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    In Remembrance: Charlotte Coleman

    Many of us at the San Francisco Bay Times have been fondly reminiscing these days about legendary LGBT activist Charlotte Coleman, who recently passed away. It would take volumes to list all of her achievements, but here are just a few:

    Charlotte Coleman is credited with opening the first lesbian-owned bar in San Francisco, The Front, which was also one of the first such bars in the entire world.

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    Coleman was among the founders of the San Francisco Tavern Guild.

    She helped to found the first gay savings and loan bank (Atlas).

    She helped to develop the Gay Olympics, also doing key fundraising.

    Coleman was one of the earliest and strongest supporters of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States.

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    We learned much of this after one of Coleman’s closest friends, Roberta Bobba, spent some welcome time a few days ago in the Castro with Dr. Betty Sullivan, who is the Bay Times Co-Publisher/Editor and the Founder of  “Betty’s List.” Sullivan’s connection with the two women goes way back, as both loved to attend various “Betty’s List” events over the years. It brings big smiles to our team’s faces to think of Coleman partying down at age 90+ at some of our past New Year’s events. She also loved taking the wheel of the schooner Freda B during group sails around the Bay.

    Even at her advanced age, we knew that we were in good hands. At 21, Coleman joined the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. She served in the women’s auxiliary service called SPARS, which came from the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus, meaning “Always Ready.” She was one of 771 brave women officers and 7,600 female-enlisted personnel in the Coast Guard.

    Her bravery went beyond concerns about the war itself. That is because lesbians were often purged from SPARS and the military then. Both men and women labeled as homosexuals often wound up in psychiatric wards, where their only “psychosis” was their true nature of being gay. Coleman escaped this fate, however, and was able to leave the service with an honorable discharge.

    The experience opened up her world beyond her Rhode Island birthplace and later Massachusetts home. There, she had lived with her mother, who was a maid, and her father, a notorious “rum runner” who was essentially a bootlegger during the Prohibition Era. Coleman enjoyed being able to travel, with San Francisco being her favorite spot. She joined a lesbian friend here and began work as a bookkeeper in the late 1940s, immersing herself in San Francisco’s already burgeoning, yet often closeted, LGBT scene.

    By 1950, she had landed an auditor position at the International Revenue Service, spending treasured evenings socializing with homosexual friends at the city’s gay bars. When she was up for a new grade raise, Coleman was shocked to learn that the IRS had gathered a four-inch thick file of information about her with data coming from government-led phone tapping, reading her mail and even spying on her comings and goings during what she thought was her private life. Remember: This was a time when just being gay could get a person fired and arrested. Sadly, many of Coleman’s friends experienced both, which helped to fuel her LGBT activism. Once again, Coleman miraculously escaped disaster, although she later felt forced to resign from her position. Ironically, the IRS had given her an award for exemplary service, given how good she was at her job.

    She applied her business smarts to The Front, opened in 1959 at Front and Jackson Streets. In 1969, she also purchased The Mint, which later became a karaoke bar. By 1996, the year that she retired, Coleman had owned and managed 14 successful businesses and restaurants, helping to create safe spaces where LGBT people and others could connect.

    Upon retiring, she enjoyed her home and friends in Noe Valley, as well as in the Castro, before she moved to an assisted living facility in Vallejo. Even in her later years, she was sharp as a tack and retained her great sense of humor. We loved lengthy discussions with her at Café Flore and other Castro and Noe Valley locations. We shared laughs and learned so much from this remarkable woman who, like her friend the late great Jose Sarria, merits historic recognition for decades of achievements that were earned against all odds and that helped to forge our LGBT community.

    We invite you to learn more about Coleman by reading Bobba’s entry about her in the book Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, edited by Vern Bullough. Coleman’s military life is featured in the book Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out by Steve Estes.

    You can also read an interview that Coleman did with Estes of the Veterans History Project. Her sense of humor comes through, such as when she interrupts serious discussions about the war to take care of her beloved cat, which was trying to get her attention throughout the interview!