Rethinking the 'Era of Limits': Equitable Housing, Gay Liberation, and the Opening of the American Family in Greater Los Angeles during the Long 1970s | KCET
Rethinking the 'Era of Limits': Equitable Housing, Gay Liberation, and the Opening of the American Family in Greater Los Angeles during the Long 1970s
Union Bank is a proud sponsor of Lost LA.
In collaboration with the University of California Press and the California Historical Society, Lost LA is proud to present selected articles from California History that shed light on themes discussed in the show's second season. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition (vol. 91, no. 3) of the journal.
In the fall of 1980, a 22-year-old inmate at a Carson City, Nevada correctional facility, began a correspondence with Pat Rocco, the founder of a new Los Angeles housing program called Hudson House. He had recently been informed via his case counselor that Rocco had accepted him into the program. Anxiously awaiting his upcoming parole, he wrote to express his gratitude. Through an exchange of several letters, he revealed many details about his current situation. Incarcerated in Nevada for over a year for possession of stolen property, he was eager to “get out of prison as soon as possible. Frankly,” he confessed, “I am a misfit in prison. I’m gay and lonely and emotional, so there’s no place for me here.” He made a point of emphasizing that, while he already had “employment lined up” and “some money saved” his parole was contingent upon him finding adequate housing before his release. Both he and his case counselor could locate no other facilities willing to take a chance on a gay convict. If he was to get out of prison and move on with his life, he needed to find housing. Moreover, he had deep emotional needs. Revealing “something very private” to Rocco, the young inmate confessed that “all of my family have disavowed me due to my homosexuality, so I don’t have anywhere but the streets I can turn to. I am really on my own, which is a very lonely experience. As a result, I have tried several times to commit suicide.” His attempts on his life had landed him in the psychiatric wing of the prison for 10 months.
Daydreaming about Hudson House, he indicated his hopes of finding a queer family. At one point he included a picture of himself and asked Rocco to “please have Hudson House residents write me letters of friendship to combat my loneliness. If stamps are needed, I will send some.” He hoped Hudson House would introduce him to a wider gay community and family upon his release. “I am very excited about arriving in Hollywood, meeting new gay friends and becoming involved in your program,” he noted, “I know I will make a very positive contribution to Hudson House and hopefully assist you in expanding the program to meet the gay community’s needs.” Hudson House had restored his faith in the future, one that by necessity would unfold in Los Angeles.1
This poignant story reminds us that obtaining suitable housing, economic justice, and a broader definition of family were central projects of the Gay Liberation movement in Los Angeles during the “long 1970s.”2 This man’s capacity to participate in Gay Liberation, like many, was predicated on his ability to find adequate housing. From the mid-1960s into the 1980s, Los Angeles was home to sustained queer activism that sought to protect and house the vulnerable. This economic focus of Gay Liberation has been overlooked in most narratives of the gay rights movement, but emphasizes the movement’s connections with wider social justice efforts. Furthermore, this young inmate had emotional as well as economic needs. Abandoned by his biological family, he found himself in the lonely, if familiar, position of many gay and lesbian migrants who arrived broke and alone in Los Angeles in the era of Gay Liberation. Hudson House was the culmination of a rich history of housing activism in the region that stressed the importance of crafting social networks in addition to providing physical shelter. As they challenged structural barriers in the private and public housing markets, activists forced a reconsideration of heterosexual definitions of the term “family,” thereby queering the welfare state.3 Finally, this story is significant for the era in which it unfolded. How was it that a program like Hudson House was able to thrive amid an “era of limits”4 and rightward drift? Capitalizing on local geographical and political arrangements, Gay Liberation played a significant role in building a vibrant left-liberal coalition in Los Angeles despite a growing national conservative climate.5 This article contributes to a recent historiographical attempt to reclaim the importance of the 1970s. No longer a grim epilogue to the liberal 1960s or a prologue to the conservative 1980s, the era was home to numerous social, political, and economic possibilities.6 By placing Gay Liberation at the heart of an understanding of the long 1970s, neoliberal transformations like gentrification and left-liberal decline can be reassessed, which may revise declensionist narratives of the Reagan Era.
Housing the Movement: Liberation Houses and the Founding of the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center
Gay Liberation continues to be a relatively understudied social movement. Recently, as historians have begun to probe the 1970s, a narrative has begun to take shape: Gay Liberation emerged from the New York Stonewall uprising of 1969 and expanded by means of numerous Gay Liberation Fronts across the nation—groups that advocated for a comprehensive restructuring of societal gender and sexual norms and utilized strategies of direct action street activism to effect change.7 By the mid-1970s, the movement began to decline and fracture; by the onset of the AIDS crisis, it had all but disappeared or been transformed into a mainstream civil rights movement. There certainly have been exceptions to this account of Gay Liberation. For example, Jennifer Brier found that sexual openness and education, central tenets of Gay Liberation ideology, lasted well into the 1980s and impacted national discourses on sex and politics in the Reagan administration.8 Still, unlike other movements of the era, namely Black Power and Women’s Liberation, our understanding of Gay Liberation’s timeline, agenda, and impact remain fairly narrow.9 Queer historians especially have divorced the movement from longer trends in queer activism, including the Homophile Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While fruitful work has highlighted homophile efforts at network building throughout these decades, historians continue to separate and compartmentalize phases of queer activism.10 Characterizing Gay Liberation with ideological rigidity, Christina Hanhardt has recently argued that the “temporal brackets for gay liberation puts the Stonewall riots as the point of origin in the summer of 1969 and puts the end at the folding of the New York Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1972.” The queer activism that followed this brief three-year window, she argued, is best characterized as “militant gay liberalism,” not Gay Liberation.11 Within this narrative, Gay Liberation existed only when it was ideologically pure and isolated from political power. An examination of the movement in Los Angeles helps to elongate and widen our perceptions of Gay Liberation as both a movement and an ideology.
