What was the Society for Individual Rights?

March 30, 2004

From Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965
By the early 1960s, San Francisco had a flourishing gay subculture, but one that still faced repression. Several events at the turn of that decade - including a major raid on a gay bar, the Tay-Bush Inn, and a police extortion scandal - cemented links between the bar scene and the nascent homophile movement, creating a community that rapidly gained political clout.

Among the era's new groups was the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), formed in 1964 by William Beardemphl, Jim Foster, Bill Plath, and others, gay activists who had grown tired of the authoritarian leadership style and mismanagement of an earlier group, the League for Civil Education. From the start, SIR differed from older, more conservative homophile groups such as the Mattachine Society, and the new organization's leaders were more assertive and confident in their gay identity. Taking a cue from the burgeoning civil rights movement, SIR demanded equal rights and decried government-sanctioned discrimination.

Having learned from the failings of previous groups, SIR rejected top-down leadership in favor of a democratic, participatory structure. And whereas Mattachine had eschewed billing itself as a social group in order to avoid the appearance of encouraging illegal sexual activity, SIR embraced gay men's need for fellowship. Open to anything its members wanted to organize, SIR sponsored drag shows, dinners, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, softball games, field trips, art classes, and meditation groups.

At a time when same-sex dancing was banned in bars, SIR's most popular events were regular dances held at the group's space on 6th Street near Market in the heart of San Francisco's skid row. Opened in April 1966, the SIR Center - the nation's first gay and lesbian community center - contained office space, a library, and a large public assembly area.

SIR's social activities proved to be the drawing card that got members involved in its service and political work. Along with other local groups, including the Daughters of Bilitis (the nation's first lesbian rights group) and the Tavern Guild (an organization of gay bar owners), SIR helped form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, in conjunction with progressive Protestant clergy. A police raid on the coalition's New Year's fundraising ball in 1965 brought media attention to the plight of the city's homosexuals and helped build public sympathy. SIR and the other groups started hosting candidate forums, and progressive politicians began courting the gay vote, taking out ads in Vector, SIR's glossy magazine. "If politicians do not openly address themselves to homosexuals," SIR president Beardhemphl told the San Francisco Examiner in 1966, "they do not need our 90,000 votes."

By 1968, SIR had nearly 1,000 members, making it the largest homophile organization in the country. But the group's success helped usher in changes that would ultimately lead to its demise. Chief among these was the rise of the gay liberation movement. SIR's agenda was firmly assimilationist - committed to "responsible action by responsible people in responsible ways" - and what had once looked like radicalism compared with earlier homophile groups came to be seen as conservatism by a younger generation of gay activists.

This generational rift was evident within SIR itself. In early 1969, the group hired a new _Vector_ editor, Leo Laurence, a journalist who had become radicalized while covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In March of that year, Laurence and his lover, Gale Whittington, appeared in a shirtless embrace on the cover of the leftist weekly Berkeley Barb. Laurence called for a homosexual revolution and encouraged gay men and lesbians to join forces with radical groups such as the Black Panthers. "After we can admit to ourselves 'gay is good,' the revolution will come," he said. Laurence went further, calling the leadership of SIR "a bunch of middle-class, uptight, bitchy old queens."

SIR ousted Laurence from his position, and he and Whittington went on to form a more radical group, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom. "[T]he enemy of gay progress is now the uptight, authoritarian bureaucracy of SIR," Whittington declared. Other young queer groups also lambasted the "Society for Idle Rap," especially its failure to take a stand against the Vietnam War. But SIR believed gay men should be allowed to serve in the armed forces, and felt that an antiwar stance would further marginalize homosexuals.

Even as gay liberationists called for revolution, SIR doggedly persisted in its campaign to win acceptance from mainstream society. But the organization's numbers dwindled during the 1970s. According to member George Mendenhall, the group dissolved as other community institutions started taking over the functions SIR had once fulfilled. In particular, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board relaxed its rules against same-sex dancing in bars, leading to a drop in attendance at SIR's dance parties and hence the income they generated. "[T]here was just more awareness, more things going on, and the community didn't need SIR," Mendenhall said.

But SIR's legacy lives on. In 1972, SIR's political committee became the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the nation's first gay and lesbian Democratic club and still one of the largest and most influential political clubs in San Francisco. And a series of SIR protests and court battles in the 1970s challenging the antigay hiring practices of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company paved the way for employment nondiscrimination protections in both the private sector and the federal government.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Boyd, Nan Alamilla. 2003. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (University of California Press).
  • D'Emilio, John. 1983, 1998. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (University of Chicago Press).
  • Stryker, Susan, and Jim Van Buskirk. 1996. Gay by the Bay (Chronicle Books).

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