LOOKBACK: What gay life was like in San Francisco in 1970s

LOOKBACK: What gay life was like in San Francisco in 1970s
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LOOKBACK: What gay life was like in San Francisco in 1970s

Photographer Daniel Nicoletta traveled to California in the early 1970s as a teenager to find something more than his home in Utica, New York, had to offer.

By the mid-1970s, he was employed in the Harvey Milk and Scott Smith camera store in San Francisco.

Nicoletta developed his talent as a photographer by documenting San Francisco’s vibrant LGBT communities and finding himself at the forefront of a transforming era for LGBT civil rights.

A new book, LGBT: San Francisco, brings together over 40 years of Nicoletta’s attentive work documenting the LGBT civil rights movement from the 1970s to present day.

Nicoletta Speak to Media about the significance of the era and his own personal experiences as a young gay man navigating his new home.

I grew up in Utica, New York, and I moved west for college around the age of 18.

That was my first time in California, it was an entirely new experience for me. College was the vehicle for getting there, but I don’t know if it was the main reason I decided to move. I had dreamed about going to California ever since I was a little kid, but this was the first time I stepped foot in the state.

At that point, my identity was evolving and Utica was very traditional. I was really attempting to move as far away from home as I could, even though the people there had been somewhat supportive of me. And the minute I got to California I knew — I said, oh yeah, this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.

Reveler (left) poses before a moving art piece by artist Violet Ray at the Castro Street Fair in 1975. Harmodius and Hoti at the Castro Street Fair in August 1975.
SF LGBT Pride, June 24, 1990.

To be honest, when I first arrived in California I was pretty naive. I was interested in art but completely devoid of politics. I came from a very tentative place — dare I even say, a clueless place. So arriving in San Francisco was really a wake-up call for me. From that point, my political identity just flowered.

One of the great things about working under Harvey Milk and his lover Scott Smith was that they always encouraged me to develop my own path. There was never this sort of “you must register voters, you must vote.” Instead, it was a melting pot of creativity, and that was a really beautiful template for me.

I think for me the ’70s in San Francisco was a good place to have your rite of passage in terms of forming your identity — sexual identity and also political ideation. It was incredibly ebullient there because people of all ages, but especially young people like me, were having such an exuberant time.

When the LGBT community started migrating to San Francisco, there was an incredible push for visibility, in part as a reaction to the adversarial side.

The opposition were the ones that took it to the ballot box and we responded in kind. Sometimes these revolutionary moments are actually good for the movement even though they’re painful in the process.

December Wright (middle) and friends at the Castro Street Fair, August 1976.

San Francisco has a maverick history that goes all the way back to the gold rush. It really is a place for outsiders to go. It’s a place where individualism is celebrated. So in the 1970s, we came to a place where this form of thinking had already been formalized. That’s a very attractive thing — from people getting out of the military in the ’50s to the hippies coming to San Francisco in the ’60s. That’s quite some synergy.

I also think a lot of people mistakenly mark the 1970s as the genesis of the movement. That’s understandable but inaccurate because there was a [gay] movement that emanated from the ’50s, so it’s a disservice to not acknowledge that as the authentic genesis. Then, of course, there’s even more history in other countries.

Doris Fish in her play Blonde Sin, June 26, 1980.

Still, the breakthrough moment did occur in the 1970s; that’s undoubtedly true, but it was built on the backs of those people who did very dangerous work in the ’50s and ’60s. In the ’70s, [the movement] became an idea whose time had come in terms of culture in the society that was reimagining itself. In that sense, it was a watershed moment beyond our control. We were challenged in the ballot box, and here we are today.

So fast-forward to the book: You’ll see it’s really a look back on those beginnings and how the complexities evolved. And that really takes us into the contemporary realm — there are a couple of photos in there that address some of the hot-button issues of today. In the spirit of journalism, I wanted to carry it forward in that way. Rather than simply putting together a nostalgic piece, these pictures show that the journey is not over.

The Club Chaos and Klubstitute float in the San Francisco Pride parade, June 25, 1989.
Robert Morgan (left) as David Hockney during the San Francisco Pride parade, 1982. Castro Street Fair, 1977.
Harvey Milk in front of his Castro Street camera store, circa 1977.

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John Smith has been with Histecho since 2017, A Senior Editor & Writer for Histecho. his work has been featured in outlets such as Scientific American, The Washington Post, NBC News, and Fox News. John grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York.