Like other cities, Los Angeles activists organized a Gay Liberation Front (GLF-LA) shortly after Stonewall. These activists did not emerge overnight, but built on a long history of queer activism and struggle in southern California. Home to the Mattachine Society, one of the first organized queer rights groups, the region had slowly been developing a sophisticated ideology of Gay Liberation for decades. While activists always stressed multiple issues, economic justice had been a central part of developing queer discourses. Issues of fair housing received consistent attention. Like most Angelenos, queer activists struggled in the midst of a chronic housing shortage in the region that, since World War II, had become severe. The lack of adequate housing affected the economically disadvantaged the most, as public housing projects stalled in the 1950s amid a private development backlash that rejected public forms of development on the grounds that they were socialist experiments.12 But, unlike straight Angelenos, queer men and women faced structural barriers to housing efforts as well. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) policies dictated that housing subsidies serve the interests of American “families,” which HUD narrowly defined as those related by blood or marriage.13 This heterosexual definition essentially barred queer people from access to public housing projects. In addition, HUD’s polices extended to Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and mortgage guarantees, and trickled down to discretionary spending at the local level via Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs). Thus, housing was a central concern for many queer men and women, especially those who were also socioeconomically disadvantaged.
In the 1950s, the Knights of the Clock, a homophile group associated with the Mattachine Society, organized around the issue of fair housing for interracial (mostly male) gay couples, who struggled against both racial and sexual discrimination. In 1962, the United States Mission of Los Angeles formed to help the gay “abandoned, hungry, and homeless” in the region.14 As the 1960s progressed, the U.S. Mission articulated an inclusion of queer people within the larger economic crusade of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.15 These efforts may have been small, but they testify to a long queer discourse surrounding economics and housing rights in the city. This history helps explain why Gay Liberationists in the early 1970s focused on housing the “queerly disadvantaged”: While the language and style of Gay Liberation was new, many of the central goals and needs of gay and lesbian communities in Los Angeles remained unchanged. Helping the homeless, as well as changing structural barriers to public and private housing markets remained central to the movement.
The need for housing was one of the premier concerns that led to the 1971 founding of the Gay Community Services Center (GCSC). Founders Morris Kight, Don Kilhefner, and Jon Platania had all been affiliated with the GLF-LA in one way or another, but recognized that the need for social services within the broader queer community were becoming acute. As Martin Meeker has argued, throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, gay travel guides and pulp novels encouraged scores of queer men and women to migrate to imagined queer communities throughout the nation, including Los Angeles.16 GCSC founders estimated that “100-300 young gay men and women arrive each month in the city of Los Angeles.” These migrants appeared to be “young people with inadequate financing and few marketable job skills.” Most had either fled or “been rejected by their biological families.”17 Providing physical and emotional shelter for these migrants was the objective of Los Angeles Gay Liberation Houses, the first of which opened in 1970 before the official founding of the GCSC.
The concept and strategy of the Liberation Houses was largely that of Jon Platania, who located and rented the first of six at 1168 North Edgemont. Platania recognized structural problems in the fostering of queer homelessness, and helped the GCSC develop a sophisticated knowledge of poverty and anti-poverty policy that eventually made the GCSC appear more bureaucratic, mainstream, and thus eligible for city and county funding.18 Platania’s personal background was essential to his organizational strategy: He had left Berkeley in late 1969 to pursue a promising career as a city planner with HUD in Los Angeles and recalled being deeply affected by both “the peace movement and the War on Poverty.” Platania was an avid believer in “urban renewal,” for it allowed him to “involve the actual community in the renewal process.”19 While only tangentially aware of or involved with Gay Liberation upon his arrival, Platania soon found the movement due to a case of police entrapment when, in 1970, he was arrested for lewd conduct in a public park. The Los Angeles Police Department was notorious for such episodes of queer-baiting throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Realizing that the arrest would be made public, Platania’s employers at HUD quietly asked him to resign, which he did. This event furthered his own ideology as a Gay Liberationist: Platania organized with the GLF-LA and other gay organizations in the city to fight back against the policies of the LAPD, eventually succeeding in his quest to dismiss charges against him.
