Free Love, for Some, in the LGBT Underground Magazines of 1967
The thing about the Summer of Love is that it was also, simply, 1967 in San Francisco. It’s true that hordes of hippies heeded Timothy Leary’s call to turn on, tune in and drop out, and that less rigorous rebels followed Scott McKenzie’s gentle urge to show up with flowers in their hair. But for many of the city’s residents, life continued relatively undisturbed.
It’s hard to imagine this now, 50 years after the Summer of Love, when the hippie looms large in San Francisco’s self-perpetuated origin story. According to that mythology, 1967 was all about a specific set of rebellions: longhairs against squares, children against parents, radical social experiments against conservative family values. And yet, it couldn’t be so binary at the time, could it?
This is the question that propelled me into windowless rooms, to bypass the pie-eyed story that gets told in 2017 and study the actual newspapers and publications produced and disseminated during the summer of 1967.
In my first visits to the city's archives, I found exactly what I expected to find. The underground papers peddled on the streets of Haight-Ashbury -- the S.F. Oracle, The Maverick, Haight Ashbury Free Press and Sunday Ramparts -- circulated the good news of head shops, free Dead concerts and the Diggers’ latest shenanigans. Between their groovy lettering and rainbow gradient covers, these publications capture the aesthetics associated with the Summer of Love almost too perfectly.
Only in the margins of these papers does an inkling of a world outside of the hippie scene emerge: an event listing for weekly gay dances, an ad for male models, a heartfelt same sex personal. I dug deeper, putting in requests for more and more archival boxes. And then, in the basement rooms of the GLBT Historical Society’s archives, I hit the jackpot.
In 1967, Vector, a monthly magazine published by San Francisco’s largest homophile society, ran cover stories like “Drag,” “Sex in Public Places” and “God and the Gay.” Vector’s analog was The Ladder (subtitled “A Lesbian Review”), a less graphically ambitious but equally niche publication. It featured reviews of lesbian films and literature, news clippings, profiles of accomplished women, reports on national studies related to homosexuality, erotic fiction and sappy love poems. It even had a column narrated posthumously by a pet cat.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me set the stage for these magazines. The city wasn’t unfurling rainbow flags quite yet, but in 1967, the LGBT community of San Francisco was coalescing into what would become the foundations of the Gay Liberation movement. These were hard-won foundations.
Declared the “gay capital of America” in a 1964 LIFE magazine cover story, San Francisco’s permissive attitude didn’t guarantee equal rights for its gay population. The Twin Peaks Tavern still had blacked-out windows (those wouldn’t come off until 1972). Police raids on bars were a real and constant threat. Both men and women could be arrested for wearing clothing “not belonging to his or her sex” (a law that stayed on the books until 1974). And the Consenting Adult Sex Bill, repealing the state’s sodomy law, wouldn’t pass until 1975.
Against those odds, San Francisco was home to the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, founded in 1955 and responsible for publishing the first issue of The Ladder the following year. In 1962, a coalition of bar owners and liquor wholesalers formed the Tavern Guild, the first LGBT business association in the country. The Society for Individual Rights (wonderfully acronymed SIR), the homophile group behind Vector, was founded in 1964. And in August 1966, the Tenderloin’s transgender community fought back against police harassment in Compton’s Cafeteria riot, paving the way for the Stonewall Riots three years later.
While the San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner, the city’s mainstream newspapers, offered stuffy, tweedy takes on the Haight St. scene (a favorite headline from the former: “Rhododendron Victims: Hippies Loving Flowers to Death”), little to no mention was made of the city’s LGBT population outside of arrest reports. Even the Compton’s Cafeteria riot didn’t warrant an article.
So, like the Black Panthers across the Bay, it was up to the city's gay and lesbian population, through the DOB and SIR, to create their own news services. Reading through copies of The Ladder and Vector, carefully preserved by the GLBT Historical Society, paints a picture of organizations much like any other: members don’t show up to meetings, readers complain about too much of this, not enough of that, and other readers soundly contradict them. But between the gripes, the papers helped organize a staggering amount of social events, conferences and ways to represent their communities to the people of San Francisco at large, often through meetings with religious leaders and public forums.
It’s not surprising then, that I found scant references to the Haight-Ashbury scene in the 1967 issues of Vector and The Ladder. But when they did turn their attention to the “love generation,” Vector and The Ladder were generally sympathetic and often concerned for the hippies’ well-being.
In an August 1967 letter to the editor, a “T. M. Edwards” rails against Vector’s efforts to compare the city’s homosexual population with the hippie population, who Edwards believes have contributed nothing but damage to the image of San Francisco. Vector’s even response? “We do agree, homosexuals and hippies are not the same, but they are what is happening.”
For the most part, the pages of Vector and The Ladder document communities seeking to gather -- for bowling, dances, drag performances, Esperanto classes, book clubs and holiday celebrations -- and support each other. Like the hippie newspapers, the most revealing and personal moments in Ladder and Vector come from classifieds and letters to the editors. In the June 1966 Vector, the wonderfully idiosyncratic “FOR SALE. Beautiful artificial palm plant in pot. Also antique geisha wig. Call MI 8-5694 eves.” The ads set the scene for the readers’ social gatherings. Businesses range from “private” to “very private.” “Traveling North?” reads an ad. “Visit Dave’s Steam Baths -- for younger men exclusively.”
In many respects, Vector and The Ladder aren’t so different from their Haight-Ashbury contemporaries. They speak to their readership about the specific issues that concern their communities. They map networks of friendly businesses and specialized services. They provide news briefings, cultural recommendations and forums for debate.
But here the similarities end, because one of these histories dominates the other. The hippies were media darlings. They lounged on street corners and ate the Diggers’ free food and wove daisy chains in Golden Gate Park. Their often performative social politics made them targets of harassment and the Chronicle’s tweedy scorn. But ultimately, their form of love was not illegal.
For subscribers to Vector and The Ladder, theirs was a very different kind of underground -- a space created by physical and emotional necessity. Their underground was outside the establishment, but invisibly so. And the dominance of the false binary at the heart of today's Summer of Love narrative reinforces that invisibility, erasing the far-from-over self-organizing of the city’s LGBT population.
What’s needed is a more nuanced timeline, then. For subscribers to Vector and The Ladder, 1967 was the year their magazines continued to arrive inside plain sealed envelopes, their covers and contents hidden from view.
A huge thanks to Joanna Black and Ramon Silvestre at the GLBT Historical Society for their help in researching this article.