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    Summer of Love, Winter of Despair

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky

    Frolicking in the park. Protesting in the street. Dying in a distant land. The “Summer of Love” came during a year filled with sorrow, neglect, and discord. For many, it was the “Long Hot Summer of 1967,” the worst year of civil unrest in United States since 1931. For others, it was a time of protest against both the war in Vietnam—which in five years saw American troop levels rise from 11,300 to 485,600—and the Selective Service System that gathered the men to fight it.

    On April 15, 1967, more than 60,000 people gathered in San Francisco to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam, then the largest anti-war demonstration ever held on the West Coast. Six months later, on October 16, some 500 advocates for peace gathered in front of the Selective Service Office in Civic Center to oppose not only the war in Vietnam, but also the draft itself. Many were arrested.

    Gay men who did not want to be drafted into the Army—women were exempt—seemed to have an easy way out. All they needed to do, apparently, was answer “yes” to the question on the “Armed Forces Qualification Test,” which was part of the induction process, that asked, “Are you a homosexual?” Classified as “a sociopathic personality disturbance” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, homosexuality automatically disqualified them from military service. 

    In reality, it was not that simple. The men had to prove they were “sexual deviants.” Arrest records could work, especially if they had been jailed for “lewd conduct” and not merely “vagrancy” or “disorderly conduct.” Letters from a psychiatrist or psychologist might be accepted, unless he or she had a reputation for writing “testimonials for draft dodgers.” Otherwise, they needed to exhibit an intimate, believable knowledge of gay life where they lived: bars, clubs, bathhouses, popular meeting places.

    There were consequences to doing this, especially in the workplace. In 1967, employers could legally ask applicants about why they were deferred or disqualified from military service. It was lawful in all fifty states not to employ—and to fire—anyone simply because he or she was homosexual, so the reason might end a promising job opportunity or career. Gays and lesbians were banned from all jobs in the federal civil service until 1975.

    There was some good news in 1967, however, when gays received the right to look at pictures of their choice. Five years earlier, the United States Supreme Court ruled that photographs of nude men were not obscene, but many jurisdictions still prosecuted those who sold them, arguing they were illegal to send through the mail. The Post Office even cancelled stamps with a slogan urging people, “Report Obscene Mail to Your Postmaster.”

    The risks did not stop Lloyd Spinar and Conrad Germain. In 1963 they founded Directory Services, Inc. (DSI), to publish material of interest to gay men. Their first magazine was Butch, which debuted in 1965. Within a year, it was selling an astounding 50,000 copies per issue. By 1967, DSI, with 14 full-time employees, was the largest gay-owned, gay-oriented business in the world. 

    Then the government stepped in. It charged Spinar and Germain with 29 counts of producing, promoting, and mailing obscene material. Anything, it argued, designed to appeal to homosexuals was obscene because “the average person does not tolerate homosexuality and considers homosexual behavior morbid and shameful.”  

    The Court disagreed. After a 13-day trial, it ruled that while homosexuality may be a perversion, “the materials have no appeal to the prurient interests of the intended recipient deviant group; do not exceed the limits of candor tolerated by the contemporary national community; and are not utterly without redeeming social value.” DSI’s victory was front page news in the September, 1967, issue of The Los Angeles Advocate, the publication’s first.

    Germain and Spinar gave a large portion of the credit for their court victory to Hal Call. Long-time president of the San Francisco Mattachine Society, the organization itself had been in a slow decline, but Call stayed involved with homophile issues. In 1967, he founded the Adonis Bookstore, probably the nation’s first gay bookshop. That year, reported The New York Times, the Society for Individual Rights (S.I.R.), then three years old, was the largest homophile organization in the country, with almost 600 members.

    More than anything else, S.I.R. wanted to build “a well-defined awareness and cohesiveness among San Francisco’s homosexual community.” It published a monthly magazine; opened the nation’s first gay community center; worked with the Public Health Department to educate gay men about venereal disease; co-sponsored “candidate nights” with the Daughters of Bilitis; and organized parties, dances, bowling leagues, bridge clubs, meditation groups, art classes, and theatrical productions. 

    One of S.I.R.’s most popular shows was Sirlebrity Capades. The 1967 edition—the third—was produced by Gene Boche, the “Hummingbird of Castro Street,” who from November 2, 1966, to October 28, 1967, was Absolute Empress Bella II of San Francisco. No one in that year’s audience could have believed how much their community would accomplish in the next ten years toward achieving the “Summer of Love’s” vision of personal choice, humanity, social activism, and a world of love. 

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.