Although it would take time for the GCSC to achieve a breakthrough with city and county funding agencies, the origins of its later success appeared in the founding center proposal, which articulated a sophisticated understanding of the roots of queer homelessness and poverty in Los Angeles. Arriving with little money and few marketable skills, many queer migrants found themselves in the “usual theme,” which “runs from disappointment, to drugs, to a lack of funds, to prostitution or to temporary employment in the city’s thriving pornographic industry.” Often, this trajectory led to “jail, the hospital, probation, suicide or into a series of exploitative relationships.” Platania, no doubt relying on his education in urban planning, highlighted that “poverty and the lack of housing” in Los Angeles “places middle American gay men and women in positions of continuing economic insecurity.” The city “constitutes a nightmare of fear and self-depreciation for younger unattached gay men and women,” founders charged.20 As the Religious Right began to organize against queer people in moralistic ways, this framing of queer inequality was important in reaching out to liberal Democratic leaders in the city via a language they understood. Founders highlighted “housing, jobs, and the search for dignity” as the core pillars of the organization.21
As the manager of the first Liberation House, Platania largely dictated the organizational structure of the program, which couched Gay Liberation ideology within a seemingly mainstream or liberal framework. Much like the GCSC’s location itself, affordable houses were rented and then opened to house six to ten individuals at a time. The houses were open to any individual who could demonstrate need. The GCSC stressed that individuals would be housed “on a temporary basis” until an “alternative living environment” could be located;22 “temporary” was a broad description as individuals might stay for a few days or for months at a time. Housing represented only the first step in a larger human services program. Once housed, residents were strongly encouraged to participate in the GCSC’s other programs, such as the Employment Counseling and Placement Program, the Self Development Program, Alcohol or Drug Abuse Counseling, the Gay Parents Program, and the Medical Clinic.23 Residents were assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine the types of programs that would be essential for their social development. The only program that was required of all residents was that of employment: so long as one lived in a Liberation House, one was expected to seek meaningful employment. Residents were also expected to pay rent, which Platania estimated to be “about one dollar per day,” but which fluctuated depending on each resident’s economic means.24
Discipline and emotional security were also stressed in the running of the program. Potential residents were required to first visit the free GCSC medical clinic in order to be screened for sexually transmitted disease as a precautionary measure for the residents of the house. Platania remembers “being a real drag, because I was passing out condoms even before AIDS.” The physical space of Liberation Houses therefore provided both an economic haven and an opportunity to experience the sexual aspects of Gay Liberation safely. This is an important and overlooked element to the program that runs counter to the disconnected nature of sex and politics in recent queer historiography. Historian Phil Tiemeyer has suggested that “gay liberation had very divergent priorities, since certain members of the community—especially middle-class men—were often more concerned with liberating their libidos from homophobia than rectifying economic injustices.”25 But the case of the Liberation Houses reveals that queer men and women might find information about housing programs in the realms of entertainment and pornography in addition to fliers or community meetings. In fact, Platania relied on other outlets, including pornography, to spread the word about the new Liberation House program. Pat Rocco’s Spree is a case in point. Long before he had developed his own housing program in the early 1980s, Rocco used his semi-pornographic magazine to inform readers about GCSC social programs such as the Liberation Houses. In the October 1971 edition of Spree, readers were informed that the GCSC was “offering housing services for our community that have long been sorely needed. They operate on a shoestring budget, and with a lot of love. If you need help or housing, by all means go and see them.”26 This caption appeared directly underneath an image of a male couple in a loving embrace.
One of the principles of Liberation Houses was to liberate oneself from the economic barriers that prevented one from experiencing the personal and sexual liberation of the movement; both were intertwined. A potential resident could rightly hope that the Liberation Houses would provide sexual opportunities in addition to economic ones. But sex did not preclude the forming of emotional bonds either; quite the contrary. If admitted, residents were assigned chores and required to attend communal dinners every night. “It was very important that the house exist as a family unit,” Platania recalled. It is difficult to compile socioeconomic statistics to characterize the residents of the Liberation Houses, but for the most part they were “homeless kids. People with virtually nothing.”27 Liberation Houses, therefore, contributed to a refashioning of family in the United States during a critical time. Historians have noted how the discourse of family became unhinged, contested, and political during the long 1970s, especially as this contributed to the rise of the New Right.28 The Liberation House program helps us to see how this process unfolded on the ground and from the Left. Individuals might have entered without a family, but many likely left feeling as if they had gained one.
By 1975, the GCSC was operating six Liberation Houses sporadically throughout Los Angeles, mainly in the Hollywood and Downtown areas. Far from perfect, the Liberation House program faced serious obstacles that sometimes resulted in mixed results for residents. The early facilities did not have a sophisticated screening process. Notes on the residents were usually brief: one read, “Model resident; stayed for 9 months; found housing with friends.” Another read simply, “Stayed 2 days; psychotic; do not readmit.”29 These indicate that the Liberation Houses were often faced with complex issues, such as mental health concerns, that were far beyond the scope of the early GCSC. While Liberation Houses were an effective grassroots solution to the complex issue of queer homelessness, these types of problems indicated that structural state support would be needed to enhance the organizational apparatus of the program. That being said, Liberation Houses did provide important opportunities for many queer men and women, especially those new to the city. Queer relationships, community, and politics were forged in the housing program. Moreover, the houses strengthened a discourse within the Gay Liberation movement in Los Angeles that stressed economics, housing, and family-building, all of which would become central to the organizational structure of the GCSC as it evolved.
