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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Years Benefit Ball in San Francisco

by Robert Warren Cromey

Each year at Gay Pride time we read and hear about Stonewall. The Stonewall riots in New York City are assumed to be the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States. A new documentary Stonewall Uprising depicts that exciting and important event which began on June 28, 1969 and ran for three days.

I muse upon a couple of events five years earlier in, which I played a small part. Hundreds of gays and lesbians attended a New Years Benefit Ball on January 1, 1965. Police invaded the private benefit event and arrested six people. The also took flash photographs of party goers in a blatant attempt at intimidating the guests as they entered California Hall on Polk street to go to the ballroom. One woman and three lawyers were arrested for blocking the police from entering and two men were arrested for alleged lewd conduct. The ball continued without further interference.

The event was a benefit for San Francisco’s Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an organization of clergy and lay people to study and understand the homosexual community, which was being harassed and persecuted in the City and Bay Area. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were among the founding members of the board. They also had staffed the New Year’s event.

When the San Francisco Police Department heard about the ball, they attempted to force the rented hall's owners to cancel the event. Some of the leaders of the Council had met with the police to explain the purposes of the council and the ball with the idea of heading off any trouble. The police were more interested in the theology of the clergy, and, noticing wedding rings, asked if their wives knew of this event. We left the meeting feeling sure the ball would go on without interruption.

When police demanded entry into the hall, three CRH lawyers explained to them that under California law, the event was a private party and they could not enter unless they bought tickets. The lawyers were then arrested, as was a ticket-taker, on charges of obstructing an officer.

When the police invaded the hall several of the clergy, including Cecil Williams and I, tried to block the police from entering. We were brushed aside and they went into a private party. The police did not want to be seen arresting clergy, we were seen as more respectable then. The arrested lawyers were the late Herb Donaldson, Evander Childs and Elliott Layton. Donaldson later became San Francisco’s first openly gay judge.

Seven of us ministers who were in attendance that night held a press conference the following morning, January 2, 1965, where we described the pre-event negotiations with police and accused them of "intimidation, broken promises and obvious hostility." One minister compared the SFPD to the Gestapo.

Those participating in the press conference ripping the police were The late Rev. Lewis Durham, program director of the Glide Foundation, Rev. Robert Warren Cromey of the Episcopal Diocese of California, Rev. Cecil Williams, Director of Glide’s Church and Community Ministry, Rev. Fred Bird, pastor of St. Johns Methodist Church, Rev. Charles Lewis, of the North Beach Lutheran Ministry, the late Rev. Dr. Clarence Caldwell, of the United Methodist Church, and Rev. Ted McIlvenna of the Glide Foundation.

When the arrested lawyers came to trial, they were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which saw the lawyers' arrest as an attempt to "intimidate attorneys who represent unpopular groups."

Herb Donldson said "They jury went out and deliberated and came back not long afterward and announced that they had found the defendants not guilty. And that they would have done it even if the judge hadn't told them to do it.” Judge Leo Friedman excoriated the police for their tactics and harassment.

That was a critical moment in San Francisco history.

Some important things started to change when a judge and a jury said that you couldn't be convicted as a criminal for standing up to that kind of police harassment. The police department was embarrassed by the publicity, which went local, state and national. Harassment of gays and lesbians began to diminish.


Donaldson also said it well, "There were no gay parades, no gay proclamations, no gay exhibit at the library, there weren't gay people in courses in the high schools or in the grammar schools. There were no openly elected officials, there were no openly gay judges. There weren't any openly gay lawyers in San Francisco in 1965.”

The New Years Ball, the acquittal of the lawyers and those arrested, and the change in police policy were dramatic events in the LGBT movement for full freedom in the society. Stonewall is perceived to be the beginning of the movement. But the New Year’s Ball in San Francisco and its aftermath were powerful forerunners of the movement for LGBT rights.

Robert Warren Cromey is a priest of the Episcopal Church,

retired and living in San Francisco.

He was one of the founders of the

Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1964.


Blogger Craig said...

Thank you for fearlessly "getting in the way".

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Fred Fenton said...

Two of my favorite people, Cecil Williams and Robert Cromey, were there for the LGBT community long before the modern movement for LGBT rights began. I salute them. This story of police harassment and injustice deserves to be told and commemorated in some way. It was an important first step in San Francisco on a journey that still has not come to an end and will not until LGBT persons are accorded the same rights as everyone else, including the right to marry.

8:28 PM  
Blogger LouieCrew said...

I rejoice in your courage. I also rejoice in your steadfast kindness to me through the decades.

I remember meeting with you in your office at Trinity/SF a year or two after I founded Integrity. Your fearlessness inspired me then, and it still does.

Louie Crew

8:52 AM  
Blogger ronsfo said...

The police harassment that went on in San Francisco over the years which led up the CRH New Years dance raid was tremendous. Hundreds of men and women were prosecuted under unconstitutional laws. I understand that was the spirit of the time, but we must also remember that establishing and documenting our histories help to establish our heritage as a minority that has struggled for nearly 50 year since that event. Thanks, Ron Williams

2:54 PM  

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