Queer Nation activists at a "Take Back the Night" march in New York City in 1990. (Ellen Neipris)
Editor's Note: This article is part of KQED Arts' story series Pride as Protest, which chronicles the past and present of LGBTQ+ activism in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Learn more about the series here.
In the lingering darkness of the early morning, the queers climbed up a SoMA highway overpass, recently shut down due to structural concerns from the Loma Prieta earthquake. They were on a mission from Catherine Did It, a focus group affiliated with San Francisco's brand-new chapter of the ostentatious activist organization Queer Nation, which had an estimated 40 chapters around the country.
Catherine Did It was created to use guerrilla tactics to confront the filming of Basic Instinct—a 1992 movie Queer Nation saw as the latest example of Hollywood's storied obsession with psychotic queer women. In the film, a secondary bisexual character wrings her hands and moans to the brave male protagonist upon being outed, "I was embarrassed. It was the only time I'd been with a woman." Sleeping with a man seems to cure the anti-heroine of her murderous lesbianism. (Her truculent girlfriend was disposed of in a fatal automobile accident.)
In 1991, in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic's terrorizing hold on the queer community, many considered this stereotypical mainstream representation intolerable.
The activists had been tipped off that the next evening, shooting would take place on the block below their feet—well, not if they had anything to do with it. They opened up the bags of glitter they hauled up to the abandoned stretch of I-280 and let their contents fly. When the film crew arrived, they'd find their trumped-up, urban wasteland location covered in twinkling bits of exquisitely campy queer rage.
On the occasion of Queer Nation's 25th anniversary in 2015, San Francisco chapter co-founder Mark Duran told the Bay Area Reporter that he had been inspired to form the group in 1990 after watching a conversation between radical, queer activists from New York and their more staid, Democratic Party-affiliated San Francisco counterparts on KQED.
"It was at that precise moment that I realized the time was up for asking for crumbs from the table as our gay leaders had been doing for so long," he remembered. "It was time for us to simply take our place at that table and demand our civil and human rights."
Duran, his partner Daniel Paiz and fellow activist Steve Mehall blanketed the Castro and Mission districts with flyers announcing Queer Nation SF's first meeting, which would take place one month after that of the original New York chapter. The group convened at the historic Women’s Building. An astounding 300 people (as many as 500, by some estimates) came to the first gathering, where a consensus-based, horizontal leadership structure was codified.
Going forward, even the most routine general assembly meeting would draw crowds of around 200 members. Focus groups formed, among them LABIA (Lesbians And Bi-women In Action), the people of color-focused United Colors of Queer Nation, UBIQUITOUS (Uppity Bi Queers United In Their Overtly Unconventional Sexuality), Queer Planet and DORIS SQUASH (Defending Our Rights In the Streets, Super Queers United Against Savage Heterosexism).
"That first meeting was very, very exciting," says Queer Nation and Catherine Did It activist Jennifer Junkyard Morris. "Well—and it was also very cruise-y."
Queer activism in the wake of the AIDS epidemic
The early '90s were a time when traditional activist tactics were being queered across the country. In 1990, fellow direct-action group ACT UP organized a massive die-in protest on Market Street during San Francisco's hosting of the Sixth International Conference on AIDS. It was part of the group's bid to raise awareness and halt the plague that claimed so many lives, many of them in the LGBTQ+ community.
But at times, ACT UP made its points quite cheekily. For example, the group's signature "ACT UP, fight back, fight AIDS!" chant would become "ACT UP, kick back get laid!" when participants tired of earnestness.
Queer Nation activists were inspired by those touches of swishy irreverence—the founders of the original Queer Nation New York chapter had been active in ACT UP themselves—but they wanted to expand the AIDS-focused group's scope. "That's really why [Queer Nation] was created, to deal with other places where we're being attacked," remembers Morris.
Across the country, Queer Nation became best known for targeting cultural homophobia. Some of the San Francisco chapter's first actions were kiss-ins, which would send hundreds of flamboyant lovers to a straight Marina bar or the Powell Street cable car turnaround, where they would make out en masse with gusto.