As the organization grew and began to achieve success within local political and funding arenas, housing programs grew sophisticated as well. Founding member Don Kilhefner noted the continued paramount importance of housing in a 1976 memo. Early one morning, Kilhefner arrived to find scores of people sleeping outside the GCSC. “The entrance was impossible to get to,” he remembered. Making his way through these human obstacles, Kilhefner encountered one young man who he described as “broke, unwanted, confused, and desperate.” In an internal memo to GCSC leaders, Kilhefner urged the organization to focus even more on housing issues. “It hardly needs pointing out,” he wrote, “that our gay brothers and sisters need places to live too. If we don’t house our homeless, who will?”30 Liberation Houses had provided key outlets for those in need, but could hardly meet the great demand. Kilhefner and other housing activists sought to address the issue of queer homelessness and poverty structurally as well as at the grassroots. This required a close funding relationship with both the City and County of Los Angeles, an opportunity that emerged out of geographical and political circumstances that were unique to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s.
More LGBTQ History
The New Liberal Generation: Gay Liberation and Los Angeles Politics in the "Era of Limits"
By the mid-1970s, the GCSC had established itself as one of the most influential gay community services center in the nation. While centers emerged in other cities, none matched the power and influence of the Los Angeles chapter. Political geography and funding relationships explain the region’s powerful role in the Gay Liberation movement.31 By the early 1970s, the queer population of Los Angeles had become more concentrated in areas just west of Hollywood. This spatial development had occurred for numerous reasons, including a conservative campaign to “purge the homosexual blot” in Hollywood in the mid-1960s, which largely resulted in queer efforts to define the area as gay and safe.32 By 1968, this space, present-day West Hollywood, was being referred to by a gay travel guide as the “gay capitol [sic] of the world” and, in 1970, the Los Angeles Times declared it to be a “gay ghetto.”33 Just outside of the city limits, the area was classified as unincorporated and administered by Los Angeles County. This relationship offered potential benefits: as a ward of the county, the area had privileged access to county funds via grants that were reserved for unincorporated areas only; the fact that the county was the most populous in the nation meant that these funding opportunities were considerable. Moreover, unlike the city, the county had far fewer bureaucratic entanglements, and decisions regarding the allocation of such funds were largely left to the discretion of county supervisors. As Tom Sitton has argued, for much of its history, the real power in Los Angeles has resided in the county, not the city itself.34 And, in 1974, with the election of Ed Edelman as county supervisor, queer activists gained an ally in control of lucrative county discretionary spending.
Edelman’s commitment was multifaceted and critical to the trajectory of Gay Liberation in the region. In part, his support was political. Running in a district that represented the Hollywood area made attentiveness to gay issues necessary. Rumors have also persisted that Edelman was sensitive to gay issues because his brother or daughter was queer.35 Regardless, he was an unabashed liberal representing a new type of Democrat in California. Jonathan Bell has suggested that modern liberalism was “forged in the crucible of attempts to force electoral politics to represent the diverse mosaic” of postwar California.36 For Bell, this development crystallized in the late 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, he argued, liberalism suffered amid chronic “identity politics” which “had little concrete to say about socioeconomic structures as radical activists struggled to make their voices heard amid a cacophony of rival groups and interests.”37 This rather familiar narrative of a liberal or Democratic “crackup” via “identity politics” has shown tremendous staying power in modern historiography, but pays scant attention to actual political development and coalition building throughout the 1970s.38 Gay Liberation, one of those “special interest groups,” did not “distance the politics of sexual identity from the assimilationist rhetoric of mainstream politicians.”39 In the case of Los Angeles, Gay Liberationists crafted a successful left-liberal political coalition that actively resisted the so-called “era of limits.” Rather than splinter liberalism in the region, Gay Liberation aided it by articulating an economic message that relied on New Deal and Great Society language while adding a New Left inclusion of sexual freedom and alternative family structures. This coalition has largely escaped exploration from historians, but deserves renewed attention from scholars. While liberals often suffered nationally to fuse sexual and economic justice, largely because of President Jimmy Carter’s inability to define such a coalition, in Los Angeles a successful model thrived.40
Edelman, a former member of the Los Angeles City Council, opted to run for the county supervisorial seat because it promised him more political power and influence. Former aide Jim Gilson remembers Edelman as part of a “new and different California liberal generation.”41 In California, new Democrats like Edelman and Governor Jerry Brown coexisted with a growing gay political influence. Many look to San Francisco and the supervisorial tenure of Harvey Milk as evidence of this, but Los Angeles also achieved a record of queer political power during the 1970s. Running in 1974, Edelman fashioned a campaign that seamlessly blended sexual rights and economic rights. His campaign literature promised to fight for more affordable housing and better jobs in the city while assuring that minorities, women, and gays would be beneficiaries. Unlike some Democrats of the era, Edelman had few difficulties broadening his liberal tent. The first Los Angeles politician to appoint a gay liaison, Edelman hired David Glascock to be his pulse in the gay community. Glascock had been working at the GCSC when he was appointed by Edelman and worked to advance the agenda of queer activists at the county level. This relationship placed Gay Liberation in the halls of local Los Angeles power and helped to cement some of the movement’s demands regarding structural housing and funding policies.
