(888) 277-4253

"Stonewalled" in San Diego: A shocking story about gay mistreatment in 1966

As we come up on Pride, the reason for the season is not lost on me. There is so much more to the joyous weekend we spend being loud, proud and often, out of control.

This year what is specifically on my mind is a story that I’ve been told many times over the last five or so years. It is a story that I don’t want to ever forget. It is a story that predates the real reason we have and celebrate Pride – Stonewall – and it happened right here in our neighborhood, not across the country in NYC. It is a story that needs to be shared so that we never forget.

Nine women in San Diego were dragged out of a gay bar and arrested - just for hanging out with their friends in a place they thought was safe.

The year was 1966 and actor-turned-pol Ronald Reagan had just defeated long-time incumbent Edmund G. Brown Sr. in the race for governor. JFK was dead and LBJ had been re-elected two years before. The Vietnam War was beginning to spin dangerously out of control. Grace Slick had just joined Jefferson Airplane and the flower-power counter culture was beginning to spread across the nation.

These nine women didn’t all know each other before that night. Some of them were friends, others were acquaintances – some of them had probably seen each other on previous occasions across the dark, smoky bar, a couple may have even checked each other out; but these nine women did not all become fully acquainted with each other until that night. Forty-four years later, they are bound by the incident and are still in contact.

I recently interviewed three of the nine in person about the incident and spoke to another on the phone. Their memories differ slightly about some of the general details; it has been 44 years after all – but the basic premise of what happened is not challenged: these nine women were treated to a horrible injustice at the hands of the very men in positions meant to protect them from harm.

Some of the names have been changed because even after all these years, several of the women are still uncomfortable with the tale and of the stigma it placed upon them. Most of them never shared the incident with their families and still don’t want to have to explain the embarrassing details, although they’ve relived it hundreds of times over the years.

It was a balmy winter evening, and The Club – a mixed-gay bar - was bustling with gay men and women enjoying their coveted freedoms for the evening. The Club was located on the corner of Laurel and Kettner streets, a place many gay bars have called home since 1966, but it has been the Casbah since 1994.

After a booming decade, Hillcrest at that time was “[suffering] through economic stagnation, social isolation and deteriorating housing conditions” and did not become a haven for gays and lesbians until the early ‘70s, according to Journal of San Diego History.

And although there were plenty of other men’s bars around town, there were few places for women to go and The Club was a place where they felt safe.

It made no matter that they had to share it with gay men, or the straight couples who frequented the bar because of its central location. No one cared that the lesbian women were there and no one really even paid much attention; and so they came. They came to drink, dance, mingle with like-minded friends and shrug off yet another day of hiding in the outside world.

This particular night, the bar was filled with about 20 men and women, mostly gay, and nine of those were the women of our story.

Jill, a San Diego native, had just gotten a callback for at job at PSA and was to start in two weeks. She’d spent the past four months working in Northern California, so she was more than ready to get back into the swing of the local nightlife. Shortly after returning to town, she made arrangements to meet her two close friends Annette and Sandra at The Club for happy hour this particular day.

Annette had just gotten off her shift at PSA and couldn’t wait to meet up with her friends just around the corner. She joined them at the bar, quickly got a drink and started dancing.

Not far from them were four other women - two of whom were in the Navy at the time - Margaret, Nancy, Diane and Carol, all who were also just out enjoying each other’s company and doing a little dancing.

Sharon, a Michigan native who had recently left the Navy and decided to make San Diego her home, had just been promoted in her position with the photography studio located inside the Armed Services Y downtown.

To celebrate this promotion, her boss (and lover) Rose decided to take her for a drink at The Club on their way home. They had worked later than usual, due to the surge of military portraits being taken for the holidays, and both were looking forward to a few minutes to themselves. They grabbed a small table up against the wall and settled in with their first drinks.

The bar inside The Club at that time was shaped like a square horseshoe. Jill and her crowd were situated at one side of the square, enjoying their drinks and conversation, when she noticed a man dressed in a suit watching them from across the bar.

A few minutes later, he stood up, all the lights went on and several plain-clothes vice squad officers walked inside with their badges out. The officers began corralling the women outside.

Sharon, thinking it was merely an “ID check,” encouraged Rose to follow the others.

Jill refused to go along even after being told she was under arrest. She demanded to know why, but the officers ended up pushing her out the door without an answer, anyway. Her questioning later led to “resisting arrest” charges.

Once outside, the nine shell-shocked ladies had their IDs confiscated, were handcuffed together in groups of three and shoved into the awaiting unmarked squad cars.

