As a politician with close to four decades of experience in public office, John Laird has delivered hundreds of speeches to thousands of people.
The podium and the microphone are tools of his trade, and he prides himself on his comfort level speaking to audiences. As one of California’s most prominent openly gay public figures dating back to the 1980s, Laird has had to address a range of difficult subjects, often provoking explosive emotions from rage to frustration to grief. And he’s mastered the art of speaking with conviction without losing composure.
One day about 10 years ago, however, toward the end of his term in the State Assembly, Laird was asked to speak before an audience in Sacramento, and this time the words were not his own. He read from a short speech written by ACT-UP activist Vito Russo called “Why We Fight,” originally delivered at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1988. The speech, well-known in its time, is a stirring plea to recognize the humanity and heroism of LGBTQ+ people in a time when they were often reviled and discriminated against.
“So, I’m just a couple of paragraphs in,” remembers Laird, “and, for some reason, it completely gets to me. My voice cracks, and I can barely continue. I mean, I am just struggling—and that never happens, not even at my father’s memorial. And I finally get done, and the crowd goes wild. And, all I’m thinking is, ‘Jeez, I just stuck a needle in and bled all over the place. Just please leave me alone.’”
The modern gay rights movement now dates back more than 50 years, and for many younger gay and queer activists, the 1970s and ’80s can seem like a dusty and remote chapter in history—yep, people did really wear their hair like that. But for many who lived through those times, the potent emotions of that period—especially the pain of loss—are all still there, just below the surface, ready to erupt unexpectedly. The scars may have healed, but they are still tender to the touch.
Now the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz is providing an opportunity to look back on those crucial years, for those who were there as well as for those who were not even born. Queer Santa Cruz: Stories of the LGBTQ+ Community in Santa Cruz County was originally meant to be a traditional exhibit at the MAH. But the pandemic has closed the museum for the foreseeable future, and now the exhibition—photos, videos, documents, artifacts and more—is going online, freely accessible at virtual.santacruzmah.org.
The exhibition is not only designed to illuminate the struggles against discrimination and homophobic hostility. It’s also meant to evoke the good times as well, the sense of solidarity and shared experience in the LGBTQ+ community in the early days. And it’s also there to remind long-time Santa Cruzans of the various cultural touchstones of the gay/lesbian subculture, the restaurants and cafes, the social groups and publications, and, of course, the people—some still around town, but many who have passed from the scene.
Queer Santa Cruz is also an assertion that Santa Cruz deserves recognition as a crucial element in the larger gay-rights narrative. In fact, Santa Cruz may have been the first small city in the country to embrace Pride, its initial Pride celebration dating back to 1975, trailing behind only major metropolitan areas like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Santa Cruz was among the first cities in the United States to elect openly gay mayors (along with Laguna Beach and Key West, Florida) when Laird was elected in 1983. In a time when gays and lesbians were all but invisible in mainstream culture, and when anyone who ventured “out of the closet” was subject to everything from social ostracism to violence, Santa Cruz developed an environment of inclusion and acceptance—up to a point.
“In the history of gay rights and the challenges to (discrimination), Santa Cruz was often at the forefront,” says Pat Dellin, who was instrumental in putting together the QSC exhibition. It was Dellin’s work in cataloguing and sorting the materials she found in the archives of the Diversity Center in Santa Cruz that directly led to the MAH’s embrace of the idea of an exhibition. The Diversity Center’s “Trailblazers” series of video oral histories form the backbone of the exhibition.
‘WE DESERVE TO BE HERE’
But thinking of 1970s Santa Cruz as a gay haven overlooks the confrontations and threats that the pioneering generation had to face even locally. Larry Friedman first came to Santa Cruz in 1971. He was there during the first Pride march in Santa Cruz the year after the first Pride celebration (which did not include a march). He remembers seeing many counter-protesters on Pacific Avenue, some holding Bibles and carrying signs with anti-gay slurs on them.
Friedman, 73, helped form one of the first gay organizations in the county, at Cabrillo College. He was also instrumental in establishing that first Pride celebration, a four-day weekend in ’75 that featured a dance, an evening concert featuring legendary composer Lou Harrison, and other events at Cabrillo. The celebration culminated with an afternoon picnic at San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz.
“It was one thing to have a dance and a potluck dinner at Cabrillo,” Friedman says. “It was kind of protected there. But when we went to San Lorenzo Park, there were hundreds of us, and that was a big statement. It was a big risk for a lot of people coming out in public for the first time.”
“So much was against us being out and visible,” Dellin says. “We were just trying to get people to tolerate us. It was a revolutionary act to come out to San Lorenzo Park with two hundred other people just to say, ‘We deserve to be here, we’re fine people and we’re going to have a party now.’”
One of the themes of gay life in the 1970s, say those who were there, was a similar kind of exuberance in the face of repression. John Laird tells the story of a local dance club that, in its newspaper ads, included illustrations that expressly communicated that same-sex couples were not welcome. In response, a number of gay men and lesbians met up before hand, and paired off as opposite-sex couples to get into the club.
“At an agreed-upon time, someone shouted and we all switched partners on the dance floor,” Laird says. “Men were dancing with men. Women were dancing with women. It took the DJ a while to figure out what was going on. It was just our way of protesting something that no one else was giving a second thought to.”