Glascock lobbied Edelman to endorse the Stonewall Democratic Club’s (SDC) Gay Rights plank of 1975, one of the most comprehensive and articulate gay political statements of the era. The SDC itself was an example of fusion queer left-liberal politics. Named after the events at Stonewall, the group clearly identified with Gay Liberation, yet it also claimed the legitimacy of the Democratic Party. This left-liberal strategy has been documented as a long American tradition by Doug Rossinow, and became central to achieving power and legitimacy for Gay Liberation in the 1970s.42 Aside from the SDC, Los Angeles was home to numerous political clubs and organizations that resisted easy political classification, including the Lavender and Red Union (LRU), the Southern California Harvey Milk Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club, and Gays for [Jimmy] Carter. While each of these groups claimed different positions on the left, from socialism to Democratic liberalism, they often worked together for shared efforts. Indeed, many activists, including GCSC founders, belonged to multiple groups simultaneously, testifying to the flexibility of queer left-liberal politics for many. The SDC plank was heavily influenced by the needs and activism of the GCSC, especially the Liberation House program. As housing needs continued to increase for the “queerly disadvantaged,” SDC leaders made sure to address housing: Point 2 of the plank demanded protection against discrimination in multiple arenas, housing being the first on the list, while point 13 called for a specific policy change in HUD.43 Queer people could not be excluded from HUD subsidies, the SDC argued, and HUD needed to devise a policy that would prevent this from happening. While this demand did not explicitly state that HUD needed to redefine “family,” implicitly it did, for this was the mechanism that permitted discrimination against queer people in the arena of public housing, FHA mortgage guarantees, and CDBG funds.
In their critique of HUD policy, gay activists joined others who had been lobbying for change, especially feminist women of color. Joining the chorus was Supervisor Edelman, who endorsed the SDC plank and encouraged Democratic leaders throughout the state to press for the SDC’s demands. These multiple points of pressure had an effect. In May 1977, spokespeople for HUD announced that they were changing the definition of family, adding that subsidies be extended to any relationship that “could demonstrate stability.”44 The change was made especially possible due to President Carter’s appointment of Patricia Harris as his Secretary of HUD. Harris, an advocate of Women’s Liberation, was attuned to gay interests and believed it important to craft a broader definition of family at the federal level, which impacted the 1977 decision as well as planning for Carter’s famed Conference on American Families.45 The initial HUD announcement highlighted the change in the arena of public housing, but it was clear that the expanded definition would also affect other aspects of HUD jurisdiction, notably mortgage guarantees and CDBG funds. However, the altered definition did not specifically include queer people. Some Los Angeles papers, like the Advocate, wrote of the change asking “What does it mean to be ‘stable’?”46 But this vagueness was also part of the significance of the change. One family definition had not simply been exchanged for another; instead, the entire concept of defining family had been destabilized as HUD left the door open for any future “stable” family arrangements.
In Washington, D.C., those resistant to a broader understanding of family took notice, and challenged the new policy immediately. Considering HUD’s annual appropriations budget, the Federal Congress presented a stipulation in June, one month after the policy change, to prohibit any of the $70.2 billion allocated to HUD from benefiting queer people. In unabashed language, Republicans and conservative Democrats united in opposition to HUD’s new policy. Rep. Edward Boland (D-MA) along with Rep. Tom Hagedorn (R-MN) claimed that “the issue of homosexual rights is too sensitive to thrust on local housing authorities.” The House of Representatives included an amendment to HUD’s 1978 budget that “barred the use of funds in public housing to homosexuals.” In the Senate, Lowell Weicker (D-CT) and Warren Magnuson (D-WA) warned that “such language would put Congress on record favoring discrimination against gays and unmarried couples.”47 Senator William Proxmire (D-FL), however, argued that there was already a “waiting list for public housing” in the United States and insisted that “traditional wife-husband ‘stable family relationships’ should have preference.” It was far more dangerous, Proxmire argued, to go on record “saying that homosexuals have equal access with families to public housing.” In the end, it was “a matter of public policy. Should we assist them [queer men and women] with subsidized housing? The answer must be no.”48 Senator Weicker argued that, despite attitudes toward homosexuality, the House amendment “posed some very deep constitutional questions. We don’t want to get caught up in some temporary hysteria and start mashing people’s constitutional rights all over the place.”49 The constitutional anxieties expressed by Weicker were strong enough to alter the language of the amendment, but not defeat it entirely. When the legislation was finally passed, the new HUD eligibility requirement had been maintained, but additional language was added to emphasize that “eligibility would be determined” by HUD authorities on a case-by-case basis.50 Thus, the language was framed in a way that emphasized the possibility for public housing officials to deny queer applicants if they chose to do so. “Stability” was in the eyes of the beholder.
