Thursday, March 30th, 2023

Gay and lesbian identities and resistances in San Francisco

Wide Open TownWide Open Town

by Nan Alamilla Boyd

Published by University of California Press

Published May 23, 2003
333 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

August 19, 2003

Especially in contrast to Elizabeth Armstrong’s organizational(ist) history of gay/LGBT San Francisco, Forging Gay Identities, Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town is an outstanding attempt to account historically for the higher status of gay, lesbian, and gender-variant people in San Francisco than elsewhere in the United States.

Boyd does not have either Armstrong’s blatant leftist bias nor Armstrong’s predilection for attributing social change exclusively to formal political organizations. Although aware that an identity-based movement needs spaces in which identities are tried out, bolstered, and mobilized to challenge discrimination, Armstrong all but excluded from her history the identity building not occurring within organizations with overtly political aims. Her analysis also completely excluded for-profit gay and lesbian institutions.

In contrast, Boyd gives the tiny unradical homophile organizations some credit but shows the battle for gay rights being waged to a large extent by petty capitalists, in particular by owners of nightclubs and bars with gay and/or lesbian and/or transvestite clienteles mixing with audiences slumming amidst what they viewed as “freaks” (a category that included both the paid performers and fellow customers in and out of drag).

Owners of small-scale business sought to increase their profits (primarily from the sale of alcohol) and to reduce the costs of police bribes, raids, and closures by government agencies of their businesses. They had a clear interesting in making their customers feel free to relax and buy drinks without harassment from local police or state liquor agents. That the freedom of assembly included homosexuals—even flamboyantly gender-nonconforming homosexuals—had to be established in the courts, and the cases were fought by owners of bars catering to “queer” clients and/or to those who found the spectacle of drag queens (and, to a much lesser extent, drag kings) entertaining. The California Supreme Court’s 1951 decision in Stoumen v Reilly established that public assembly of homosexuals could not be illegal, that freedom of speech and of assembly included homosexuals. Despite this success, the principle had to be reaffirmed after legislative and police attempts to circumvent it over the course of the 1950s and early 60s.

Businesses selling drinks and providing entertainment were important in San Francisco’s economy from the Gold Rush daze onward. In 1890 there was a saloon for every 96 residents, whereas Chicago and New York had more than twice as many residents per saloon. San Francisco politicians were able to forestall California enacting prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages for years. When the 18th Amendment was approved nationally, the city government blocked enforcement of Prohibition within the city’s boundaries: “One could buy liquor in unlimited quantities in the city in open bars and cafes, particularly in the cheaper sections of town.” This seems to have forestalled the dominance of alcohol trade and, after the repeal of Prohibition, of bars catering to homosexuals and transvestites by the Mafia. The Prohibition-era manufacturers and smugglers of alcohol tended to be relatively small-scale entrepreneurs, as were those (some of them gay and lesbian) owning and running bars that were labeled “resorts for perverts” (this arch phrasing appeared in a state law).

In general, city officials (who campaigns were generously financed by those in the liquor trades) regarded “vice” as “a necessary evil. There were many, as a matter of fact, who weren’t nearly as convinced that it was an evil than that it was necessary” (quoting the complaint made by a 1930s lawyer).

Across time, the income derived from “from the reputation of this city as an adult vacation spot rests on its adult entertainment.” This included readily visible prostitution after legal prostitution ended: “It was to the city’s economic advantage to allow a certain amount of prostitution to remain visible in tourist districts like North Beach,” which had been the red-light district from the 1840s on.

Despite some consensus within the city’s political elite on marketing the image of a “wide open city,” open “vice” was challenged with occasional success by reformers. Prostitution was outlawed. Prohibition was at least enacted (even if not enforced in San Francisco). Co-operation between military policing (making places where known homosexuals congregated off-limits to military personnel) and the police made running gay-friendly bars difficult during World War II, and, after notable relaxation of harassment between 1951 and 1955, there was the eight-year tenure of Republican George Christopher as a mayor crusading against “vice.” (One of the ironies of local history is that he was re-elected after a Democratic opponent, Assessor Russell Wolden, accused Christopher of creating (!) a climate favorable for ever-more flagrant “sex deviates” that alienated Christopher’s opponents and put the subject of homosexuality in the forefront of public discussion.)

The local Hearst newspaper (then the Examiner) attempted to stimulate a panic about “queer” migration to San Francisco. Although paying little attention to in-migration, Boyd sensibly contends that it was “not that the number of homosexuals [in San Francisco during the early 1960s] had necessarily grown but that the public space occupied by homosexuals had expanded.”

Various failed attempts by the police and the state Alcohol Control Board to close gay (etc.) bars and particularly the harassment of a 1965 New Year’s costume ball organized by the Council on Religion and the Homosexual that showed clergymen and their lives the kind of intimidation that were commonplace for “queers” made the right of “deviants” to live and be left alone a local issue—in a locality priding itself on a reputation of being a “wide open town” and in which many prominent citizens recognized that the local economy depended on income derived from tourists coming to see “the freaks” and for residents of the rest of the Bay Area to spend their money to be with friends and potential sexual partners at night and on weekends in San Francisco.

