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news1 lairdA brief history of gay pride in Santa Cruz

As we prepare to celebrate the 40th annual Santa Cruz Pride this coming weekend, now the largest regular political gathering in Santa Cruz County, it’s hard to believe that those first marches in the 1970s required security to protect the gutsy few out Santa Cruzans and their allies who walked down Pacific Avenue.

It was a different time, locally and nationally. Locally, in the late 1970s the university enrollment was at just over 5,000, downtown Santa Cruz was dead after 6 p.m., the Miss California Pageant would still call Santa Cruz home for another few years, and the Board of Supervisors and City Council had conservative majorities.

Across the country, it was illegal to be gay in most states. The movie Milk from 2008 showed police hassling San Francisco gay bar customers in this period.  When I was elected to the Santa Cruz City Council 33 years ago this coming November, there were but about 10 openly gay elected officials throughout the United States.

The first public stirrings of the local gay community happened at both UCSC and Cabrillo College. Lesbian and gay counseling and support groups were organized.

The first gay pride celebration was in 1975, with the effort to get a gay pride resolution passed at the Board of Supervisors becoming a major public controversy–and the resolution passing with the bare majority. The first actual parade happened in 1976, and the first years of the parade brought out many anti-gay demonstrators.

A long organizing campaign against the 1978 “Briggs Initiative” to outlaw openly gay teachers was led by CUDBI–Community United Against the Briggs Initiative. Gay beach volleyball began the next year.

The arrest of gay men entrapped by undercover Capitola police officers in 1980, and the subsequent publishing of the names and home addresses of those arrested in local newspapers, led to over 200 people protesting the actions at a Capitola City Council meeting.

Santa Cruz County was the first in the nation to adopt a gay non-discrimination policy for its own employees in 1975, and the City of Santa Cruz and Metropolitan Transit District’s domestic partners benefits programs were among the first in the nation in the mid-1980s. In 1983, I had my own 15 minutes of fame as one of the first three openly gay mayors elected in the United States.

Gay bars were an integral part of the culture in that time. The Dragon Moon, Mona’s Gorilla Lounge, the Blue Lagoon, Faces and others were among the few places gay men and women could meet openly in public.

The HIV epidemic shook the local and national gay community. The Santa Cruz AIDS Project was organized as a local response, and at one point had as many as 600 regular volunteers. Lesbians and gay men, who had struggled over issues of equity in the 1970s, were bound together by the epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fast-forwarding to now, there are no exclusive gay bars left in the county.  We have two openly gay school board members now, but there has been no fanfare because it is not as unique as it once would have been.

Our county clerk and Board of Supervisors were in the forefront of the fight for marriage equality. Proposition 8–the 2008 ballot measure against marriage equality–failed in Santa Cruz County with a resounding 71 percent no vote.  And with Supreme Court action last year, marriage equality has come to California permanently–and as of this writing, has expanded to eighteen states across the country.

There’s not a walk of life in Santa Cruz County that doesn’t have an open LGBT person somewhere in its organization. There are hundreds of children of gay parents in the county.

And while it was a few hearty activists that organized gay pride in the early years, the Diversity Center–a thriving core of the LGBT community celebrating its own 25th anniversary this year–has taken on the responsibility for making sure the celebration happens each year now.

The movie Bridegroom, screened last week at the Del Mar, chronicles the difficulties faced by a surviving member of a young couple when he was barred from the funeral of his spouse, and shows us there are still things to do.

But we have come a long way since those early gay pride celebrations. I love to tell a story from a few years ago at the parade, when I was getting ready to ride in an open convertible as the area’s state legislator. Ahead of me a few contingents was the medical marijuana float, with a giant joint puffing smoke as it went down the street. The sheriff and his top deputies had been placed near that float in the parade’s order–and they walked back and asked if they could march by me during the parade.

It was the perfect circle. Thirty years ago, security had to protect the parade in more difficult times. Now I had become the safe port in the political storm. That’s progress. And many worked hard for this progress, at a time when we believed strongly we were right, but with no assurance that we were on the right side of history. Don’t take this progress for granted–and fight for those who still face the obstacles chronicled in Bridegroom. Come celebrate the 40th Santa Cruz Gay Pride.


John Laird is a former mayor of Santa Cruz, and was a member of the California legislature. He now serves in Governor Brown’s cabinet, as Secretary of Natural Resources.

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