Focus group GHOST (Grand Homosexual Outrage at Sickening Televangelists) organized a rally to greet televangelists who'd flown in to exorcise the demons of San Francisco on Halloween night of 1990. The evangelist-phobic crowd of thousands skipped off to the annual Castro neighborhood celebrations after overwhelming the city's would-be saviors. Similarly irreverant, SHOP (Suburban Homosexual Outreach Program) fulfilled its moniker's promise by surprising attendees at a special celebrity appearance of Hello Kitty at San Bruno's Tanforan Shopping Center with a joyous melee of drag, balloons and banners.
Often, Queer Nation's actions featured a chant that hasn't left the lips of LGBTQ+ troublemakers since: "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!"
For members of Queer Nation, style was key. The group's many affiliated visual artists designed neon stickers with sayings like "Queers bash back" and "Dykes take over the world." "Usually I wore boy drag like an ACT UP activist, but sometimes gurl drag—a wig and long hair, earrings and a dress or skirt," remembers activist Derek Marshall Newman in an email to KQED. "It depended how cute I wanted look and how safe I felt."
"We were queer people, so we had a sense of humor," says Rachel Pepper, an early Queer Nation member who played a key role in moderating general meetings. "There was a lot of camp, because when you are in the midst of a crisis and an epidemic you also have to laugh, and you have to find humor, and you have to love, and you have to live intensely every day, because you don't know if you're going to be alive in a year."
'Queers bash back'
In this pre-internet era, Queer Nation members communicated via their Queer Week newsletter and Queerline voicemail system. They coined the phrase "Queers bash back" for street patrols that walked the streets of San Francisco to thwart gay bashers, who seemed to stalk Dolores Park, and abusive cops, who were surely Queer Nation's most hated adversaries. Often, the group would show up in solidarity at community anti-police and eviction protests.
In fact, intersectionality became a goal of the short-lived group. Among the group's people of color-focused sub-groups was United Colors of Queer Nation, founded by activist Karl Knapper. It focused on amplifying the voices of activists of color in Queer Nation, and on developing practices that protected black and brown bodies at protests, such as physical placement at sit-ins and pre-event training on how to deal with police.
"That was one of the things that [white Queer Nation activists] wanted to do: a lot of civil disobedience," remembers United Colors activist Thomas Tymstone, who, along with Pepper, also facilitated Queer Nation's general assembly meetings. "That is great, but a lot of people of color don't want to be arrested for any reason."
Historian Gerard Koskovich was a legal observer during Queer Nation actions, taking notes in case there was a later need for a court witness to testify against police misconduct. Koskovich remembers how members who came from privileged backgrounds listened to stories fellow activists told about experiences with predatory law enforcement. These exchanges could oftentimes prove intense for would-be activists who became overwhelmed by the multiplicity of perspectives and the challenges they presented to creating a cohesive movement.
But sometimes, surprising moments of connection took place. As one of the group's hard-working moderators, Tymstone remembers with fondness Queer Nation's practice of the "fishbowl," in which different focus groups could hold the floor and address their concerns uninterrupted by comments from the audience. "A lot of our organizational structure was made by women," he says. "Gay men didn't know anything about consensus. We would just talk until somebody let us—or until somebody heard us. [The women] would stop us and say, 'Wait, let this person talk.'"
"For a period of time, at least, those meetings became much more of a space where people felt safe coming forward with these very tender, difficult things and saying, 'Can we talk about this and help understand things better?'" Koskovich says. "Of course, it didn't ultimately always work out that way, and how could it? But at least that was a moment."
The moment didn’t last forever. Queer Nation SF meetings dwindled by the end of 1991. Some members say the vast organization collapsed under difference in tactical preferences and the weight of trying to do too much. But in the cracks and crannies of San Francisco, some glitter from the Queer Nation days remain.
The group's members went on to become writers, policymakers, historians, artists and scholars. Morris became an eminent Bay Area film programmer at Frameline Film Festival, SF DocFest and the Roxie Theater. Jonathan David Katz is a lauded academic who founded the Harvey Milk Institute, once one of the world's largest centers for queer studies. And fellow alum Justin Vivian Bond is a ground-breaking, Tony-nominated vocalist and founder of parodic lounge duo Kiki and Herb.
"There's a real concrete, traceable network of people doing work that came out of the relationships built in that era," says Koskovich.
Queer Nation's activism was brief, but the group's flouncy radicalism left a blueprint for younger generations: to make activism last, listen to those with different experiences. To heal, laugh. And to make change, be unabashedly, unapologetically loud.
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