Despite such national limitations, the HUD policy change had important ramifications for Los Angeles activists. For the GCSC specifically, the change opened up additional forms of grant funding. The emphasis on public housing inclusion in the policy change was essentially a moot issue anyway, as Los Angeles suffered from a severe lack of public housing construction. The waitlist for public housing was backlogged into the thousands. However, for alternative housing programs such as GCSC Liberation Houses, the change in definition meant that discretionary spending in the form of CDBGs was now available to them and that queer organizations could apply for HUD funding. Taking to typewriters to complete grant applications, Gay Liberationists worked to advance the movement through mainstream funding agencies. Numerous CDBG programs suddenly became fertile ground for Gay Liberation in greater Los Angeles. Utilizing sophisticated arguments about the unique economic challenges of being gay, activists sought access to HUD and CDBG subsidies to combat problems like homelessness. These proposals were successful in securing varying amounts of funds (grants ranged from just over $6,000 to $500,000), a clear sign that Gay Liberation had achieved a place at the table of Los Angeles politics.
Conclusion: Gay Liberation After the Tax Revolt
Like other social movements, Gay Liberation gained access to state power and resources at a moment when conservative attacks and populist antistatism were on the rise. Robert Self has argued that newly elected African Americans in 1970s Oakland found themselves somewhat powerless to alter the inequities of the city as vital resources began to be reallocated to suburban communities in the era of the “California Tax Revolt.”51 In a tragic twist of irony, it seems, many social movements finally entered the house of the welfare state only to find it in ruins. In Los Angeles, Gay Liberationists certainly found the movement constrained by conservative ascendance, especially in the guise of the tax revolt, which did change funding realities for both the county and city. However, it would be a mistake to correlate the success of the tax revolt with the demise of Gay Liberation activism. Crafting pragmatic and sometimes clandestine funding strategies, activists found ways to continue the economic activism that guided the movement in the early 1970s. Some housing programs closed, but others sprang up to replace them. County CDBG funds were limited, but Supervisor Edelman continued to find ways to support queer causes. The “era of limits” might best be described as an era of new strategies for queer left-liberal activists in Los Angeles; after all, all eras have had political and economic “limits.” Ironically, the economic impetus behind Gay Liberation survived the tax revolt and national rightward drift only to be consumed in the incorporation of West Hollywood, America’s “first gay city.”
The clearest example of renewed Gay Liberation after the 1978 tax revolt was Hudson House, a program that built upon the Liberation House strategy amid the new funding realities of the county. Facing lower levels of funding, the Liberation Houses were also depleted of organizational discipline and leadership. Founder Jon Platania, suffering from both a sense of “burnout” and also worried about violent backlash from his image appearing in Life Magazine, had returned to the Bay Area.52 This leadership void, along with a lack of funds, initiated a period of Liberation House decline. Recognizing this housing crisis, Pat Rocco organized the Hudson House program to fill the need. Rocco, who had made his living through artistic gay erotic films, built on the Liberation House strategy but altered the face and language of the program to shield it from attack in the growing conservative climate. Hudson House continued to rely on county funds, but Rocco consistently denied that the program received state assistance. In part this was strategic, as Supervisor Edelman had devised creative means to support the program. For example, as HUD funding became more competitive after the revenue realities of Proposition 13, Edelman’s aides clandestinely recommended that Hudson House apply for additional programs, such as mental health and drug and alcohol programs to make up for the lost funds. Like the Liberation Houses, then, Hudson House was a private-public housing program. Opened in 1978, it housed six hundred people in its first year of operations, eventually expanded to four locations, and had housed four thousand people by 1983. Residents had to pay rents, which were adjusted to reflect individual incomes. The lowest rent was $2 a month, the highest was $39.53 In a secret policy that would cause controversy in the mid-1980s, Rocco also allowed residents to pay their rent with food stamps, a violation of federal law.
On the surface, Rocco also crafted Hudson House to fit within the growing conservative political climate of the early 1980s. For instance, Hudson House rules mandated that each unemployed resident search for work, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Literature for the program often emphasized that Hudson House did not provide “free rides” or create “welfare dependency.” Rocco went to great lengths to highlight that residents had to “pay their own way, do house chores, and find employment to be productive.” Publicity photos often highlighted residents doing household labor. Moreover, Hudson House was described as a “temporary housing solution.” Residents were fully expected to seek permanent housing once they got on their feet. Deflecting the growing homophobia of the 1980s, sex was essentially outlawed on paper. Residents were not to treat the house as a “crash pad” and guests had to be preapproved eighteen hours prior to arrival and to remain in public areas of the house. These “rules” were not followed in reality, but submitted with grant paperwork to funding agencies and sought to neutralize opposition ahead of time. Rocco promised no “free rides” to deflect right-wing attacks on social welfare and desexualized the program to safeguard it from homophobic attacks.54
Records indicate a striking degree of diversity among Hudson House residents. In 1983, Hudson House’s residents broke down statistically as follows: 60 percent male, 40 percent female; 50 percent white, 20 percent black, 15 percent Latino, 7 percent Asian, 8 percent other; 77 percent of residents made less than $5,000 annually.55 For some, the program was merely a temporary stop, but for others Hudson House satisfied their most vital economic and emotional needs. Jessica Maertin wrote that “When I came to Hudson House I was desperate. My father had thrown me out of the house, I lost some of by closest friends when I came out, plus I had just broken up with my lover. I was very depressed. The family atmosphere and tough love here forced me to put myself back together.” Jack Stewart recalled that “when I first came to L.A. I knew no one, but was referred to Hudson House. I have traveled around quite a bit but L.A. is the only place with anything like this. It’s a place where you can get your head together, a family atmosphere—a place to be yourself and be accepted.” Another resident noted that “the most important thing I have gained here is a permanent family. I have never had that before and I feel that if there were more programs like this one the gay community as a whole would be better off.”56 Like residents of the Liberation Houses, these former residents all highlighted the need and desire of family in their experiences within the Hudson House program, highlighting that this remained an important aspect of Gay Liberation housing activism into the 1980s.
