by Sophia Manolis, 2021
Vanguard Street Sweep, 1966. Vanguard Magazine Vol One: Issue Two, 1966
Image: Courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society
|In 1965, youth LGBTQ+ (1) activists from the Tenderloin neighborhood joined together in a grassroots organization called “Vanguard.” Their goal was to obtain a sense of dignity and responsibility for their members that was, according to their mission statement, “too long denied.” They engaged in grassroots activism that primarily consisted of community organizing and protests. Their efforts led to increased federal funding towards gay community centers and resources in the Tenderloin, and inspired 21st century LGBTQ+ youth to raise public awareness about their unique identities and experiences. Through a 2011 community organizing project called “Vanguard Revisited,” these youth explored the parallels between their experiences and those of original Vanguard members, and advocated against discrimination they faced within the mainstream LGBTQ+ community.|
Vanguard was an organization of homeless gay youth living on the streets of the Tenderloin, formed in 1965. It was the first LGBTQ+ organization that celebrated non-normative queer identities, and advocated for better treatment of the most marginalized members of the LBGTQ+ community. Vanguard created an immediate impact by opening the minds of the pastoral community to their perspectives and experiences, raising public awareness about their unique identities, and successfully campaigning for federal funds to go towards necessary community resources.
Vanguard also left an important legacy by inspiring and empowering marginalized queer youth living in the Tenderloin today. The harsh living conditions, lack of societal support, and exclusion that from the wider LGBTQ+ movement that Vanguard members often dealt with parallels the current experiences of many marginalized queer youth. To bring back the spirit of Vanguard, homeless queer youth in the Tenderloin recreated Vanguard’s “street sweep” protest and magazine as part of a 2011 project called Vanguard Revisited led by historian Joey Plaster (2). Through these actions, these youth continued Vanguard’s legacy of being unapologetically queer and advocating for support of those who are most marginalized within society.
The Formation of Vanguard
Joel Roberts was disinherited when he came out as gay to his parents in the early 1960s. Although he was still a minor, he travelled by himself from his home in Western New York to San Francisco, where he heard he could find a larger gay community. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a closeted gay kid. Those of us who came out paid a price,” he said (3). However, when he came to the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, conditions were still harsh, due to the lack of support and discrimination towards openly queer youth like him. “In a way the street was the only place to go, there was no place. And middle-class gays were in the closet, they weren’t gonna help us. We were really on our own” (4).
Living in the Tenderloin, he was surrounded by drugs, theft, prostitution, and police violence. He described a time when he saw a young boy with broken ribs crying and bleeding on the street. “I rushed over to him and he said his ribs were broken, and I said maybe we better get the police. And he said that the police did this to him. He said they regularly did it to him.” Roberts remembered that this was the “spark” that made him want to join Vanguard. “I couldn’t stand it,” he said (5).
Roberts was one of many queer youth living in the harsh environment of the Tenderloin who felt like outcasts in society. These youth hustled to make money, which meant they sold drugs, sold their bodies for sex, or found other illegal ways to get their basic needs met. A 1966 article from Vanguard Magazine recounted that the Tenderloin was an “economic system in which youth can enter very easily,” full of prostitution, drug abuse, and theft (6).
Vanguard, which was founded by a young gay priest named Adrian Ravarour, provided these youth a semblance of community and purpose. They organized protests and community events, and published personal written pieces about their identities and experiences in their self-published Vanguard Magazine. The Vanguard statement of purpose, published in the first volume of the magazine, states: “Vanguard is an organization for the youth in the Tenderloin attempting to get for its citizens a sense of dignity and responsibility too long denied. We of Vanguard find our civil liberties imperiled by a hostile order in which all difference from the usual in behavior is attacked… Vanguard is determined to change these conditions through organization and action” (7). Their goals, as laid out by a 1966 flyer, were the creation of a coffee house and meeting place, emergency housing, medical aid, police cooperation, and financial aid (8).
Vanguard’s most notable action was a “street sweep” in which they pushed brooms down Market Street while holding signs reading “All Trash Before the Brooms.” The action protested police street sweeps that often targeted street youth, and demonstrated that the youth could be productive members of society. Vanguard’s first president Jean-Paul Marat wrote in the first issue of Vanguard Magazine: “We’re considered trash by much of society, and we wanted to show the rest of society that we can want to work and can work” (9).
The existence of Vanguard empowered many street youth, who previously had few reasons to feel like their voices would be heard or acknowledged by society. Vanguard founder Adrian Ravarour said he felt like Vanguard’s actions caused gay youth on the streets to finally be recognized and taken seriously by media and establishment groups. “I felt that it was a liberation, it felt like gay liberation. At that point it freed us to be ourselves, not to be afraid, not to be ashamed. It was a whole new day. It felt totally different. It was like we had transcended, we had reached a point at the top of the hill and we were now coming down the other side,” he said (10).
Vanguard Statement of Purpose, 1966. Vanguard Magazine Vol One: Issue One, 1966, Digital Transgender Archive.
