New Years Benefit Ball in San Francisco

by Robert Warren Cromey[1]

Each year at Gay Pride time we read and hear about Stonewall. The Stonewall riots in New York City are assumed to be the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States. A new documentary Stonewall Uprising depicts that exciting and important event which began on June 28, 1969 and ran for three days.

I muse upon a couple of events five years earlier in, which I played a small part.  Hundreds of gays and lesbians attended a New Years Benefit Ball on January 1, 1965. Police invaded the private benefit event and arrested six people. The also took flash photographs of party goers in a blatant attempt at intimidating the guests as they entered California Hall on Polk street to go to the ballroom. One woman and three lawyers were arrested for blocking the police from entering and two men were arrested for alleged lewd conduct. The ball continued without further interference.

The event was a benefit for San Francisco’s Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an organization of clergy and lay people to study and understand the homosexual community, which was being harassed and persecuted in the City and Bay Area. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon[2] were among the founding members of the board. They also had staffed the New Year’s event.

When the San Francisco Police Department heard about the ball, they attempted to force the rented hall’s owners to cancel the event. Some of the leaders of the Council had met with the police to explain the purposes of the council and the ball with the idea of heading off any trouble. The police were more interested in the theology of the clergy, and, noticing wedding rings, asked if their wives knew of this event. We left the meeting feeling sure the ball would go on without interruption.

When police demanded entry into the hall, three CRH lawyers explained to them that under California law, the event was a private party and they could not enter unless they bought tickets. The lawyers were then arrested, as was a ticket-taker, on charges of obstructing an officer.

When the police invaded the hall several of the clergy, including Cecil Williams and I, tried to block the police from entering.  We were brushed aside and they went into a private party. The police did not want to be seen arresting clergy, we were seen as more respectable then. The arrested lawyers were the late Herb Donaldson, Evander Childs and Elliott Layton. Donaldson later became San Francisco’s first openly gay judge.

Seven of us ministers who were in attendance that night held a press conference the following morning, January 2, 1965, where we described the pre-event negotiations with police and accused them of “intimidation, broken promises and obvious hostility.” One minister compared the SFPD to the Gestapo.

Those participating in the press conference ripping the police were The late Rev. Lewis Durham, program director of the Glide Foundation, Rev. Robert Warren Cromey of the Episcopal Diocese of California, Rev. Cecil Williams, Director of Glide’s Church and Community Ministry, Rev. Fred Bird, pastor of St. Johns Methodist Church, Rev. Charles Lewis, of the North Beach Lutheran Ministry, the late Rev. Dr. Clarence Caldwell, of the United Methodist Church, and Rev. Ted McIlvenna of the Glide Foundation.

The New Years Ball, the acquittal of the lawyers and those arrested, and the change in police policy were dramatic events in the LGBT movement for full freedom in the society. Stonewall is perceived to be the beginning of the movement. But the New Year’s Ball in San Francisco and its aftermath were powerful forerunners of the movement for LGBT rights.

Robert Cromey, 27 July 2010,

[1] Cromey was one of the founding members of CRH.

[2] Founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, one of the earliest lesbian organizations in the US.

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