank-and file. Owned a bar, ran for Treasurer of Guild. Tavern Guild came into existence about 15 years ago—not as a movement organization, but as a group of bartenders who got together once a week socially. Didn’t have a name at first, but it was a good thing. Then, decided to put more teeth into it.
“At that time the bar situation was very bad. There were little dirty things they would do. Police would park a paddy wagon outside your bar on Friday evening at 10:00 and then go down to the corner for a cup of coffee. You can imagine what this would do for your business. Plus, there were the rumors, don’t go to ‘such and such’.”
“Police would send in plainclothesmen in tight pants, very handsome guys, and they’d go to work on some older number who was available for almost anything.” Wouldn’t arrest on premises so as not to blow their cover.
Plath owned D’Oak Room—Divisadero and Oak. Estimates that 50 or 70% of bars paid off police. Those who didn’t “policed” behavior of patrons. Tavern Guild was a defense organization: delegations would go to chief of police, with attorneys.
New Year’s Eve Ball: proved to clergy what homosexuals were saying—police lie, harass etc. Right after, police practice changes sharply; Ball raid got tremendous press.
Tavern Guild always aware of Mattachine—used their facilities at first.
Mattachine—“not a great deal of impact on the gay community. They were not an organization that wanted membership involvement. ‘Send us the money and we’ll do the work’ was their approach. That was the main reason why the League for Civil Education got started, to provide membership involvement, to make the gay minority politically conscious.”
Mentions Jose Sarria, Black Cat bar, Board of Supervisors campaign: “it threw everybody into a tizzy. Nobody had ever thought of a thing like this. We started gay registration drives, we registered voters like crazy. It shook the gay community and made them aware that there was real potential.”
Was a member of League for Civil Education but not active. LCE dissolves (finances), Society for Individual Rights forms immediately to replace LCE.
There was a need for a membership organization. SIR = political and social and assistance. “Multi-purpose organization.”
“Guy Strait didn’t want to let go”—therefore members of LCE form SIR.
Bill Beardemphl “the guiding force” of SIR.
Jim Foster—met at Jim’s apartment. Bill and Nancy May there. Bill’s roommate Wayne. Mike Newton, a printer. Mark Forrester.
3 or 4 weeks of meetings before going out for members. Hold a potluck dinner at Falstaff Beer Brewery: through Tavern Guild, eager to get gay bar business, gave free beer. Invited everyone they knew. Quickly, 100 members.
First activities: VD campaign—publicized at bars, baths. Candidates’ night. Dance at California Hall “a milestone.” Dance “a tremendous success.”
Held regular dances every weekend. Huge turnouts, packed. Soon, bars started having dancing. No law against men dancing, just against lewd and lascivious dancing, which police say equals men dancing. Therefore, had been no dancing in bars.
“SIR was all things to all people.” Not a paper membership: “a very vocal membership.”
Hard issue: whether to be involved in non-gay issues. Dabbled, but basically stayed away from other issues.
“As soon as politicians realized that we were registering voters by the thousands in gay bars, they very fast made it over to our candidates nights. They couldn’t care less about us.”
Willie Brown the first politician to be serious about helping gays.
“Specific, immediate, and realizable—SIR.”
Went to Kansas City NACHO [North American Conference of Homophile Organizations] meeting in 1966: “to combine our energies and hit at the same targets. It didn’t work very well. We hammered through things on a parliamentary basis and took votes but no one was bound by it and if you didn’t agree with the vote you didn’t carry through with it.”
SIR constitution mandated autonomy, independence from other organizations.
SIR, post 1969. Became a very conservative organization. Younger militant gay libbers didn’t want to be involved in the SIR umbrella.
Leo Laurence: “forcibly removed from the editorship. He went out screaming.” Tried to do things, take stands without approval of Board.
Plath was president of Tavern Guild for several years. Also, an officer of SIR.
Tried to push Tavern Guild’s social awareness—always had ability to raise money. TG financed pocket lawyer, Council on Religion and the Homosexual pamphlets. Through fundraising events: Halloween ball, picnics; free beer from beer companies; bar auctions.