Vanguard’s efforts also opened up the minds of the pastoral community, due to their collaboration with churches to pursue their goals. Most notably, Vanguard worked with Glide Memorial Methodist Church, which was located in the Tenderloin. Many Vanguard meetings and community events were held at Glide. Pastors from Glide and other congregations were drawn to work with Vanguard members because they felt a calling to work with young people, especially those who were most vulnerable. According to Glide Reverend Cecil Williams, “We were the only ones who would respond to the needs of these people… if you make yourself available to people, there’s got to be a complete commitment. A commitment just to help those it’s easy to help is hypocritical” (11). Due to the support Vanguard received from Glide and other congregations, they were better able to confront the police and political leaders and raise awareness about the unique experiences of queer street youth (12).
Tension Between Homophile Organizations and Vanguard
During the 1960s, advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights was well underway. Although well-established national organizations such as the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), the Mattachine Society, and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) were still considered radical by heterosexual standards, compared to Vanguard they were relatively mainstream. They used a very different strategy than Vanguard to achieve their goals, which a historian of the Mattachine society described as “the logic of assimilation, whereby the homosexual, castrated through public relations, was cast as the homophile” (13).
Some members of these homophile organizations believed that Vanguard’s actions would slow the acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities within society. According to a 1967 article from the Wall Street Journal, a member of one of the homophile organizations said: “We thought the publicity (about dances and prostitution) would tend to perpetuate in the public mind a stereotype of the homosexual as irresponsible and sexually permissive” (14). Vanguard organizer Mark Forrester noted that Vanguard was “a matter of some controversy in the homophile movement” with many feeling that it portrayed an “undesirable image.” (15).
Members of Vanguard were critical of these organizations' views towards them. Vanguard leader Jean-Paul Marat argued that the homophile organizations, which he emphasized were led by “middle-class, well-established hidden homosexual[s],” should “start getting rid of the masks and costumes that are weighing us all down.” He suggested that the homosexual community should “first admit to ourselves that we are the most prejudiced people about our own selves” (16). In another letter, Marat referred to Vanguard members as “the other 1% of homosexuals in the country” that were excluded from mainstream gay communities (17). Vanguard members were often frustrated by the logic of assimilation because they felt like no matter what their identities would be excluded. Instead, they wanted to publicly celebrate their differences, and convince society that all people deserve love and acceptance no matter how “queer” or non-normative they appeared to be. This is why Vanguard is unique from other 1960s gay rights organizations in the U.S.: for the first time, queer outcasts could celebrate themselves fully instead of trying to fit in with heterosexual culture in order to gain their basic rights.
Impact of Vanguard
Although Vanguard’s existence was short-lived (18), they achieved many of their concrete goals. Due to the work of Vanguard, Glide, and other congregations, the Central City (which includes the Tenderloin and South of Market Area) was designated as an anti-poverty district in May of 1966, making it the first white poverty district in San Francisco. Consequently, federal funds distributed to this area supported the establishment of a Multi-service center, which was the clearinghouse for services and the administrative center for the target area; the funding of the Hospitality House in the Tenderloin, a 24-hour drop-in service center for runaways and street youth (which still exists today), and the purchase of a mobile health van which was operated by the hippie doctor Joel Fort and brought medical services and education to the street (19).
Vanguard’s existence and actions have also inspired youth living in the Tenderloin today. While discrimination has lessened over time for parts of the gay community, many homeless gay youth still feel like outcasts. To provide today’s queer street youth with a sense of community and purpose, like Vanguard did in the 1960s, historian Joey Plaster organized a project called Vanguard Revisited that educated youth about Vanguard, engaged them in community organizing projects, and published their creative writing in a new version of Vanguard’s magazine. One youth involved in the project, named Gotti Theartboy, described how learning about Vanguard inspired him to truly express what he felt and experienced: “I heard of the ‘Vanguard Boys’ and what you stood for during your own era of oppression and rebellion… I read your words and heard your voices in the depths of my soul, and now I wish I could give you mine…To be a part of what you started long ago. To see our hearts collide on paper” (20).
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Through the Vanguard Revisited project, Tenderloin youth raised awareness about the harsh conditions and discrimination that queer homeless youth face today. Similar to street youth in the 1960s, Gotti said that Tenderloin youth “are suffering dearly. If you don’t have HIV, you have a serious drug addiction” (21). Pastor Megan Rohrer, who works in the Tenderloin and was a co-editor of the Vanguard Revisited project, said that “the Tenderloin’s above and underground economies are designed to feed off of the loneliness, destitution, and desperation of the lonely souls who have been thrown away by families, society, and in some cases their congregation” (22). Many queer youth in the Tenderloin, especially those who are Black, Brown, indigenous, or trans, feel like outcasts of society in the same way that Vanguard youth in the 1960s did.
Vanguard Revisited Magazine cover page, 2011. Vanguard Revisited Magazine, February 2011. Digital Transgender Archive.
