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    The Trials of Charles Christman

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Shortly after closing time at The Stud on Saturday, December 12, 1970, between 100–150 last-callers were leaving the bar when a patrol car with two police officers pulled up. Some of the patrons were still chatting with old friends, some were still hoping to make a new friend, and many were already walking to their cars. The officers, claiming the men were blocking traffic on Folsom Street, ordered them to disperse immediately.

    Because people appeared to linger, the patrolmen called for backup. Two more squad cars, each with two officers, arrived within minutes. Then all six policemen strode into the crowd. During the confusion that followed, several people were arrested, primarily on charges of failing to disperse or interfering with law enforcement. One man, however, faced very serious charges: five felony counts of assaulting police officers with a deadly weapon.

    Photos Courtesy of Bill Lipsky

    Charlie Christman, 27, an ecology student at San Francisco State, was driving away when the patrolmen ordered him to stop. According to one eyewitness, “Police began firing at the car” after “it tried unsuccessfully to get around a police car blocking the street.” The driver, he added, was “shot as he tried to run off after his car was peppered” with bullets. Soon in custody, he was taken to San Francisco General, where physicians discovered he had bullet wounds in his back, elbow and ankle.

    The San Francisco Examiner described the incident of the “Gay Bar Ruckus” the next day, explaining  to readers that “’Gay’ bars are frequented by male homosexuals.” The paper reported that, according to the police, Christman “tried to run down four officers, but missed.” Then “he bowled over” a fifth officer, “who was slightly injured.”

    Altercations between police, often working with the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and members of San Francisco’s gay community were nothing new. Bar raids, harassment, liquor license suspensions and entrapment all had become increasingly frequent in the years after World War II, the era of America’s “Lavender Scare.” Citing the vagrancy and lewd conduct laws, officers even stopped and questioned men walking alone in public.

    The largest raid of a gay bar in San Francisco, although not the last, came on August 13, 1961, when police arrested 89 men and 14 women at the Tay-Bush. Eventually two men were found guilty of lewd conduct. “We don’t need people like you in California,” the judge told them. “Go back to where you came from.” The case against owner Robert Johnson was dismissed when he agreed to close his business.

    In those earlier times, Christman might have been left to his legal burden and his fate. Not now. The strategy crystalized by Stonewall the year before was clearly understood by some of the the city’s leading LGBT organizations, already defending the community’s civil rights: visibility, resistance, organization, protest. Fairly new themselves, they included the Tavern Guild, formed in 1962; the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CHR), established in 1964; and the Society of Individual Rights (SIR), founded the same year.

    The three organizations immediately came together to develop a legal defense and to provide financial assistance for those who had been arrested. Evander Smith, an attorney for the Tavern Guild who was well known among lesbians and gays, agreed to defend them in court. As chair of the SIR’s legal committee, he had written “In Case of Arrest: The SIR Pocket Lawyer,” published by the organization in 1965.

    Not everyone in the community was sympathetic to Christman’s plight. California Scene, a homophile entertainment magazine, thought “the recent altercation between the police and some gay hippie types outside The Stud was foreseeable.” Describing it as a bar that attracted “gay hippies, straight hippies and student gays of confused mind and political persuasion,” it stated that the incident “has little to do with the average guy doing a pub crawl along Folsom Street.”

    How wrong California Scene was. Not only had gay men been harassed leaving a public place, but they also were threatened with violence. Testimony at Christman’s trial showed an enormous lack of understanding about homosexuality by many police officers, who needed “little to trigger selective or overreactive behavior” and “a hostile reaction”—a potential peril for any “average guy” doing “a pub crawl” in any gay area. Christman could have been killed.

    When Christman’s trial began in March, 1971, homosexuality was not its focus, although Assistant District Attorney John Dwyer made sure the jury knew that The Stud was a gay bar. He also asked defense witnesses about their marriage status, intimating that, because they were homosexual, their testimony was not credible. Whether or not his strategy worked, the trial ended in a hung jury,10–2 for conviction.

    The district attorney’s office refiled the charges, but almost immediately after the new proceedings began the next month, a compromise settlement ended all litigation. The five felony indictments against Christman were dismissed when he agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges. For those he then received a suspended jail sentence, a fine of $625 and three years probation. His record was to be expunged at the end of the probationary period.

    On May 19, SIR hosted a public meeting to discuss ideas for improving relations with the police. More than 600 people attended, including representatives from virtually every “homosexual organization in the city,” determined “to demonstrate to the police department of this city that the wanton use of deadly force against members of our community will no longer be tolerated.” It would be almost five more years before same-sex intimacy between consenting adults became legal in California.

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