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Before Stonewall (and a gay Hillcrest): Five surprising facts about San Diego’s forgotten gay past.
In 1952, the authors of an overheated bestseller called “USA Confidential” promised to blow the lid off the nation’s depraved triumvirate of Communists, labor unions and gays. San Diego, a Navy town on the rise, sent their gaydar into overdrive.
“The fairy fleet has landed and taken over the nation’s most important naval base,” they warned, adding that “what we saw in San Diego frightened us.”
How bad was it? Well, local sailors cast women aside and turned to “fairy dives” full of “prancing misfits in peekaboo blouses, with marcelled hair and rouged faces.”
Scandalous! And most likely exaggerated. But gays and lesbians in mid-century San Diego did find plenty to celebrate — and plenty to fear.
As the annual LGBT pride parade and festival approach this weekend, here are five surprising facts about San Diego’s gay world before the Stonewall uprising, the series of New York City protests in 1969 that birthed the modern fight for LGBT rights.
The first gay bars in the city set up shop in downtown, not Hillcrest. There they could serve sailors, office workers and travelers coming in on the train or bus.
“USA Confidential” claims there were dozens of gay bars in the city, “packed every night.” The authors point to one in particular: Cinnabar in the Gaslamp Quarter near Broadway. This bar, named a hot nightspot by Billboard magazine in the 1940s, supposedly served up waiters who’d “sit at the bar, solicit drinks, kiss and pet customers.”
The book’s hysterical tone suggest it’s not a reliable source of information. Indeed, Time magazine called “USA Confidential” a “slapdash gutter-side view of America.” But some downtown bars were definitely friendly to gay sailors.
The well-respected 1990 book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II” says so-called “rough bars” in San Diego, like Blue Jacket and Bradley’s, “catered to enlisted men of many races, gay civilians and ‘trade’ (enlisted men and working-class civilian men willing to go with gay men).”
San Diego’s population exploded during and after World War II, and the city’s gay population — both men and women — grew with the defense industry boom.
In “Coming Out Under Fire,” a veteran describes going to yeoman school at the San Diego Naval Training Station and finding camaraderie with other gay sailors. “It was simply accepted,” he said, “that there were certain people who paired off.”
Not that gays were welcome in the military. In 1942, shrinks declared they were “unfit to fight,” wrote journalist Catherine S. Manegold in the New York Times in 1993. “Then they devised supposedly foolproof guides to ferret them out: an effeminate flip of hand or a certain nervousness when standing naked before an officer.”
It wasn’t just men who faced expulsion. Lesbian service members — “questionable women” — could be expelled too if they were found out.
Some gay men and lesbians weren’t detected, or at least weren’t prosecuted, and continued to serve. Others were dishonorably discharged. Whatever the case, many of them chose to stay in San Diego, part of a wave of service members who transformed cities like San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles into even bigger hot spots of gay culture.
“World War II may be considered the birth moment of modern gay and lesbian history,” write two historians in the new introduction to “Coming Out Under Fire.” “Young men and lesbians came to discover their sexuality and, after the war, they helped build the urban communities that we have inherited today.”
A retired rear admiral named Selden Hooper was being watched in 1957, but he didn’t know it. At his home in Coronado, a team of Navy intelligence agents monitored his activity through binoculars, periscopes and holes in a fence. They’d even taken over the home next door so they could keep an eye on him. All because they thought he might be gay.
Then the big moment came: They saw him dance with a 22-year-old sailor and kiss him. They’d see more than that too, enough for the Navy to court martial Hooper, the first retired admiral to ever face such a dishonor.
As author Lillian Faderman chronicles in her 2015 book “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle,” big names in the local civic world spoke in Hooper’s defense at his court martial, and a psychiatrist said he wasn’t gay. His mother, who lived at the Coronado house, testified that she agreed: not gay.
But Hooper was ultimately convicted under the theory that he still had to follow military law in retirement, and he lost his pension.
In 2012, amid the Gen. David Petraeus sex scandal, a law professor told Stars and Stripes that the case “haunted gay military retirees for decades.”
It’s not clear whether San Diego cops devoted much time to raiding gay bars as they did in other cities across the U.S. But an unidentified man told the San Diego Reader in 1999 that an estimated 30-50 gay bars came and went in downtown, often falling victim to vice raids. “The standard fine in those days — this was in the late 1940s — was 150 bucks,” he said.
In 1951, a surprising state Supreme Court decision allowed gay bars to legally exist, although they had to be careful about “illegal or immoral conduct.” Still, California cops would sometimes launch sting operations in bars to catch (or entrap) patrons in the act.
In 1950s Los Angeles, the owner of a gay bar adored her patrons so much that she even wrote a recently rediscovered book about them. But she ordered them to never kiss or even act effeminate so she could stay out of trouble with the police.
Early gay bars in San Diego were flat-out dives. “The drinks were watered down, and the places were not attractive,” said Frank Nobiletti, a historian of gay San Diego, in a 2011 interview with me for KPBS. But, Noblietti said, the Brass Rail — San Diego’s most well-known gay bar — brought actual refinement to gay hangouts.
The Brass Rail opened downtown in the 1930s and later attracted a gay clientele at its first location at Sixth and B. In the 1999 Reader story, a man named Lou Arko recalled that the Brass Rail was a gay bar, at least in the evenings, when he bought it in 1957. “The gays would come in at five-thirty,” he said, and the straight folks would skedaddle.”
A few years later, the Brass Rail moved to Fifth and Robinson and, as the Reader puts it, “may have been the catalyst for Hillcrest’s birth as San Diego’s gay district.”
Now, Hillcrest is one of the nation’s most well-known gay districts. It’s a far cry from the early 1970s, when there was no LGBT neighborhood and the city’s first gay center opened not in Hillcrest but in Golden Hill.
• Gay bars like Cinnabar, Blue Jacket and Bradley’s are gone. Cinnabar’s space later became George’s on Fifth and earlier this year, was slated to become a trailer park-themed restaurant. No word if “marcelled hair” (hair styled with waves) is still a thing there.
• Lou Arko, the Brass Rail owner and heterosexual friend of gays, died in 2009, but his bar remains in business. San Diego is still home to more than a dozen gay bars.
• Selden Hooper, the disgraced retired admiral, went to court to get his pension back but lost his case in 1964. He died in 1976.
• The authors of 1952’s “USA Confidential,” who described themselves as “hard characters,” would be hit with successful libel suits, and one would sue Frank Sinatra after being punched by the singer. Despite his moralizing tone, one of the authors married five women. He died before he could reach the age of 60.
Meanwhile, the kind of scandal-sheet lingo highlighted in “USA Confidential” — full of “B-girls,” “nances” and “Sapphic lovers,” — would inspire bestselling author James Ellroy. His “L.A. Confidential” novel, later a stunning 1997 movie, conjured a dark and sleazy vision of mid-century vice in Southern California.
Did the authors of “USA Confidential” partake of the “wenches and reefer” they claimed to be on offer in what is now San Diego’s Midway district? Did they linger a bit too long in that frisky downtown gay bar?
To borrow a phrase from “L.A. Confidential,” the truth may forever be “off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.”