Gay-rights activist Harvey Milk is known for becoming the first openly gay elected government official in California after winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Though he was killed just one year later, his story, which is the subject of the movie Milk, blazed a trail for many elected officials for years to come.
As “gay districts” have sprouted up throughout the years in metropolitan areas such as Long Beach, so too has the number of advocates looking to government as the way to make changes and be heard as the voice for a rising constituency.
“Back in the early days, you had to hide being gay… you don’t have to do that anymore,” said Mike Noll, who became known as the area’s first openly gay man elected to public office after first winning a seat on the Signal Hill City Council in 1992. Noll said he’s taken on many gay-rights causes throughout the years, but being a politician means taking into account the rights of everyone.
“When we’re elected we’re there for the residents to make the city better,” he said. “We care about everybody, whatever class of life they’re in or type of person they are.”
Noll, who is slated to take an unprecedented sixth term on the Signal Hill City Council next week, is one of many local city leaders featured in an exhibit at the Historical Society of Long Beach that focuses on the local gay-rights movement and the transformation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The recently opened exhibit, titled Coming Out in Long Beach, displays hundreds of items, from pieces of memorabilia to vintage photographs, along with a wall dedicated to openly gay elected city officials. Historians recorded the stories of nine local residents who were active in the LGBT community, involved in various initiatives, organizations and causes as early as the 1960s.
Although sometimes eclipsed by nearby Los Angeles, the Long Beach area has played a vital role in expanding gay rights, according to Julie Bartolotto, the historical society’s executive director. She stated that the goal of the exhibit, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz of Long Beach, is to highlight how Long Beach was “significant to the overall narrative of the national struggle for rights of the LGBT community.”
In many ways, politics was one of the main drivers behind the gay civil-rights movement as advocates for a more inclusive democracy came forward.
The Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club, for instance, successfully lobbied for a city ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The City of Long Beach, in 1998, also established a human-dignity policy, which mandates a commitment to embracing and valuing cultural diversity.
More recently in 2010, the City Council approved the landmark equal-benefits ordinance, requiring contractors that do business with the City to provide the same benefits to registered domestic partners that they provide to their married employees.
In terms of elected city officials, Noll has been joined by many others, including Gerrie Schipske, Long Beach’s first open lesbian elected government official, who began serving on the Long Beach Community College Board of Trustees in 1992 and was elected as 5th District Long Beach city councilmember in 2006 and re-elected in 2010. Dan Baker, who later resigned over allegations regarding real-estate dealings, was the first openly gay man elected to the Long Beach City Council in 1999. In 2009, Robert Garcia became the first Hispanic, openly gay Long Beach city councilmember, and the youngest, more recently being appointed as vice mayor for the City Council and to the California Coastal Commission.
In Signal Hill, Larry Forester, who has lived with HIV and AIDS since the early 1980s, was appointed to the City Council in 1998, followed by Ellen Ward, considered the first lesbian city councilmember elected in 2001.
Ward, whose third Council term ends next week, served on a 15-member steering committee for the exhibit and provided comments about her own personal accounts.
She is quoted in a display stating that Noll, who Ward met while they both served as boardmembers for the gay and lesbian center, known as The Center in Long Beach, was elected to the city council after being kicked off the Signal Hill Planning Commission.
“So, we decided we needed a change in the city,” said Ward, who is seen in a picture with her wife Pat, to whom she’s been legally married to for 17 years. “He ran, and we all helped him get elected… I was happy the way things were going in the city. There was this one attorney, and he decided not to run at the last minute. I looked at the people running, and they were all pretty bad. So I decided to run. I walked the city, and I worked hard. I got elected, the first lesbian in the area. I was pretty proud of that.”
The music that binds
To the LGBT community, however, Ward was more known as the former owner of the Que Sera, a longtime lesbian bar she opened in 1975 that today is celebrated for helping launch the career of Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician and singer Melissa Etheridge in the 1980s. One of the first items collected for display was one of Etheridge’s gold records that the singer gave to the Que Sera.
Ilse Benz, who took over the black- and pink-colored bar located at 1923 E. 7th St., after first working as the manager, said it was at the venue where Chris Blackwell of Island Records discovered the now famous musician.
Although Etheridge first started by playing cover songs, she later snuck in her originals that became popular among both straight and gay crowds, Benz said, adding that Etheridge’s song “Cherry Avenue” was written about the Que Sera and her time living in Long Beach.
“Music brings people together to where you don’t care about whether you stand next to a lesbian and that a woman maybe has her arm around another woman,” Benz said. “They listen to the music, and it makes them happy, and we all have that in common so that sexual orientation thing went by the wayside.”
The bar scene in Long Beach, however, was not always harmonious, recalls Noll, who said there was a time when dancing with a partner of the same sex in a club was nearly illegal, which he said is somewhat inconceivable by today’s standards.
“You could dance with your partner if the light was green, but if it turned red we were being invaded by the police department, and you’d have to dance with the opposite sex,” he said.
Ward too recalls a time when her bar was on watch by “vice officers,” who often created a stressed situation. “The police would come in, especially with rookies, and they’d walk through the bar in their uniforms just to try to intimidate people,” she stated. “Professional people– customers at the bar– got all tense.”
Ward, who is also known for serving nine years as the executive director of the AIDS Walk, added that the bar, known at the time as “The Que,” eventually became more and more involved in political causes and the community, organizing fundraisers and even ball games.
Although “a lot of progress” has been made, Noll said, “We still have more to do until equality is everywhere.”
The LGBT history exhibit is on display through March 1, 2014. In addition, events related to the exhibit are being organized all year long. The Historical Society of Long Beach is located at 4260 Atlantic Ave. and is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 1pm to 5pm, Thursday from 1pm to 7pm and Saturday from 11am to 5pm. For more information, visit hslb.org or call (562) 424-2220.