"I was there..."
by George Neville-Neal
A Queer Nation flyer
I moved to San Francisco from Boston via a short stint in Mountain View in August of 1990. At the time I was 23 years old and just out of college. When I had left Boston a bunch of my friends, I found out later, had taken bets on how long it would take me to join a "radical" organization. At the time I didn't think I was that radical, I felt that most of my friends in Boston were just very middle class, and boring. They were nice people, they just didn't seem interested in changing the world, or even their local circumstances. In Boston I had been the most out and loud queer that many people I knew knew. I felt that this was their problem, and I still do.
ACT-UP Die-in on Market at UN Plaza, 1990.
Photo: photographer unknown
In some ways they were right. It took me about 2 weeks to find out about Queer Nation, a radical queer group of about 60 people that had its meetings at The Women's Building in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. When I went to my first meeting in early September plans were already under way for a big protest to confront a rabid right wing preacher named Larry Lee and his Prayer Warriors.
The concept that this preacher had come up with was to use all the militaristic imagery he could and to "inspire" his flock to do battle with evil. Pictures were shown on the news of these folks all dressed up in camouflage outfits screaming and praying in big auditoriums.
This year (1990) he had decided that Halloween in the Castro was the evil to do battle with.
The Halloween party in the Castro was still a pretty big deal at this point, but not so big that it had to be moved to Civic Center where it is now (1997). It was also at this time much more queer than it is now. It was just a huge street party where everyone could let it all hang out. You'd see the most amazing drag, as well as lots of people having a good time. It was a party for that neighborhood and really wasn't something for everyone. Our plan was to prevent the Prayer Warriors from crashing the party.
Other than a couple of demonstrations that I'd gone to in College in Boston (one to voice support for an equal rights bill that would include Sexual Orientation as a protected class and the other against the CIA recruiting on my college campus) I'd never really been involved in a big demonstration. The next several weeks were involved in getting out the word on the protest and figuring out what our plans were going to be to block these lunk heads.
When I joined up with QN I immediately joined the media focus group.
I liked to write and was really into working on press releases and newsletters. We had a few meetings where we worked on the press release and the weekly newsletter, Queer Week, which was a paste up job of 4 pages. One of the major pushes for this protest was to get our press release to as many media organizations as we could.
The protest didn't just involve QN, there were other groups who were involved, including The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and others who escape me now.
I'm sure we did have a plan for that night, but I never knew what it was, except for one point; don't let the Prayer Warriors get near The Castro. Their plans were to be bussed in to the Civic Center Auditorium, about a mile from the Castro and start off with a rousing prayer meeting. When they arrived we were there to meet them, and so was the SFPD.
The Cops kept us away from the Warriors as best they could but it was a thin line between us. It was amazing to me to see all these crazed dykes and faggots, most in leather jackets covered in bright luminescent stickers, screaming and taunting these bigots. This was the kind of thing I had really jones'd for in college and now I was in the middle of it.
I was there with my friend Roger, and lots of other people who would eventually become friends and acquaintances. Roger and I had met a couple of months before and had started hanging out a lot. He was part of a core group of friends that I still am very close to to this day. We egged each other on to block the street and do other things which the cops said we weren't allowed to do.
The array of people was amazing. There were probably 1,000 protesters at this demo. Some group (I think the Sisters) had built a huge golden cross on a float whose main beam was a big penis. It was an amazingly shocking sight, and one that made me grin from ear to ear.
These people were crazy, and it was a crazy I really liked. We had cut all the ties loose and weren't taking shit from anyone. Everyone was chanting stuff like, "Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia's got to go", and "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, fucking bigots go away."
At one point the cops had gotten us across the street from the auditorium and now a stand off began. Most of us were standing on a grassy area across a 40' wide street from the auditorium. At this point a group of demonstrators marched out into the street and faced off with the cops, who formed a phalanx.
The scene looked like this. There were 100 to 150 demonstrators on my right as I faced the building and on my left were about 50 cops facing off with them. A cop came on the loudspeaker to threaten people with arrest if they continued to block the street. The demonstrators sat down right in the middle of the street and linked arms. The cops stood off to the left and kept threatening to arrest them. The stand off lasted about a half hour, while the rest of us chanted and screamed. Roger and I had both not planned to be arrested so we stood off on the grass with the majority of the demonstrators, chanting and singing. My adrenaline was rushing like mad. It was awesome.
While we were chanting and singing a very attractive woman, I thought, called me by name. I was surprised as I didn't know this person at all. Actually it was a guy I knew from QN in the most amazing drag I'd ever seen. I'd only ever seen bad drag, but he was really good at it. It changed my mind about drag right on the spot. It was an instant consciousness raising. I no longer thought that drag queens were sad and pathetic (which is what many people think whether they're willing to say it or not.) Here was this beautiful man as a beautiful woman, in my state it probably had even more of an effect than it would have normally.
At some point we heard an announcement that the Prayer Warriors had decided to not march to the Castro. We had actually won! All of us formed up into an impromptu parade and WE marched off to the Castro to join the party. It was amazing to me that a group of crazy queers had beaten a group of down home, religious right, fanatics. Of course we were on our own turf, but still, I had never seen this happen. Once at the party we all hung out and celebrated our victory.
After the party I walked up hill to where I was living and turned on the news to see if we'd made it. Not only had this made the news (CNN) but the anchor, David Goodnow, was reading our press release on the air. That was the coup de grace and the thought I went to sleep with.
Though I was involved with QN for another year or so after that I still remember that demo as a personal turning point into radical circles and thinking that I could really change the world. It's a belief I still hold.