History For Sale | Newberry

History For Sale

It was the word “homophile” which threw me. It took me a moment to realize that the word “homosexual” was fairly uncommon in 1964, and the headline about homophiles and angry ministers was making use of a synonym. In fact, it was not until 1964 that an organization in the United States used the word “homosexual” in its name for the first time, when the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was founded.

That outfit started when a few courageous souls in San Francisco’s gay community decided to reach out to local clergy and start discussing whether it was possible to be gay and Christian. The Methodists were the first to take an interest in the question, but clergy from among the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ joined the discussion and founded the CRH, with input from the Daughters of Bilitis, who made the organization a bit more coed. Meetings were held, which included social gatherings. Eventually a grand Mardi Gras benefit costume ball was announced on January 1, 1965. (One person hearing this story sniffed “Leave it to a bunch of Protestants to celebrate Mardi Gras on New Year’s.”)

A hall was rented, which made the city of San Francisco took notice. The hall was subjected to a surprise fire safety inspection, and then a health inspection. More inspections followed, and the San Francisco Police Department set up floodlights outside the hall, making great show of photographing everyone who arrived at the party. It was a costume party (the Mardi Gras theme, see) so these photographs were bound to be somewhat embarrassing even if the association with a homosexual (same sex) party.

The organizers of the party finally told the police to get a search warrant or buy a ticket. The police accordingly stepped up to the ticket seller, arrested her, and then arrested the attorneys who were present in case of unpleasantness, charging interference with police in the performance of their duty. In court, they claimed they had merely been trying to see that city ordinances about alcohol sales were adhered to.

That fell apart when one of the arresting officers admitted to having made out in advance fifty arrest record cards, but the real blow to the city’s case came when those twelve angry ministers walked into the court. They had been a part of the Mardi Gras gathering, but they turned up for the trial dressed in their Sunday pulpit attire, accompanied by their wives. This impressed the audience and the judge, who wound up dismissing the case.

In the wake of this victory, the CRH printed a large four-page pamphlet called “A Brief of Injustices: an indictment of our society in its treatment of the homosexual”. This document, variously called the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights of the San Francisco gay community, is, with the court case that provoked it, is considered a landmark in American history. It lists ten specific injustices, and spells out why these are incompatible with the ideals of the American Way.

This pamphlet turned up inside a small book from one of last week’s donations. I now know where it comes from and what it is. I know where to find libraries which own a copy. (It’s kind of out of scope for the Newberry, since U.S. history after 1945 is not our turf.) What I’m working on now is what to charge for it. That’s my job, see: if someone gave me a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, my second thought—after “Wow!”—has to be “How do I sell this and what can I get for it?” Yes, I KNOW you’re bursting with ideas about libraries and museums I can GIVE it to, and I am not opposed to that sort of thing, but it’s also my job to know what something is worth before I give it away.

Anyway, if it winds up on the Collector’s table at the Book Fair, it’s nice to have a piece of history to show off. If you WANT to send over your first printing of the Declaration of Independence, I’ll make some room for that, too.

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