Political Notebook: Queer youth revive 1960s magazine
by Matthew S. Bajko
San Francisco in the 1960s was a beacon for LGBT youth from across the country. Yet it was far from being a safe haven for those young adults who were runaways and landed on the streets of the city's Polk and Tenderloin neighborhoods.
Back then that area of town was the Castro of its day, with numerous gay bars and residents. It was also a magnet for the queer youth moving to the city.
Once there, some turned to prostitution as a way to earn money, while others became addicted to drugs. Homosexuality was still considered a criminal act, and a sense of community was lacking for many of the youth.
The increasing numbers of queer kids on the streets soon caught the attention of both community organizers and local religious leaders. They formed some of the first gay liberation organizations as a way to provide support and services to the youth.
One such group that emerged in 1964 was the Council for Religion and the Homosexual. A collaboration between the early homophile organizations and urban ministers, its leaders secured federal War on Poverty funding that was used to start several programs for Tenderloin youth.
One of the first projects was Vanguard, the nation's first GLBT youth organization, which debuted in 1966. The following year saw the launch of Conversion Our Goal, an early transgender group, and the social services nonprofit Hospitality House, which remains in operation today.
"Vanguard was a street gang that was established. When I came the church adopted Vanguard as its youth group," recalled former Glide church pastor Larry Mamiya, who was 24 years old at the time. "We hosted dances and socials Friday and Saturday nights in the church basement. It was a mixture of straight, gay, lesbian. There were also transvestites and some transsexuals."
Looking for an outlet to express their feelings of isolation, abandonment and rage at the society at large, the Vanguard youth published their own magazine. The zine-like publication was a mixture of artwork, essays, and news reports. It sold for 25 cents.
It covered everything from opposition to the Vietnam War and the emergent hippie culture to the struggles and challenges the youth faced. Many, using pseudonyms, wrote first person accounts of their lives.
"I think Vanguard was one of the groups in the forefront of the gay movement that helped to push society to re-examine its views of gay people," said Mamiya, who is straight.
Copies of Vanguard from 1966 through 1969 remain in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society. They had been mostly overlooked, until now.
A new project has unearthed this important period of LGBT history, and a group of youth has revived Vanguard . They produced a new version of the publication called Vanguard Revisited that mixes vintage artwork and writings from the 1960s editions with their own contemporary pieces.
It will be officially released at a launch party tonight (Thursday, February 3). The 1,000 copies of the new 60-page edition will then be handed out to young adults from across the city for free.
"These aren't scripts from movies. It is real life. This is how some of these young adults are feeling about this," said Sergio Sandoval, 21, who moved to San Francisco five months ago from Atlanta.
While Sandoval, who is gay, doesn't have housing, he said he is "sheltered," meaning he relies on "nice friends" who offer him a place to stay.
He is also an artist, and created several artworks for Vanguard Revisited, including the cover art. He also interviewed a fellow youth and penned an "Open Letter to the Fags" using the alias Gotti.
The project was a way for him to express both his frustrations with the larger LGBT community and his hopefulness for the future.
"The whole project it has been super emotional," he said. "Being the transformer that I am, I just think people really need to realize that everything is not just how it seems. They really need to open their minds. People are so shallow; I need them to be a little deeper."
The genesis for the Vanguard Revisited project grew out of the Polk Street Oral History project spearheaded by Joey Plaster , 32, a consultant to the LGBT historical society and the volunteer director of its oral history program. His research led him to the archived Vanguards .
"I was immediately struck by their beauty and bluntness, and by the ways they combine themes of poverty, sex, and religion. I was also struck by how familiar the people were: I could imagine a modern-day Polk Street equivalent of each 1960s Tenderloin figure I read about in the archive," wrote Plaster in an e-mailed response to questions.
Plaster approached Megan Rohrer , 30, a transgender dyke and pastor in the Lutheran Church, about exploring the Tenderloin's queer history. They then decided to revive the Vanguard magazine and worked with Larkin Street Youth Services to find young adults interested in being part of the project.
The youth, assisted by Rohrer and Plaster, spent three months to "create a magazine that spoke to their expressed desire to enlighten youth, celebrate the queer history of the Tenderloin, and create a voice for the unheard," explained Rohrer.
They raised $23,500 from various foundations and LGBT agencies to fund their work. And the LGBT Community Center, through its youth program, signed on and provided space for the youth to meet each week.
The center and the Faithful Fools Street Ministry will continue to work with the youth Monday nights through June to determine how to move forward. One possibility is creating a second issue of Vanguard Revisited.
"If San Francisco's LGBT community knew what it was really like to be homeless queer youth, they would get motivated to fund organizations and to protest unjust laws and to give voices to those who are the most vulnerable in our community," said Rohrer, who with Plaster will bring a traveling exhibit about the Vanguard project to other cities this summer. "We were able to do that during the AIDS crisis. There are still problems happening in our community and we can do something positive about it."
Tonight's magazine release party will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Francis Lutheran Church, 152 Church Street across from Safeway. It is free and open to the public.
For more information about the Vanguard project, including PDF versions of the original publications and the 2011 edition as well as recorded interviews with the youth involved, visit http://www.glbthistory.org/Vanguard/.