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    Vacaville 1956: California’s First Gay Rights Protest

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    The first known protest in California by a group of gay men against their mistreatment because they were homosexual, authorities said later, really began with a simple misunderstanding. On September 9, 1956, a correctional officer told some 45 residents gathered in the second-floor day room of Vacaville State Hospital’s K Wing—“the section designated for homosexuals”—that he was going to pick up their “hobby work.” 

    According to a report filed the next day, the “homosexuals in K Wing,” contrary to stated rules, had “accumulated handicraft articles, clippings, pictures and other things with which they have decorated their rooms.” These now would be taken from them and the men would be forbidden from displaying “in their housing quarters” any “items of handicraft, such as doilies, picture frames, etc.” 

    When “the officer on duty” explained he was going “to enforce the regulations,” the men were not pleased. “Some of the inmates protested in no uncertain manner,” he explained later. In addition to booing and calling him an “S.O.B. Bull,” they went down to his office and knocked everything from his desk onto the floor.

    To better understand the disturbance, staff agreed to interview anyone who wished to share his grievances. Beside losing their hobby privileges, inmates complained about “the minor harassments and frustrations” that came from “the restrictions necessarily imposed upon this particular housing unit,” which create “an area of acute sensitivity to homosexual patients.” Even more serious, many also “regard their K Wing housing as a form of daily punishment due to their being homosexuals.” 

    Sharing grievances did not end the enmity. Inmates continued to challenge their treatment as best they could. Some papered over their cell windows; others covered them with shoe polish or soap. Twice they removed furniture from the wing’s day room, taking it to their ward. Finally, on September 23, approximately 25 residents left the cafeteria and proceeded back to the unit unescorted, a serious violation of protocol. 

    That was enough protest for the administration, who now responded swiftly to the events it once characterized as minor. Staff identified eight men it claimed were “constantly fomenting and agitating” an atmosphere of “complete and general disrespect and disregard of authority in Wing K.” Three were moved to Wing S and placed in segregation. Five, “determined not be psychotic” but who “have not responded to treatment provided,” were transferred to Folsom Prison. 

    The report did not name the treatment, but the medical staff had numerous options. They included counseling, castration, electric shock therapy, massive injections of male hormones, mood-altering medicines, aversion therapy, and psychosurgery, popularly known as leucotomy or prefrontal lobotomy. Being under the care of court-appointed medical professionals, the “appropriate” therapy was chosen by an attending physician. Patients had no legal say in their treatment.

    This worst of times for homosexuals began in 1949, when California created procedures that allowed indefinite detention of “sexual psychopaths.” They granted state trial judges the flexibility to designate homosexuals charged with sodomy or oral copulation—both illegal—either as criminals to be punished or as mentally ill personalities to be “healed.” Instead of being sentenced to prison for five to ten years, they now could be incarcerated in a state hospital “until cured,” potentially for the rest of their life.

    Leucotomy, the most notorious “cure,” was developed by the Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, who won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for it in 1949. The physician credited with popularizing it in the United States was Walter Freeman. His streamlined version of the operation, known as a trans-orbital or “ice pick” lobotomy, took 10 minutes or less to complete; patients were made unconscious with electroconvulsive shock. It could be done anywhere, including mental hospitals that had no operating rooms or even surgeons on staff. 

    Freeman performed as many as 5,000 lobotomies during his career, up to 40 percent of them on homosexuals; some 500 individuals died because of the treatment. In 1971, he announced that he himself had “severed the frontal lobes” of homosexual inmates at California’s Atascadero State Hospital, the most notorious mental health care facility in the state. The next year the public learned that at least three inmates had undergone the procedure at Vacaville. 

    Help for the helpless came soon after. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Then California decriminalized same-sex intimacy. No longer mentally ill and no longer being convicted for “homosexual behavior,” gay men stopped being sent to mental hospitals because of whom they chose to love. New drugs eventually ended lobotomy as a “cure” for unacceptable and antisocial behavior in California, although the state did not ban so-called “gay aversion therapy” until 2012. 

    Vacaville may have been the first protest in California by gay men against their treatment for being members of a sexual minority, but it was not the last. In May 1959, transgender women, drag queens, lesbians, and gay men pelted police with donuts and coffee cups at Cooper Do-nuts in Los Angeles when, once again, they were hassled there by officers. In August 1966, transgender women and gay men stood up for their rights at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. Other incidents followed, including one at the Stonewall Inn in New York, which ignited a revolution.

    (Quotations in this article are from documents in “Projects & Programs—Incidents—C. M. F., Vacaville 1951–59, Corrections-Correctional Program Services, 1951–59,” F3717: 585, Correctional Program Services Records, Department of Corrections, California State Archives.)

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