Forty-four years later, Annette still remembers scooting across that rear bench seat while chained to two other women, worrying about what her parents were going to say if the squad car pulled up in front of their home.

From that moment on, the incident unleashed what amounted to a comedy of legal errors surrounding the women’s unjustified arrest.

Once in the squad car, Jill’s handcuffs fell off. Eager to make a fool of these men who were holding them against their will, she held up the cuffs in view of the rear-view mirror, and said, “What should I do about this?”

Her cuffs were immediately tightly reattached.

The women were taken to the downtown police station (then located on Pacific Coast Highway) and seated – still handcuffed – in a hallway. One by one, they were marched into a room to face a group of men who would read them their charges; lewd and lascivious conduct – which at that time was considered a felony and carried with it a lifelong “sex offender” stigma.

Jill’s specific charges stated she had “lewd and lascivious conduct with a Miss Sutherland,” and had resisted arrest. The charges further stated that she had one hand on the woman’s breast and another up her skirt as they danced.

She told the men that she didn’t know a Miss Sutherland, at which point one of them fumbled through the driver licenses and threw one in front of her on the table.

“Is this supposed to be Miss Sutherland?” she asked.

The detective shook his head yes.

“This is my driver’s license,” she retorted.

Annette and the other women were also accused of fondling each other on the dance floor, while Sharon was accused of holding Rose against the wall with one arm across her neck in a very brutal fashion with her other hand up Rose’s skirt.

They all considered the accusations preposterous and completely fictional.

After receiving their charges, the women were allowed to make phone calls and then taken to a holding cell in the San Diego jail – a cell they soon shared with prostitutes, drug addicts and drunks. The women began singing Christmas carols to pass the time.

Two women were bailed out that evening while the seven others were kept overnight. The next morning they were handcuffed again and paraded around the courthouse before the judge finally released them on their own recognizance.

Jill requested a lie detector test to prove her accusations false. She passed and her charges were immediately dropped.

Rose had just recently left her husband and had taken her young daughter to stay with Sharon. Her first fear was that these charges would cause her to lose her child. She was so nervous that her attorney was afraid she would not pass the lie detector test. He gave her a private one, which she promptly flunked.

Two more women (one in the Navy) also passed their lie detector tests and had their charges dropped, prompting the option to be revoked from the remaining defendants. The court-appointed lawyers for the remaining women each subpoenaed Jill for court.

A few weeks later the women attended their trial. With five in their best attire and one in her Navy dress blues, the six ladies stood facing the judge as the accusing detective took the stand and began his lying diatribe under oath.

The charges sounded so outlandish the judge stopped the detective when he had heard enough.

“Don’t you have anything better to do than raid a bar?” Annette remembers the judge saying, as he admonished the detective.

“You ladies behaved worse than the sailors on lower Broadway and should be ashamed of yourselves,” Jill recalls him saying. “And you,” he said directing his gaze at the lone sailor in the group, ”are a disgrace to your uniform.”

“These women are not to be scorned, they are to be pitied,” Sharon and Rose repeated these words to me in unison, as they remembered him saying them for the record, just before dismissing the charges.

Nine twenty-something young women, including a young mother, at the very beginning of their careers, just out to enjoy an evening away from the discriminatory world.

Despite the fact that all the charges were either dropped or dismissed, all nine women retained the incident on their arrest records. Several years later Sandra lost her civil service job because she failed to identify the arrest on her application.

With a motive still unknown, it is unclear what the full range of consequences from this incident could have been should the judge have been less lenient. What we do know is that Rose could have lost her child, Jill her new job; the others their existing careers and all of the women could have lost relationships with their families and been shunned for life.

As the judge stated, didn’t these vice detectives have anything better to do but gather up these women who were not bothering anyone else and file false charges against them? Was it to intimidate? Was it political?

Circumstances just like this (and worse) across the country became the catalyst for the anger that fueled the Stonewall riots. There are records of hundreds of other raids and unwarranted arrests throughout California, especially in San Francisco at the same time.

Ironically, these raids occurred during a time when the “free love” movement was beginning to take shape. There was nothing remotely close to “free love” existing for gays and lesbians at that time, and we fight on today.

Unfortunately 44 years later we are still subject to this type of pointed discrimination by the police, witnessed recently in the Warm Springs gay enclave of Palm Springs.

So this year, when march in the parade, or cheer it on from the sidelines, or raise our rainbow flag high above our houses, or lift a drink to the sky - remember these nine women and then march and cheer and wave your flag in honor of them.

Take pride in how far we have come, but remember, we are far from free.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext 710 or via email at morgan@sdgln.com.