Softball and the Gay Empowerment Movement

It’s one of the first things any new property owner thinks: All right, let’s get some light in this place. Knock over a wall here, crowbar some dusty old shingles off a windowpane there, and then sit back, crack a beverage, never mind the dust, and take in the new vistas of your little realm. When Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster (or as they would be known: “The Girls”) got together in 1972 to buy and spruce up a divey old Irish bar in a cheap, hilly San Francisco neighborhood, they did all of the above.

The Girls tore down an oppressive inner ceiling, fashioned an upstairs balcony, and excised black shrouds from the floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the corner storefront of their place, Twin Peaks Tavern. Outside, now-visible thoroughfares — Market, Castro, 17th — converged in acute angles or skipped away skyward. A seat at the bar gave access to a view of the surrounding city that looked, in all of its distorted dimensions, as if it had been drawn by M.C. Escher.

“People were used to being in windowless bars, but I didn’t like it!” Cunha told the San Francisco Planning Department in 2012. “That was our plan, to open it up. We wanted to look out! We didn’t want to sit in a bar and not be able to look out!”

From inside, The Girls and their patrons could look out on wisps of fog or gossip about the passersby, idle activities that might normally be unremarkable — who hasn’t sat near a window at a city bar? But this was a gay-owned bar — The Girls were out lesbians — and the presence of large panes of glass was no small detail. For many customers, “looking out” increased the likelihood of being spotted within.

Even in an increasingly progressive place like San Francisco, LGBT citizens faced the constant potential for unwanted outing, harassment, or even arrest in 1972. Windows in gay bars were a luxury at best and a danger at worst. But Twin Peaks Tavern was operating in the heart of a neighborhood that would soon become the soul of a community, and The Girls wanted to do things their own way. In 2012, a city document that advanced the case for granting landmark designation to Twin Peaks noted it was “the first known gay bar to feature full length open plate glass windows.”

Intentional or not, the design impulses of Cunha and Forster had broader relevance than their implications on resale value. The new iteration of Twin Peaks was, for many, a way to emerge from the shadows. Understated but proud, casual yet boisterous, the bar had numerous ties to local and national gay history through the years. It was a meeting place, a watering hole, a Halloween hot spot, even a film set. The San Francisco Pride parade passed by its big windows, as did many an annual Memorial Day Great Tricycle Race. It was the burgeoning cultural center of a sociopolitical movement.

And among all of these other things, Twin Peaks Tavern was the sponsor of the gay softball team that beat the San Francisco Police Department in 1974.

The front page of the July 11, 1974, issue of the Bay Area Reporter — “The Catalyst for all Factions of the Gay Community,” according to its tagline — had a headline whose cheekiness would not have been out of place on the back cover of the New York Post.

POLICE
BEATEN!

The ensuing article, which described a 9-4 victory by Twin Peaks in “the 2nd Annual Baseball Game between the Gays and Cops of San Francisco,” (emphasis theirs) was equally gleeful in its digs at the opposition.

Spirits were high as the Sergeant called his men to the mound with a quip about each one. A special cheer rose from our throats, deafening, at the introduction of Walter Scott, son of the Chief, who had trouble keeping himself tucked into his cut-offs, necessitating constant re-arrangement, to our amusement.

But for all the silly banter, that a softball game between these two tribes was taking place at all was an important step forward in the improvement of relations between police officers and gay citizens. As Cunha and Forster were buying Twin Peaks in 1972, the California State Assembly was in the process of shooting down, once again, Assemblyman Willie Brown’s Consenting Adult Sex Bill, which sought to repeal the state’s ban on sodomy. With the existing laws on the books, officers had quite a bit of leeway to disproportionately arrest gay Californians.

At the time, North Beach and Polk Street were still the popular gay neighborhoods, with the Castro only just beginning to catch on. But around the same time Twin Peaks was reopening, people like Harvey Milk were setting up shop nearby — for him, literally, it was a small camera shop on Castro Street. And a guild of gay tavern owners were devising an inter-bar softball competition to take place at an annual picnic. (Annual softball games always have picnic roots.) In 1973, an all-star team plucked from this tournament lost 11-3 to a police team. The next year, the Gay Community Softball League was formalized (the word “Gay” would later be dropped from the name to maintain some of its members’ discretion) with bars ranging from Jeff’s Gym to The Mistake sponsoring teams.

In 1974, according to the Bay Area Reporter, “Chief of Police, Donald Scott, threw out the first ball, lavender and glittered for the occasion.” Sutro Tower, which can be seen from Twin Peaks Tavern if you crane your neck, rose high in the background of the field. George Moscone, state senator and future San Francisco mayor, was one of the 2,000 fans in attendance.

The Bay Area Reporter added a note about Chief Scott’s family:

A Good Sportsperson Award should go to Walter and the new Mrs. Scott for goodnaturedly accepting the adulation of the overly enthusiastic crowd. He is one hunky and seemingly together guy.

Through the years, the spectacle deepened. According to the book Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, “Gay power in city politics had become not only undeniable, but celebrated” by the middle of the 1970s, and what better way to show support than at a softball game? At the time, Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. senator, was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and considering running for greater office.

Feinstein was running for mayor in 1975, and her loyalty to her gay constituency was undiminished. At the fourth annual Police vs. Gays softball game that summer, she had stood before a crowd of five thousand people and led one of the gay cheers against the police. “Peaches, peaches, fuzz, fuzz, fuzz,” she sang out, waving her hands. “If you don’t win, you’re the team that wuz.”