The freedom from police harassment fought for in the famed 1969 “Stonewall riots” in Greenwich Village had been won in San Francisco by 1965. Moreover, the Society for Individual Rights (its acronym SIR suggests how male it was), founded in 1964, “projected a bold language of social activism that was more in sync with civil rights organizations like the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee or the Congress on Racial Equality, than homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society” (in either San Francisco or New York) that was more like the NAACP in attempting to bring about reform working through the system for individual rights.

Boyd writes:

It was as if a line had been drawn between those homosexuals who contained their sexuality to the privacy of homes (and masked [or were not inclined to!] gender-inappropriate behaviors and those who brought their sexuality (and gender) out in public. The former, quasi-legal homosexuals, could enjoy the possibilities of citizenship, while the latter, outlaws, carried the full weight of the law. 1

Although more asserted than proved, Boyd’s position is antithetical to Armstrong’s. Boyd’s somewhat-hedged position 2 is that “identities forged outside of formal social movements such as homophile organizations were, perhaps, essential to the kinds of resistance that sustained gay liberation movements. Identity formation, as such, becomes less central to the emergence of political movements than social consciousness—and a culture of resistance” (emphasis in original).

In challenging the extent to which changes are the legacy of the homophile movement, Boyd seems to me to have somewhat overshot. I would readily grant that this may seem clearer in the light of the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning the remaining laws against sodomy on privacy grounds rather than on equal protection grounds. 3

Boyd thoroughly researched the history of one kind of petty capitalists (bar owners) fighting for the right of their patrons to meet, greet, and cruise each other. Consistent with a widespread feminist—particularly lesbian feminist—discomfort with male sexuality, she largely ignores the other venerable site of gay male socializing and connecting to have sex, bathhouses. There must be a similar history of struggling to have their for-profit meeting places accepted as legitimate businesses not singled out for intimidating special scrutiny by fire marshals and building inspections and subjected to police raids, but Boyd passes it over.

Despite her interest in the contest for public space, she has very little to say about men engaging in so-called “public sex” (which is mostly sex in secluded places in which participants seek to cloak their activity from those not seeking to participate or watch), beyond mentioning the Los Angeles Mattachine Society defending one of its members 4 arrested while cruising a park and distribution of a Mattachine Society card with advice on what to do (and not do) if entrapped by policemen. 5

Boyd seems to me to be overly focused on gender (for instance, almost all the photos in the book are of transgendered persons and their lairs) and to downplay sex as what “the pursuit of happiness” (that inalienable right as expressed by the Founding Fathers of the United States) was for homosexual women and men in San Francisco between 1849 and 1965. I have mentioned the lack of serious attention to LGBT immigration to San Francisco, and there is not much attention given to parts of the San Francisco economy other than the tourism/entertainment sectors (changes in which also relate to LGBT in-migration). Plus, the book is also maddeningly repetitive. It seems that neither the author nor any editor read the whole text through. Either that, or the author and editors did not think readers would remember what they had read in a previous chapter and notice that exactly the same information was being repeated. Boyd also repeats within the chapters material from the oral history interviews that precede each of her five chapters rather than alluding to what they said and the reader has already (just!) read.

There is also Boyd’s anachronistic imposition of “queer” onto 116 years of history in which it was not used or was used more narrowly than she does, and her conflating transgendered persons with those sometimes cross-dressing.

Though far from a perfect book, Wide Open Town presents a considerable amount of research in archives and in interviewing survivors from the bad old days and provides generally sensible (though occasionally internally contradictory) interpretations of the limited success of small homophile organizations (the Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society) in securing individual rights and the greater success of the small-scale capitalists (particularly the Tavern Guild) in securing collective rights for their customers. Again in marked contrast to Armstrong, Boyd is very good at relating the advances and retreats in securing social/public space to changes in mayoral administrations, to shifts in state control of alcohol sales, and to appellate court decisions. Boyd places the formation of gay political power in San Francisco in economic and historical context in ways Armstrong almost entirely fails to do in her book.

published by epinions, 19 August 2003
©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

In addition to questioning that formal political organizations were the engine of change for San Francisco lesbians and gay men advanced by Elizabeth Armstrong, I have challenged the laughable culturalist explanation that some New York writers’ fiction caused gay pride and assertion advanced by Christopher Bram’s otherwise interesting book.


  1. Beyond uncritically accepting the ideology of gender-variant individuals that gender-conventional individuals are inauthentic and would dress and act in transgendered ways if they dared, and embracing current academic embrace of gender as the explain-all, Boyd here underplays the existence at the time about which she is writing of laws against sodomy and the extra surveillance of homophile movement activists not only by local police but by the FBI. Those conventionally dressed men and women were, by publicly identifying themselves as “homosexual,” taking considerable risks, though with the current romantic euphoria about the bravery of gender “transgressiveness,” this is often forgotten. Repressive regimes with wide definitions of “subversion” are less concerned about acting out gender “transgression” than with groups meeting to challenge existing laws and policing patterns.
  2. Which she connects to Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’s history of lesbian connections in Buffalo, New York, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold
  3. Except in the instance of Justice O’Conner’s concurring opinion in Lawrence v Texas 2003, on which see Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct. In part, I would guess, this is because she is more enamored with gender(-crossing) than with (homo)sex. Boyd focuses on bar-goers and largely ignores those engaged in homosexuality elsewhere—in public, quasi-public, and private spaces.
  4. Dale Jennings
  5. See Todd White’s Interview with Herb Selwyn for more on this.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.