Furthermore, there is still estrangement between marginalized queer youth and more privileged members of the gay community, especially class-privileged white gay men. Similar to the way that homophile organizations in the 1960s were not inclusive to youth who publicly displayed their queerness or lived on the streets, the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement community is generally not inclusive to members of their community who don’t fit into mainstream norms of queerness. Tenderloin youth who participated in the Vanguard Revisited project consistently expressed frustrations that mainstream LGBTQ+ movements and organizations have never advocated for issues they face. One young person wrote in the Vanguard Revisited magazine: “To you old gay white men who read this, YOU are at fault… You see the younger gays trapped by poverty, Chrystal meth, hate crimes, prostitution, so much more….and you’d rather look down from your rainbow, 80’s diva songs, sex dungeon castle, and throw stones to tear them down” (23).
Many queer Tenderloin youth especially felt like they do not belong in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, even though it is a supposed mecca for the gay community. A transgender youth interviewed by Joey Plaster during the Vanguard Revisited project said that, “whenever youth try to access [the Castro]… they routinely get harassed by upper-middle class gay men” (24). In protest of this discrimination, Tenderloin youth organized a street sweep through the Castro neighborhood on May 14th, 2011. Their actions brought back the fervor and spirit of the original Vanguard, and raised awareness of the lack of resources and discriminatory policies they suffer from.
Much like the original Vanguard youth movement in the 1960s publicized the identities and experiences of queer youth who did not fit in with societal expectations, the youth involved with Vanguard Revisited project continued to advocate for these differences to be celebrated, not looked down upon. As a young person named Taylor said in a speech at the street sweep action in 2011, “Too often do people focus on what makes us all similar rather than the beauty of what makes us all unique, and that is usually the root of the problem. We’re all a bit different, and thus we are all a bit queer” (25). In similar ways, Vanguard youth from the 1960s and today raised awareness about the harsh conditions they face in their community, uplifted marginalized perspectives within the mainstream LGBTQ+ community, and created space for themselves in a social movement that has never traditionally included them.
Youth-led Sleep-In and Street Sweep on May 14, 2011.
Courtesy of the Megan Rohrer Papers at the GLBT Historical Society. LGBT Histories by Megan Rohrer
(1) “LGBTQ+” is not a historically accurate term because it wasn’t used commonly until the 21st century. However, the author chose to use the term in this article because it encompasses specific queer identities, particularly transgender identities, in a way that other terms do not. This is important because the Tenderloin was home to a publicly visible transgender community, which was not common during that time.
(2) Rohrer, Megan, and Plaster, Joey. Vanguard Revisited: The Queer Faith, Sex, and Politics of the Youth of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Wilgefortis, 2016. Archival material courtesy of the GLBTHS.
(3) Oral History with Joel Roberts by Joey Plaster, 2010. Vanguard Revisited Multimedia Archive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvJxyD9jTB4
(6) “Summary of the Tenderloin Problem,” Vanguard Revisited Magazine, 7, reprinted from Vanguard Magazine, Volume 1 #9, c. 1967, 27-28.
(7) Vanguard Magazine Issue 1, No. 1, October 1966, pp. 1.
(8) Vanguard “We Protest” flyer, c. 1966, Don Lucas papers, Box 11, Folder 17, GLBTHS
(9) Vanguard Magazine Issue 1, No. 2, October 1966. Digital Transgender Archive.
(10) Oral history with Adrian Ravarour by Joey Plaster, 2010. Vanguard Revisited Multimedia Archive.
(11) Merry, Howard. “Tenderloin Ministry: A Secularized Church Pursued its Mission in Unorthodox Causes” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 1967.
(12) Rohrer, Megan, and Plaster, Joey. Vanguard Revisited: The Queer Faith, Sex, and Politics of the Youth of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, pp. 10.
(13) Sears, James T., Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hall Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation, 2006, 512.
(14) A ‘Secularized’ Church Pursues Its Mission In Unorthodox Causes,” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 1967
(15) Don Lucas papers, San Francisco GLBT Historical Society, Box 9, Folder 10, “Minutes of Board of meeting of CRH held on March 29, 1966.”
(16) Marat, Jean-Paul, “Statement” Courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Papers, 21-3 National Homophile Organizations, Vanguard.
(18) Meeker, Martin, “The Queerly Disadvantaged and the Making of San Francisco’s War on Poverty, 1964-67,” Pacific Historical Review Vol. 81, No. 1, February 2012, pp. 29.
(19) Gotti, “My Darling VanGuard…” Vanguard Revisited Magazine, 8.
(20) Gotti, “Address to the People” Vanguard Revisited Magazine, 17.
(21) Megan Rohrer, “Tenderloin in the Loneliness,” Vanguard Revisited Magazine, 8.
(22) A.E., “What I don’t like about San Francisco,” Vanguard Revisited Magazine, 25.
(23) Anonymous, oral history by Joey Plaster, June 2011. Quote found in Vanguard Revisited: The Queer Faith, Sex, and Politics in the Tenderloin, 2016, pp. 39.
(24) Taylor, “2011 Street Sweep Speech.” Transcript found in Vanguard Revisited: The Queer Faith, Sex, and Politics in the Tenderloin, 2016.