THE GAY LIBERATION FRONT,
THE LOS ANGELES LGBT CENTER
By August Bernadicou with additional text and research by Chris Coats
The LGBTQ History Project maintains that Don Kilhefner is the most dangerous gay activist alive in America. For over 50 years, he has fought to secure civil rights for LGBTQ people. Without a doubt, the fruits of his work have changed the world.
Don was an early member of the pioneering gay activist group, the Gay Liberation Front. Through their spirit, he co-founded the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which has become the model of all LGBTQ Centers around the world with a $172 million yearly budget and nearly 800 employees. In 1978, he co-founded the Radical Faeries, a counter-culture network and movement of queer art and spirituality that endures today all around the world. He has dedicated the second chapter of his life to the exploration of queer consciousness and his community-based psychology practice.
August Bernadicou and Chris Coats: Don was born in Amish Pennsylvania, where his life should have been the same as his parents and most of his impoverished town. He knew he was bound for something more significant than the environment he grew up in, even if he could not recognize it in his youth. When he was in high school, he met a young man who would forever stay in his mind, someone I have countless hours of interviews about. His name was Glenn. In their high school yearbook, the captions for their photo said, "Donny is inseparable from Glenn” and vice versa. Though they were never physically intimate, Don knew his feelings for Glenn were more complicated than a friendship—Glenn was his first love.
Don: Glenn and I didn't see each other after high school, primarily because of his parents. They did not want him talking to me or seeing me. For 65 years, I carried him in my heart. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of him. When he died recently, he left a hole in my heart that I don't think will ever be filled.
August and Chris: One day, after never thinking that going to college was an option, Don saw his young love in the hallway and asked him where he was going. Glenn grabbed him, and they walked into a classroom for students who wanted to learn more about college. This moment ignited a quest for higher knowledge in Don, a quest that has guided his life. After getting his undergraduate degree, he felt a pull to do something meaningful. In 1964, he was in the first Peace Corps group to go to Ethiopia. He immediately fell in love with Africa’s peoples and cultures and saw a world far removed from his rural American upbringing.
Don: Those three years were important to me because I never wanted to go to Europe for a week—five countries in a week or something. I wanted to experience how people live in the world, a much larger world than I had a worldview of, at that time. I'd never been out of the United States.
I began to understand looking at the world through the eyes of a black person. The Ethiopian people taught me how to see things differently. It was an education: a political, historical, physiological education. I got the experience that I needed and wanted.
August and Chris: Returning from his time in the Peace Corps, Don’s desire to learn more about African culture propelled him to enroll in Howard University, a historically black university, where he received an undergraduate degree in African Studies. For Don to create and advance civil rights, he needed to be able to see past himself.
Don: Howard was a very open and intellectually stimulating environment for learning. People appreciated the fact that I was taking an interest in black culture. That was unusual at the time. Very few universities other than historically black universities had any kind of black history or study of black and African history—that simply didn't exist in the '60s.
August and Chris: In 1969, the course of Don's life, as well as the lives of many LGBTQ people across the world, changed forever. Late one night on June 28th, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village. The raid sparked a brawl leading to six days of protests and clashes with law enforcement outside the bar. The Gay Liberation Front was founded immediately after the Stonewall Riots in New York and became one of the most influential gay activist groups in the history of LGBTQ rights. The New York City group was a jumping board, and soon, Gay Liberation Fronts were popping up in cities all across the world. After lifetimes of hiding, LGBTQ people everywhere were finding the courage to come out of the closets and fight their oppressors.
Don: When Stonewall happened, and I began reading about it in the LA Times and New York Times, for the first time, I began to see—oh my God, there is a consciousness I must develop about the oppression of myself as a gay man. It was a wake-up call.
August and Chris: In 1969, Don joined the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front. His impact was immediate, and he pushed their stance into a brasher, more radical approach. With gorilla theater and ready-made picket signs, the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front fought on the front lines and often in the streets.
Don: The homophile movement in the 1950s was not about fighting back. It was about becoming like the larger society wanted us to behave. If we behaved, they would give us our freedom. Most of us couldn't identify with that. We would be in your face. We didn't care whether we were invited or not. We didn't care whether we got arrested or not. We were going to fight back against heterosexual supremacy wherever we found it.
August and Chris: Pre-Stonewall gay organizations and activist groups were focused on gaining acceptance from the heterosexual community through assimilation. Don calls this becoming your oppressor. For him, true gay liberation wasn't about being accepted. It was about breaking free loudly, fiercely, and unapologetically.
Don: I often mention somebody by the name of Frantz Fanon. He was a black psychiatrist from Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. He worked as a psychiatrist in Algeria when the Algerians were rebelling against French control. Through his work there, he developed several critical theories and his books The Wretched of the Earth and Black Body, White Masks. He created the idea of ontology resistance: that oppressed people will try to imitate their oppressors’ culture.
I took those theories, and I put them within the context of what happened to gay people. It wasn't that we were a country that got colonized; our minds got colonized by hetero-supremacy. We began to believe and internalize what they said about us—that we were freaks, that we were inferior, that we were sick, we were sinful. In the process, we began to idolize hetero-culture. Part of gay liberation was fighting back against the colonization of our minds. The self-loathing that we'd internalized, the self-hatred we'd internalized, and how we thought about ourselves.