Jonathan Bell recently encouraged historians to view California’s Proposition 13, the Jarvis Amendment or “Tax Revolt,” and Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative seeking to bar queer people from teaching in the state, together. Both on the ballot in 1978, the campaigns utilized similar “rhetorical tools and activist forces.”57 It is indeed crucial to analyze the measures in conjunction with one another; their interconnectedness went beyond mere rhetorical strategy. The success of Proposition 13, the darling of Howard Jarvis, a conservative activist and employee of the Los Angeles Apartment Owners Association, also represented the emergence of a new gay right in Los Angeles. While many queer Democratic clubs and organizations fought the amendment vigorously, many gay business interests supported it. While still actively working against Proposition 6, queer “grasstops” saw economic potential in supporting Proposition 13.58 While gay rights and the New Right are often explored as “perfect enemies,” many queer Los Angelenos shared conservative economic anxieties that shaped right-wing politics in the region.59 The campaign to incorporate West Hollywood was a clear indication that these conservative queer forces aimed to influence the trajectory of Gay Liberation.
In 1983, despite Edelman’s energetic attempts, Los Angeles County Supervisors narrowly voted to let rent control expire throughout the county. This mobilized renters and led to a campaign of incorporation for West Hollywood as an independent city. The pro-incorporation coalition was broad. Renters and those concerned about condo conversions were organized by the Coalition for Economic Survival, of which actress Jane Fonda was a prominent spokesperson. This wing of the effort was very diverse: gay and straight, racially mixed, young and old. But there was also another wing of the pro-incorporation drive that was less visible. Led mainly by apartment owners, real estate developers, and other business interests, these forces sought freedom from county restrictions on building in the area. Several of these grasstops were gay men who aligned with queer renters over the issues of sexuality, but not economics. By the spring of 1984, the incorporation issue had become volatile and had also been transformed into an issue of “gay rights.” Incorporation, to many, would herald the advancement of gay community.
Throughout the West Hollywood incorporation effort, Supervisor Edelman maintained official “neutrality” regarding the issue. Behind the scenes, he bitterly fought the effort in every way he could. Internal memos between him and his staff confirm that they viewed the incorporation of the city as unnecessary and dangerous. Believing that West Hollywood would be steamrolled by real estate and land developers, Edelman was warned by aides to keep quiet: “if you come out against incorporation, it will be depicted as anti-gay,” they warned.60 In November, the city voted for incorporation by a forty-point margin. Photos of a smile-free Edelman at the first City Council meeting of West Hollywood suggest that he found the ceremonies difficult to bear; moreover, West Hollywood would now be ineligible for many county funding opportunities reserved for unincorporated areas. The trajectory of West Hollywood after incorporation substantiated many of Edelman’s concerns. The emphasis on economic rights did not last long in the new city. By 1986, funds designated to combat homelessness were rerouted to the new West Hollywood marketing campaign, headed by gay real estate developer Ron Kates. “Our goal,” he proclaimed in the campaign’s mission statement, “is to promote West Hollywood as one of the West Coast’s leading centers for design and entertainment, as well as home to some of the finest restaurants, hotels, and retail stores in the Los Angeles area.”61 Amid the now detrimental crisis of AIDS, the decision to gentrify West Hollywood severely limited programs like Hudson House, and signaled an ominous detour from the pillars of economic justice that had guided Gay Liberation in Los Angeles for years.
- Letters to Pat Rocco, 8.31.80 and 10.3.80. Box 15, Folder 2. Pat Rocco Papers. ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles, California (Hereafter ONE).
- The concept of the “long 1970s,” roughly 1968–1984, is borrowed from Bruce Schulman’s The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2001).
- This project joins recent scholarship on the importance of changing notions of family from the 1960s through the 1980s. See especially: Natasha Zaretsky, No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), Heather Murray, Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), and Daniel Winunwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
- Speaking at a campaign event in 1976, California Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown famously asserted that Americans were “living in an era of limits and better get used to it.” Ever since, historians have relied on this descriptor to characterize the 1970s. For example, see Bruce Schulman & Julian Zelizer (eds.), Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
- My use of the “left-liberal” framework is most heavily reliant on Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
- New scholarship has begun to recognize the significance of the 1970s. See especially: Schulman, The Seventies; Edward D. Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010); Laura Kalman, Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (New York: Norton, 2010); Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Thomas Borstelmann, The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); and Michael Stewart Foley, Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013).
