Capturing Our Diversity
by Ron Williams – (c) 2019
Thoughts of marching in a Gay Parade in the early 60s when I first Came Out, wasn’t even a futuristic fantasy. At 19 and very naïve, frightened, inexperienced, rejected by a narrow-minded family, but somehow I instinctively knew there was something special out there waiting for me in the big social minefield of uncertainty, most of us faced during those pre-Stonewall years when LGBTQ culture was on the bleeding edge of change. It felt like setting out to cross the ocean in a rowboat driven by hope and courage to find my place in the world, having walked through the fire, so to speak, my life changed, and it wasn’t long before I found my “Logical Family,” as Armistead Maupin so beautifully characterizes, comfortable families. My extended family included the thousands of LGBTQ people in San Francisco and ultimately around the world, now that’s One big family.
San Francisco in the 60s, there were several events of Gay Liberation that preceded Stonewall riots in New York. For years the SFPD (San Francisco Police Department) had been at war with San Francisco’s homosexual underground; bar raids, entrapments and the endless list of oppressive offenses levied against the Gay Community, all of which we eventually transcended. From my perspective, the 1964 Life Magazine’s article featuring San Francisco’s underground Gay Life, from Leather to Drag, flashed like a big neon sign telegraphing our lifestyles around the world. Later that year, the New Year’s eve raid at California Hall and the 1966 Compton’s cafeteria riot were equally important but overlooked elements of the rebellion against LGBTQ oppression.
As the 60s turned into the 70s, LGBTQ presence became more public as an embryonic “Gay Community” got its wings of political activism by displaying strength at the voting booth. Stonewall came to San Francisco from New York under the name GLF (Gay Liberation Front). Suddenly, I felt empowered to demonstrate and march expressing my Pride as a liberated Gay man along with hundreds of other men and women in the City. We marched in the first Gay Parade in San Francisco with several hundred people, through San Francisco’s Tenderloin and then down Polk Street. We were met with jeers, insults, things thrown at us, while others applauded and joined us in our assertive public declaration with our fists raised high, ignoring publicly expressed homophobia. Walking in unison, our heads held high with confidence expressing to the world our time had come; a public Coming Out demanding acceptance and equality from a hostile society. Pride is the power of individual diversity that brings us all together as One.
Those first Pride events in the 1970s were like major milestones in the struggle of equality, they allowed the fledgling Gay culture an opportunity to express latent political power and solidarity under the protection provided by, safety in numbers, to flourish in a world full of hatred and prejudice. The wondrous exhilarating feeling of marching in a group, where everyone is a Star for those few hours, including the observers and bystanders. It’s absolutely phenomenal how so many people from different; political views, cultures, ethnicities, races, ages, tastes and fetishes find ways to express their different sexual preferences and gender expressions, then collaboratively organize and successfully throw these huge events.
LGBTQ Pride events are historical, where ever in the world they happen and express the power of diversity to the world, diversity is Our Strength. A strength that gives the global ubiquitous LGBTQ family, hope and courage in the world where LGBTQ people continue to be oppressed and murdered, motivated by homophobia and politicized religious ideology.
A San Francisco native, I Came Out during the pre-Stonewall era of the 1960s, trained in graphic arts, it wasn’t long before photography became my advocation when I started working for the B.A.R. (Bay Area Reporter), in 1974 having developed a substantial body of documentary photography. In 1977 I was offered an attractive position at a Sonoma County winery working in their marketing department as a graphic designer. So, moving to the Russian River was an added perk, considering the burgeoning new LGBTQ community developing on the River during the 70s.
My career and years at the Russian River were productive but wild, to say the least. I had a cottage along the river near Hacienda Bridge, in Forestville right on the floodplain and the inevitable flood would eventually happen. Being careless and not listening to several warnings, during the Russian River Flood of 1982, I had lost my entire body of photography, including all the negatives to the furious river. The only images from 70s period of my work now lived in the archives of the B.A.R.
However, 5 rolls of film of the 1980 Gay Freedom Day Parade were thought to have been lost, unlabeled and undeveloped, were in a different box, escaping the destructive floodwaters. Wrapped in a plastic bag, they languished in a box of my personal junk until 2010. Once discovered, realizing I had no idea what was on the film until they were developed. These are the black and white photos in the front of the book shot on a medium format 2¼ camera. I didn’t think the latent images would still be viable after 30 years. I sent those rolls of 120 Tri-X film off to a film rescue company and to my great surprise the images were still strong and viable.
During the period of the River years, I traveled back and forth to the City a lot, both on business and pleasure, I had many old friends in San Francisco, always a place to stay, but as one’s career leads them around, during the spring of 1984, I found another job opportunity in San Francisco, kissed the Russian River goodbye and back to the mother ship I went. Returning to the City, wasn’t easy, everything had changed, the HIV crisis was rearing its ugly head, old friends had moved away compounded by my 7-year hiatus, the old San Francisco just wasn’t the same. There’s an old saying, “you can never go home.”
Concentrating on my new job, I didn’t focus much on photography, after losing my negatives, the body of work and equipment left me feeling, maybe photography really isn’t my thing. But when the holidays came around, my old friend Brooks Cameras, on Kearny Street, advertised a holiday sale on a Minolta 35mm camera and cheap flash unit, so I treated myself for the holidays. A far cry from my twin lens 2¼ Mamiya-flex, but it was an affordable camera, however, I still didn’t really get behind my photography, I was more interested in all things computer, as the magic Macs and PCs appeared in both the business and personal worlds. My job, fortunately, was on the cutting edge of the new technology, I conveniently worked downtown in the financial district, life was good.
1985 living in the Castro on 18th Street in an attic apartment on the 3rd floor became my castle for the next 30 years. And still, my interest in photography was foreshadowed by the exploding interest in personal computers especially in the company I worked for. The demand for new training was in high demand, generously my company paid for me to go back to school at the S. F. State University downtown campus for training in electronic arts and desktop publishing.
June 1989, I photographed the Gay Freedom Day parade, which was staged in the Castro, then down Market Street, to Civic Center, it was Stonewall’s 20th Anniversary.
Then the quantum leap into the future, the Internet came along. I learned coding and website management, at work and saw the opportunity to start a website for the Castro. Collaborating with Dwight Stevers, we launched WebCastro.com in 1995 as an “e-magazine” promoting the Castro neighborhood, which turned out to be very successful with small business advertising with a focus on the growing Gay tourist industry. Being a webmaster required documentary photography and the cheap little 35mm Minolta, just didn’t meet the quality requirements and bought an expensive Canon camera and set of lenses.
Suddenly by default, I become a documentary photographer, publishing photography on the web. Living and working in the neighborhood, I recorded many of the events, especially the political protests, the candlelight marches, remembering victims of AIDS marching down Market Street to Civic Center in front of City Hall. Thousands carried candles each a glimmer of light in memory of Harvey Milk, remembering that tragic event of November 27, 1978.
The bulk of the images in this book were shot on film, negatives fade, gather dust and get scratches from being handled, consequently retouching was required for publication, a daunting task, I apologize for those in perfections that sneaked through. 2007 is the first year I switched from film to digital, opening up a whole new world of images with quality improvement with computer programs, hard drive storage of thousands of images. All those hundreds of images on negatives will outlast the digital images floating around on the Internet and cyberspace, this is why I believe it is important to publish on paper. People still like the smell of ink and tactile feel of paper flipping through pages of a new book.
My first inspiration for this book came while realizing the power and strength of the LGBTQ community is in our “diversity,” which is evidenced at every Pride Parade around the globe. It’s time we realized we are a people.