The gay-rights revolution was experienced very differently on either side of the gender divide, says psychologist Jerry Solomon, who later went on to co-found the Santa Cruz AIDS Project.
“As a gay man, I would look at envy at these women (activists),” Solomon says. “They had a very strong bond between themselves. They had a clear purpose. They set very clear goals, and were working very hard to accomplish those goals. Men, on the other hand, were celebrating that the draft was over, Vietnam was over, and that Gay Pride was beginning to appear. So they were in the discos. We were celebrating, and women were at work.”
A flash point arrived in 1978, a year in which singer Anita Bryant spearheaded the anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign, which inspired the Briggs Initiative, a California ballot measure that would allow the dismissal of any educator who was gay, or who voiced any support for gay rights. The same year ended with the assassination of movement icon Harvey Milk in San Francisco.
“All of us were feeling under siege,” says Freidman of the aftermath of ’78, though the Briggs Initiative was defeated at the polls.
The political threats resulted in more cooperation between gay men and lesbians, says Jo Kenny, who worked in childhood education at the time and who also came out as gay that year. “When Briggs came up, both men and women pooled our energies and our different skills from different places, and we were able to bring in a coalition that nobody thought we could.”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
The movement took a dramatic turn in the 1980s with the rise of the AIDS crisis—the struggle for equal rights and acceptance became a life-and-death issue. Gay men were initially at the center of the epidemic, but women—straight and gay—began to show up in significant numbers to care for those who were sick, and to fight for more humane treatment.
“I don’t know about outside the United States,” says Jo Kenny, “but within this country, it was lesbians who stepped up in huge numbers and took care of gay men and IV drug users.” Kenny was the second executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project in the late 1980s, and she says that women’s role in the AIDS crisis has been consistently under-acknowledged. “It’s part of the gender politics. We just go back to being invisible, and that’s about sexism.”
“While there was, politically, a divide between gay men and women,” says Jerry Solomon, “there were many gay men and women who had deep and significant friendships. And many of those men began to die. As a result, more and more women stepped forward, realizing that the political divide was much less important than providing human care and comfort. So they consistently showed up very well, throughout the epidemic, at a critical time when most men couldn’t show up for themselves because either they were dealing with the illness, or they were so afraid of the illness that they were sort of frozen. It was just empathy and humanity, and all this other stuff we were dealing with before really moved to the side pretty quickly.”
The Santa Cruz AIDS Project assumes a large role in the story that Queer Santa Cruz sets out to tell. But it’s not the dominant theme. The exhibition really documents the emergence of a strong and vibrant LGBTQ+ culture, and much of it works as a kind of tribute, colored with nostalgia, of the symbols of that community—the bookstore/café Herland, the quarterly literary journal The Lavender Reader, and the provocative artist collective the Bulkhead Gallery, for instance. Also singled out are more mainstream institutions such as Bookshop Santa Cruz. “Bookshop always had a place for gays and lesbians to find housing and things like that. They were very supportive of us in the 1970s,” says Pat Dellin.
Marla Novo of the MAH, who curated the exhibition, says that once the museum is open to the public again, Queer Santa Cruz will be presented as a traditional showcase exhibition. “We have every intention of having it in real time in our physical building,” she says.
Laird—who has served on Santa Cruz’s city council and as its mayor, as well as a stint in the state Assembly and another in Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet—is in the awkward position of sheltering in place at home while at the same time running another campaign, this time for the California Senate.
While at home, Laird has been systematically going through his memorabilia from the old days. “I still have about 60 boxes of stuff to go through, and I’m going through everything because I’m never home to do it.”
In 1983, when Laird was first elected mayor, he experienced a brief but intense burst of celebrity. He was not only one of the first out-gay politicians to emerge post-Harvey Milk, he was one of the most prominent openly gay public figures in an era when almost all gay celebrities were firmly in the closet. (A telling illustration of Laird’s status as a gay pioneer is a play about Milk’s life titled Dear Harvey, in which Laird is one of the supporting characters.)
In one way, the sudden fame as a symbol of the gay-rights movement was disorienting and off-putting, he says. “I was elected to get streets fixed, keep traffic flowing, and make sure UCSC paid its dues.”
But, eventually, he came to recognize the power that his election had in thawing the ongoing cold war between LGBTQ+ people and cultural conservatives.
“I can’t even begin to describe the pride in the community at that time,” he says. “Some (local) people told me, ‘I’m not even out to my parents and I find myself on the phone having a conversation with them about having a gay mayor, and talking about gay stuff.’”
Laird’s own family felt the brunt of his 15 minutes of fame. “It never occurred to me that my parents had not told their friends that they had a gay son. Suddenly, I’m beaming into every city on every media imaginable, all about being gay. My brother made a comment that’s become legendary in the family. I called him and asked him how things were going, and he says, ‘It’s like a funeral around here. People are bringing casseroles.’”
About the same time, Laird’s mother got a letter that stands as a testament of what Laird—as well as every out gay, lesbian, or queer person—has won from a dominant culture that has moved slowly, painfully, but inexorably from hatred to tolerance to not-quite-complete acceptance.
“My mother was an elementary school teacher,” he says, “and she got a letter from one of her fellow teachers and it said to her, ‘Oh, I’ve always snickered at Harvey Milk and the gays in San Francisco. But I know you and your husband. You’re wonderful people and your son clearly came from a loving household. Looks like I’m going to have to rethink this.’ That’s something.”