- Important primers in the history of Gay Liberation include Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Plume, 1994); David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s, 2004); Tommy Mecca (ed.), Smash the Church, Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation (San Francisco: City Lights, 2009); and Benjamin Shepard, “Play as World-making: From the Cockettes to the Germs, Gay Liberation to DIY Activism” in Dan Berger (ed.), The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
- Jennifer Brier, Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
- Useful examples include Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Anne Enke, Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
- Such work includes Martin Meeker, Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s1970s (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006) and Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007).
- Christina B. Handhart, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 84, 90.
- On the backlash against housing options for the economically disadvantaged in Los Angeles, see Dana Cuff, The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002) and Don Parson, Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
- These “straight” housing policies are part of the larger construction of a “straight state” in the twentieth century. See Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
- United States Mission flier, 1962. Box 1, Folder 5, United States Mission Collection. ONE.
- Los Angeles was not the only California locale to attempt this. See Martin Meeker, “The Queerly Disadvantaged and the Making of San Francisco’s War on Poverty, 1964-1967,” Pacific Historical Review (January 2012), and Jonathan Bell, “To Strive for Economic and Social Justice: Welfare, Sexuality, and Party Politics in San Francisco in the 1960s,” Journal of Policy History (2010).
- Meeker, Contacts Desired.
- GCSC Mission Statement, 6.29.72. Box 1, Folder 2. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Records. ONE.
- I am borrowing the term from Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
- Jon Platania, interview by author, Ian Baldwin, March 2014.
- GCSC Mission Statement, 6.29.72. Box 1, Folder 2. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Records. ONE.
- “Outreach: The Extended Family,” GCSC newsletter, February, 1973. Author’s personal collection.
- Jon Platania, interview by author, Ian Baldwin, March 2014.
- Phil Tiemeyer, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History if Male Flight Attendants (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2013), 117.
- Spree News Pictorial, October 1971. Author’s personal collection.
- Jon Platania, interview by author, Ian Baldwin, March 2014.
- For example, see Zaretsky, No Direction Home, Self, All in the Family, and J. Brooks Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011).
- Notes on Liberation House residents, 1974-76. Box 11, Folder 38. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Records. ONE.
- Don Kilhefner to “Friends of the Center,” 12.7.76. Box 14, Folder 8. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Records. ONE.
- A few of the varying explanations of Los Angeles’ role in the gay rights movement include: Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Berkeley: The University of California, 2007), who argues that queer activism in L.A. emerged from bohemian left traditions; and Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (New York: Basic Books, 2006) who both seem to advocate the role of Hollywood and L.A.’s “frontier mentality,” in explaining the city’s role.
- This conservative campaign was largely directed by the right-wing Hollywood paper, Citizens-News. “Now is the Time,” Citizen-News, January 23, 1962, 14.
- L. Jay Barrow, Hollywood: Gay Capitol of the World (Los Angeles: Triumph, 1968); The Advocate, 1969; The Los Angeles Times, 5.20.70. Subject File: Gay Neighborhoods. ONE.
- Tom Sitton, The Courthouse Crowd: Los Angeles County Government, 1850-1950 (Los Angeles: The Historical Society of Southern California, 2013).
- This is speculated in Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 216.
- Jonathan Bell, California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 279.
- Bell, California Crucible, 264.
- This literature is vast. See Steven Gillon, The Democrats’ Dilemma: Walter Mondale and the Liberal Legacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Vintage, 1996); Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams (New York: Holt, 1996); and David Plotke, Building a Democratic Order: Reshaping American Liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Bell’s California Crucible moves far beyond these accounts, yet has much in common with their notion of liberal “crackup.”
- Bell, California Crucible, 264.
- See Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Religious Right. See also Randall Balmer, The Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (New York: Basic, 2014).
- Jim Gilson, interview by author, Ian Baldwin, December 2013.
- Rossinow, Visions of Progress.
- Stonewall Democratic Club Plank, 1975. Box 1, Folder 20. Stonewall Democratic Club Records. ONE.
- The Advocate, 6.20.77. Subject File: Public Housing. ONE.
- See Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Religious Right, 143–44; 173.
- The Advocate, 6.20.77. Subject File: Public Housing. ONE.
- “Rules Say Gay Couple Can Be a Public-Housing ‘Family’,” San Francisco Examiner, June 16, 1977, 10.
- “Gay Couples Will Not be Eligible for Public Housing if Vote Stands,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1977, 12.
- Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
- Jon Platania, interview by author, Ian Baldwin, March 2014.
- Hudson House Proposal, 6.29.83. Box 1, Folder 2. Hudson House Records. ONE.
- All quoted in Pat Rocco, “The Cold, the Broke, and the Hungry,” Box 1, Folder 3. Hudson House Records. ONE.
- Bell, California Crucible, 275–276.
- I am borrowing the “grasstops” descriptor from Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
- For example, see Chris Bull & John Gallagher, Perfect Enemies: The Religious Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s (New York: Random House, 1996).
- Jim Gilson to Ed Edelman, 11.27.84. Box 528, Folder 1. The Papers of Ed Edelman. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
- B. K. Stinshoff, “The City that ‘Don’t’ Get No Respect,” The Post, 11.20.86. Box 3, Folder 16. Robert S. Conrich Collection. Young Research Library, The University of California, Los Angeles.
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