Willie Brown, too, attended games. In 1975, after five years of haggling and with the help of Moscone, he finally got his bill passed by the State Assembly, effectively legalizing gay sex. In 1977, a New York Times Magazine feature story by Herbert Gold called “A Walk on San Francisco’s Gay Side” noted that “with one out of three voters estimated to be homosexual, Bay City politics and life style have changed sharply.” The article discussed Milk, with his “reputation as a hard-line, right-on gay candidate for both elective and appointive office.”

Soon Milk and Moscone were both dead, shot by former colleague Dan White in San Francisco’s City Hall. People gathered at Twin Peaks Tavern to mourn, and later, when White’s sentencing was light, they marched there to rage.

It was around that time, in 1979, that charismatic and talented (and high-five-inventing) local boy Glenn Burke left the Oakland A’s, and baseball, for good. Burke was one of thousands of gay men who wound up in the Castro in those years as the district’s popularity spilled over from neighboring Haight-Ashbury. And he was one of countless gay athletes — first dozens, then hundreds, and these days hundreds of thousands — to find solace, exercise, community, and fun in the local gay softball league.

Mark Brown, who played softball in the Castro in the early 1970s, came to the city from the Midwest because “I wanted to live,” as he told me over the phone from the apartment he’s lived in for more than 40 years. (He was watching a San Francisco Giants game while we spoke, he proudly noted.) Brown went on to help found the Gay World Series and the Gay Games, a multisport, Olympics-style international competition in which Burke competed in several events. “He was just a fabulous athlete,” recalls Brown, who will turn 80 soon and only recently gave up active managing duties of a team called the Hustlers. (“I’m still kicking!” he said.)

Vincent Fuqua, a 44-year-old who works for the city’s Department of Public Health, was similarly lured to the Bay Area from his home in Southern California in the late 1980s. Like so many others, he wanted to come here to come out. “I was a kid in a candy store,” he said. Two communities were essential to him: a local gay youth group called Lyric, and the gay softball league in the Castro. He had always loved sports, but had always hated being picked last.

He’s now commissioner of the San Francisco Gay Softball League, a wide-ranging organization of some 1,200 gay and lesbian athletes who play across all ranges of ability and seriousness. Many of them are getting set to head to Dallas for the annual Gay World Series. In 2008, Fuqua’s first year as commissioner, he had his first fire drill when a San Francisco team accused of having too many straight members (two are allowed) was stripped of its second-place trophy at the Seattle World Series. (The team later protested and settled.)

Fuqua’s role is a volunteer one; in addition to his day job and the commissioner position, he also is getting his doctorate in clinical psychology. “It’s a balancing act,” he says, but one he couldn’t do without. Just as it was to Glenn Burke, and to Mark Brown, and to so many of the other athletes who have participated in the league, softball is his rock.

Twin Peaks continues to sit where it always has, on the corner of Castro and Market. It is adjacent to a bakery called Hot Cookie and a stationery store called Wild Card!, punctuation included. (Most of the business names in the vicinity are almost insultingly punny, as if the whole neighborhood is populated by hair salons and coffee shops.) Old-timey street cars rumble by outside the big windows. A thin slice of plaza plays host to a few Europeans lolling in red chairs in the sun. On a recent day, across the confusing, scenic intersection in front of the bar, a uniformly tanned naked man saddled with a cross-body bike messenger bag trudged wearily uphill on Castro Street.

“We don’t have Budweiser,” the guy behind the bar informed an inquiring patron. “We just have Bud Light.” The age of the assembled customers appeared to be well above average. Pouring a spiked lemonade, he told me the place hadn’t sponsored a softball team in a couple of years, and that he thought the squad was “over with Moby’s now.” Moby Dick, a bar around the corner that has been around since the ’80s, has two teams: the C-Men and the Whalers.

A guy in a black San Francisco Giants hat walked by the big windows, caught the bartender’s eye, and ducked in for a quick, friendly hello. “I just wanted to check on the Giants game!” he said, craning his neck up at a big TV screen. CNN had been playing the day’s grim footage of the Ukraine plane crash, and there were grateful murmurs as soon as the baseball game was switched on. (Everyone I spoke with for this article was a San Francisco Giants obsessive. “Are you sure you’re a gay man?” Fuqua said his friends sometimes tease him while he’s talking about games.)

According to the Planning Department’s description of Twin Peaks placed before the Historic Preservation Commission, the place was originally designed by The Girls to be a genre of establishment known as a fern bar — in their words, “an American colloquialism for an upscale bar or tavern catering to singles, decorated with brass fittings, antiques, ferns and stained glass lamps.”

Another bartender came over and squinted up at a set of those very stained-glass lamps, the big ones hanging over the bar. It was hard not to wonder how long they’d been hanging there, and how much they’d seen through that rainbow-colored glass. At any rate, none of the fixtures were needed yet — it was still gorgeous and bright outside, the door flung open and the cool air sweeping in. By the look of things, they appeared to be in a state of mild disrepair. The bartender didn’t seem too worried.

“We’re in for a very dark night,” he said, shrugging, and turned back to work. “It’ll be soooo romantic.”

Filed Under: 30 For 30, Glenn Burke, San Francisco

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes