George Mendenhall, San Francisco, 12/2/76
Introduction: George Mendenhall was a San Francisco activist, heavily involved in the Society for Individual Rights in the mid-to-late 1960's. His interview describes SIR’s strengths and difficulties, and he also gives a sense of the generational and political split that emerged in the late 60s, as more radical gay men became politicized and active.]
Lived in Daly City. A former tenant was gay. Copy of Vector magazine arrived. Got upset by politics of the magazine, wrote letters, subscribed, went to a meeting, got immediately excited and involved. Volunteered for everything. A good crowd, but upset by weakness of organization; its inadequacy. (Was into the civil rights movement). Felt he could be involved, as long as no publicity on him. At some point said, who cares.
Had no real awareness of gay movement until he got Vector. Had seen ONE and Mattachine Review, but boring and repetitive. Had a few gay friends. “Not only was I not involved, but I thought it was ridiculous for these people to be involved. Why should you come up front and risk anything when you can play this game of a dual identity?”
Society for Individual Rights [SIR]: “a meeting together of people who would never have met otherwise.” “A conglomerate organization. It did a large variety of things”—psychology, religion, socializing, politics.
“A variety of things going but none of them really well.”
“1st gay organization that politicians really paid attention to.”
“it was the only thing going.”
“A way of meeting other gay people. A lot of us were stuck in the bar-bath syndrome.”
Why was SIR so large? “A lot of people were waiting to come out.” San Francisco draws people, nomads, rootless, drifters—“the lure of being free, of being themselves.”
“We were still into image.” [Respectability]
“We were making little inroads only, but we were developing gay leadership.”
“A drawing point for anyone who wanted to do something.”
“A professionalism about SIR.”—e.g. stationary, brochures, Vector magazine (“slick”). “It had a good image and it was beginning to build.”
Leadership group: Bill May.
Larry Littlejohn—his best friend, most consistently active. Bill Beardemphl—“big ego”
Dissatisfaction with the organization and the people in it—reason leaders drop out. Working a full-time job, then meetings and work, evenings and weekends. “burn out.” “All of us left because we were exhausted.” “I had almost no social life during those six years.”
“Great feeling of unity and unanimity”—no big divisive issues. Real active membership involved in 1960s—leaders took questions to members who were concerned, fully participating. No sense of strategy or causes of oppression. “There was no sense of strategy.”
400-500 people would attend candidate nights. But no concentrated lobbying for things.
Willie Brown—more of a gay activist than we were. Mendenhall weak as a political chairman. Jim Foster “strong, overwhelming, overbearing,”—politicians paid attention to him.
“There were a lot of peripheral, nonpolitical things… you can imagine how I felt about tap dancing and rehearsing for a drag show. That’s all very interesting but to have it around you every day when you’re trying to be an activist—it was depressing.”
“At its peak, when SIR had a thousand members, maybe 400 people would come twice a year, for candidate’s nights or a drag show.” 100 people who could be drawn on for something important. Maybe 20-40 intimately involved, working very hard. “But otherwise they stayed away in droves and you had a very small group of people, maybe 20 to 40, who were doing things.”
Aug 1970 NACHO conference in San Francisco: really trying, things happening. Image people (respectable, nice, straight, etc.) vs. youth (impatient, “do it now.”)
Kameny: “the most consistent gay activist in the nation for years.”
Meetings nice, debate resolutions. Into it marches Leo Laurence with street people. To have people march in, shouting freedom now, when I was licking envelopes—intolerable. “My head was turned around after Christopher Street west. A lot of people realized it was a new ball game.”
Purpose of NACHO = draw everyone into a national coalition. NACHO issues: “We all wanted to remain independent. We were all afraid that people at national level would take stands we wouldn’t agree with. That was the central issue.”
Also—gay vs. homophile: part of the image debate. “It really was elitist. We didn’t want troublemakers.” “In spite of all of our activities, we were still closeted. It was a collective closet, but it was still a closet.”
Leo Laurence: “reprehensible.” Charged that magazine being censored; took all supplies. Refused to show magazine to anyone until after publication.
“There was distrust of Leo right off. He was known as a radical.” Wrote for Berkeley Barb, sensationalistic, on gay movement. Attacked other SIR members and policies in Vector which was supposed to be a public relations publication—for outside consumption, no dirty laundry.
Committee for Homosexual Freedom: leaderless, always demonstrating, looking for a new target. Drifting. Mustered bodies of young people.
“You couldn’t get anybody in SIR to march except for the leadership.”
San Francisco Examiner demonstration, 10/69: with regard to police. “The word was never cooperation. It was standoff. As long as you’re doing it behind closed doors—that was their attitude toward us.” “Indifference,” “do your own thing as long as we don’t see it.”
Elliott Blackstone = exception. Good.
Gay liberation: Radical gay activism (broader issues) vs. image people (single issue). Shape of the country. But lack of leadership and desire for leadership—“it just died.” “It didn’t last very long”—1 ½ - 2 years. But it created a new tolerance and acceptance.
Discussion of Post-Stonewall politics: Bay Area Gay Liberation vs. Gay Action. SIR never involved young people—even early on, majority of members were in their 30s. SIR “not restless,” slow, working within. SIR allowed radical gay lib to meet in its center.
1970 NACHO and Del Martin speech.
DOB not very active in San Francisco. Always a very small organization .
Why SF so unique? The Council on Religion and the Homosexual New Year’s Eve ball = the turning point. The first really public thing. SIR got a lot more members as a result. Police add liaison to gay community. Police got bad press, lawsuits. That’s why they changed. “Hands-off” attitude.