On June 25, 1978, a skinny, mustachioed music teacher blew a whistle, and a block of 70 musicians in jeans and red visors swung onto Market Street playing “California, Here I Come.” The crowds went wild as they passed by. They knew a radical act when they saw one. Jon Sims and the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps stepped out of the closet and into a tableau of Americana by marching down “Main Street” in their community’s parade.
Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay elected official, rode ahead of them in a convertible plastered with his motto, “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are,” and the Band answered with a musical flourish. At a time when losing your job or children for being gay was a given and anti-gay rights initiatives appeared on ballots across the country, this was heady stuff.
The excitement kicked up by that first march gave that band instant celebrity status, and 35 years later, we musicians in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band (as it’s known today) still hear stories from our pioneering fore-parents about those times. The band was the first gay community music group in the world. Jon Sims leapt before the musicians like a gazelle and trained with ankle weights. The Band filled a full city block packed with musicians, flag bearers, twirlers and tap dancers.
Gay music and dance groups sprang up in San Francisco and spread across the country inspired by that first march. Sims took the Band to Davies Symphony Hall, to Bread & Roses at the Greek Theatre where they shared a stage with Robin Williams, to Francis Ford Coppola’s 40th birthday party, to Bette Midler book signings and fundraisers at Dianne Feinstein’s home.
The popularity of the Freedom Band was a reflection of how the political climate of the Castro in 1978 galvanized the entire gay community (and yes, back then there was only one letter floating in our alphabet soup). Anita Bryant’s success in rolling back gay rights in Florida led California Senator John Briggs to champion an initiative that would ban gays and lesbians from teaching in this state. No on Proposition 6 became a rallying cry for the community that had just elected Harvey Milk supervisor, and Sally Gearhart and Tom Ammiano became the public face of LGBT teachers in the debate.
“We were full of life and full of ourselves and full of our own liberation,” Senator Mark Leno told me and videographers Billy Green and Chip Hoover. “At the same time we were really fighting for our lives. There were serious forces out to… stop everything that we were just beginning to do.”
The Freedom Band joined the fight against Prop 6, appearing at fundraisers with Sharon McKnight and Sylvester and all our community’s leaders, running into the streets with their instruments for protest marches, and leading the celebration when Prop 6 was defeated.
“(The Freedom Band) began with great fanfare,” said Ambassador James Hormel. “It energized not just this community but communities across the country. It started a whole movement toward orchestral and choral activities in the Lesbian/Gay constituency.”
Thirty-five years later, the Freedom Band continues to make music as a symbol of LGBT pride with a performance season that reflects the gains our community has made. This year, we led the Veteran’s Day Parade for the third year to celebrate the open service of gays and lesbians in the military. At this year’s Pride Parade for our 35th anniversary march, we featured a medley of the Wedding March and Going to the Chapel to celebrate the lifting of Prop 8 and DOMA.
Our community concerts have celebrated LGBT history and Civil Rights gains. Our upcoming Dance-Along Nutcracker will continue to bring in one of the most diverse audiences you’ll see on a dance floor. And we’re looking forward to making music for decades to come!
Trumpet player Heidi Beeler has been a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991.