Two protesters holding a "Gay Liberation Front" sign kiss, from the Nov. 7 issue of the 'Berkeley Tribe.' (Photo by Bil Paul; Courtesy of Independent Voices)
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.
The day that came to be known as “Friday of the Purple Hand” ended in 15 arrests, a broken rib, one set of knocked-out teeth and purple handprints scattered across the San Francisco Examiner’s exterior walls.
Four months after the infamous Stonewall riots in New York City, the Bay Area’s more radical LGBTQ+ organizations of 1969 refused to passively accept negative depictions of their community in the local news. So on Oct. 25, when the Examiner published an article by reporter Robert Patterson under the headline “The Dreary Revels of S.F. ‘Gay’ Clubs,” the newspaper unknowingly issued a powerful call to arms—to the very people it had derided.
The events of that day show that the battleground for the burgeoning gay liberation movement wasn’t just on the streets or in the bars—where LGBTQ+ people demanded the right to live openly and unmolested by police—but within the pages of America’s newspapers and magazines. There, mainstream media’s dismissive adjectives, ironic scare quotes and defamatory headlines had the power to shape public opinion of an increasingly vocal and visible minority group.
And they definitely weren’t expecting a coalition of gay liberation groups to strike back.
A community mobilizes
By today’s standards, Patterson’s article, ostensibly about after-hours “‘gay’ breakfast clubs” (note the scare quotes around the word “gay”), reads like a hit piece.
He described the clientele of these so-called “deviate establishments” in as many grossly homophobic ways as possible, all well beyond the pale: “semi-males with flexible wrists and hips,” “the pseudo fair sex,” and “women who aren’t exactly women.” (In a testament to Patterson’s ‘credibility,’ he was fired by the Examiner in 1972 for a series of stories he wrote about visiting China; the paper concluded he had not actually visited the country.)
The community he described was outraged. “The San Francisco Examiner has surpassed its traditional standard of tastelessness and its predictable appeal for redneck hysteria,” the newly formed gay liberation group, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom (CHF) wrote in a Berkeley Barb response piece. “The entire gay community and all those actively working for true liberation must mobilize to confront the brutal suppression of freedom that the Examiner consistently exemplifies and encourages.”
A date was set after several attempts to engage with the paper’s editor and Patterson directly: a large-scale protest would take place on Oct. 31, starting at 12pm on the sidewalk outside the Examiner’s Fifth Street building.
The “melee,” as the Examiner described it the next day, started when two unknown persons (widely thought to be newspaper employees) dropped bags of purple printer’s ink from the building rooftop onto the peaceful picketers below. “Indignation turned to anger,” one of the protesters later wrote in The San Francisco Free Press. “Feet stepped in the ink. It appeared all around the sidewalks. One or two hands dipped into the ink and a new symbol was born.”
The police initially apprehended just one demonstrator, the first one to put his inky hand on the building walls, but as others protested his arrest, the “Tac Squad” (sardonically described as “close by and ever on the ready”) moved in, raising their batons and declaring the picket line an illegal assembly.
In the ensuing “fracas” (another great 1969 word), a dozen protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct and thrown in the paddy wagon—several on felony charges that were eventually dropped (except for one instance of allegedly biting a police officer). Other protesters took the issue to City Hall, where an additional three were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly and remaining at the site of a riot (essentially, staying in the building past closing time).
Unsurprisingly, the SFPD’s heavy-handed response—and the ensuing cases against the arrested protesters—galvanized not just the members of more radical LGBTQ+ groups, but the old guard they initially sought to distance themselves from, creating a network of support that would propel the Bay Area’s gay liberation movement in the years to come.
Marc Robert Stein, professor of history at San Francisco State University and editor of The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History, thinks the timing of Patterson’s article wasn’t coincidental, and reflected the era’s homophobic attitudes to burgeoning gay organizing. “October was the month when mainstream magazines first covered Stonewall,” he says. “The movement is really growing. And it’s at that moment that there’s this incredibly hostile story.”
Join the gay revolution
Before the events of the Purple Hand and before the creation of the CHF, the largest gay organization in San Francisco was the Society for Individual Rights (S.I.R.), a homophile society (to use the language of the time) founded in 1964.
As the women’s rights, anti-war and Black power movements swept the country, some younger members of the LGBTQ+ community considered S.I.R. to be too conservative. In an April 1969 editorial, Leo Laurence, editor of Vector, S.I.R.’s monthly magazine, broke ranks with the mostly white, middle-class and nonconfrontational members of S.I.R., calling them “timid, uptight, conservative, and afraid to act for the good of the whole homosexual community.”
The time had come, Laurence argued, for everyone to come out to their friends, family and employers, and to be proud of their sexuality. They should be joining forces with other social causes, like the Black Panthers and local unions, and standing up for everyone’s rights.
To illustrate his idea of LGBTQ+ freedom in a subsequent Berkeley Barb interview, Laurence supplied the alt weekly with a picture of two men smiling: Laurence with his arms around his friend Gale Whittington. In no short order, S.I.R. asked Laurence to resign, and Whittington was fired from his job at the States Steamship Company.
The CHF, co-founded by Laurence, Whittington and a few others, was a direct reaction to this double rejection from both “straight” society and the existing gay establishment. And with this effort, they would be all about coalition-building.
The Purple Hand events were co-organized by at least three like-minded groups, including Gay Guerrilla Theater and the Gay Liberation Front. But despite the fracture between Laurence and S.I.R. that precipitated the creation of the CHF months earlier, the old-guard emerged as surprising supporters of the younger demonstrators as well.
In a Nov. 7 Berkeley Tribe piece reflecting on the demonstration and its aftermath, Laurence writes, “I was scared and felt alone in jail, until I learned of the help mobilized ‘outside.’” The Red Mountain Tribe gathered bail money, S.I.R.’s president saved Laurence’s camera film before he was thrown in the paddy wagon, Del Martin (co-founder in 1955 of the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis) helped CHF find lawyers, writing several sympathetic articles for Vector in the months to come.
“When Gale Whittington and I founded the CHF last spring, we dreamed of a nationwide movement,” Laurence writes in the Tribe. “It’s no longer a fantasy.”
After the Purple Hand
Protests against mainstream media’s depictions of the LGBTQ+ community would continue for years to come. The Purple Hand events, Stein says, are just one example of protests across the country against newspapers and magazines in ’69 and ’70, along with a second wave of protests against television stations and individual shows in ’73.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who joined the Gay Liberation Front in Philadelphia when he was a 19-year-old student at Temple University, remembers those times well. “Back in the ’70s especially pretty much any time they did a feature on the community it would be very negative,” he remembers. The GLF would picket or actually enter the newspaper offices, confronting editors and writers of the specific stories.
Through a combination of direct action, face-to-face conversations and larger shifts in society, Mecca says, things gradually changed, fulfilling in many ways Laurence’s early 1969 call-to-arms.
“I think one of the greatest things we did as a community was to come out of the closet,” Mecca says. “By being visible, we broke all the stereotypes. We forced people to engage with us, we forced our families to deal with us, we forced people to see we were just like them.”