August and Chris: These days, gay pride is a multi-million dollar industry around the world. They're called Pride Parades now, not Pride Marches. There are mini-festivals, day-long parties, and all of the festivities are packaged by corporate sponsors eager to show off their rainbow logos. Sure, it is a testament to how far we have come, but it is also a far cry from the first Pride Marches, which were not parties; rather, they were protests.
Back when there was no money to be made from LGBTQ civil rights, protesters had to be creative. Take, for example, the first Pride March in Los Angeles on June 28th, 1970. Obtaining a permit for a bunch of queers was not an easy task.
Don: Ed Davis, who was Chief of Police, denied our permit to march down Hollywood Boulevard. He said it would be like allowing a group—you know, it sounds like Donald Trump—allowing thieves and perverts to march down Hollywood Boulevard. We went to the ACLU, they took the case, took it to court, and the Friday before the Sunday it was supposed to happen, a judge said there is no reason to deny us a permit, and that the police department had to issue it.
August and Chris: At the March, the Gay Liberation Front and Don made their presence known, even if they had to slide themselves into the action.
Don: One Incorporated was there with a car—like beauty queens sitting in a car with One Incorporated on its side. Reverend Troy Perry was there with the Metropolitan Community Church and rode in a convertible. The Gay Liberation Front was there doing guerilla theater. We had someone dressed as a policeman and five or six members of the Gay Liberation Front dressed as fairies. The cop had a baton and was chasing them, saying, "I'm going to get you fairies. I'm going to lock you all up. You fairies are a..." To us, this was guerilla theater. Another contingent of the Gay Liberation Front made a huge paper mache Vaseline jar. At that time, Vaseline was the major lubricant used by both heterosexual and gay people. It outraged people that we had that Vaseline jar because they thought that was brash and unheard of—lots of people who had read the article in The Los Angeles Times about the march came and joined.
August and Chris: With their new visibility came an increased backlash. An entirely volunteer organization from the beginning, the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front did whatever they could do to raise the funds they needed for their cause. They held same-sex dance parties called the Gay Funky Dance. They had a thrift store in the Silverlake neighborhood called the Gaywill Funky Thrift Shop. Don remembers an early day when he realized just how dangerous their work had become.
Don: We called and called and called, and we couldn't get a hold of Ralph Shafer, the volunteer who was working that shift. Late on that Monday, Morris and I went over together—went over to the Gaywill Funky Shop. It was closed. We had a key—we got in. As soon as we got in—I don't know if you know this, but a dead body gives off a certain smell. As soon as we stepped in, both Morris and I looked at each other said, "Oh no." We called his name, and we looked around. In the bathroom, we found him dead. Someone had executed him. There was a shot in the back of his head like an execution. We thought, "Oh, no, robbery. Ralph is dead.” But the money was there. Nobody had taken any money, so it was an execution.
August: Was anyone convicted?
Don: No, never. This was a gay murder. In those days, gay murders were not a high priority. Many times the attitude to it was, "Well, it's one less of them."
August and Chris: Homosexuality was considered psychopathological until 1973, a mental illness to be treated and cured. Fighting this classification was a core action of many groups during the first wave of gay liberation. How could the world accept us if who we were was reduced to a mental disorder? One of the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front's most famous action was called the Biltmore Rebellion. In 1970, when the American Psychiatric Association held a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the Gay Liberation Front discovered that one of the speakers would be giving a presentation advocating electroshock therapy to cure homosexuality. It was a perfect opportunity for a protest.
Don: There were about maybe 30, 35 of us. We go there, and we sit in the audience. When Dr. Feldman got up to start his presentation, I walked up to the microphone and took the microphone from him, and said, "I'm from the Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles, and we will not let this presentation go on until we have a discussion about the professional ethics of what you're doing here." What we proceeded to do was divide the audience of maybe, I don't know, 150 people into about maybe ten groups with two, three gay liberation people in each group.
Don: We had them debate—discuss with us—the ethics and morality of what they were doing. First of all, creating a category of sick people, psychopathology, which wasn't true. It was manufactured. We're not sick, and they're trying treatments that are barbaric, trying to heal something that is not a problem.
After we had that discussion, maybe for about 30, 45 minutes, we said, "Now, go on with your meeting. Dr. Feldman, go on with your presentation." They did continue, but people walked out on Dr. Feldman. Dr. Feldman was so flustered that while his presentation went on—it was a dud.
Unknown to us at the time, across the street in Pershing Square, the Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team had formed, and they were ready to interrupt the Gay Liberation Front and arrest us. The chair of the psychology department said to the police, "No. Everything is going to be okay. Just go away. Don't interfere. Don't interfere. We don't want you to interfere." Thank goodness they didn't interfere, or we would have been all arrested. The LAPD is not known for its sensitivity.
August and Chris: Similar events took place in 1971 and in 1972 in Washington DC. However, the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front rebellion was the first.
August and Chris: As the group's presence grew, they realized that they also needed to nurture the community they helped build. Within months, the Gay Liberation Front had implemented the first 24-hour hotline to help LGBTQ people. The hotline was manned by many, but Don, who had been sleeping in his car at the time, offered to work the night shift if he could sleep on the couch at their office. His future as a psychologist was rooted in these late nights when he listened to the pained voices of LGBTQ people from all across the country.
Don: Beginning sometime around midnight telephone calls would start coming in. I was 28 at the time, 29, and knew a lot about history but nothing about human services. I just listened, talked to them, and tried to be as compassionate as I could be. I did not know it at the time, but there was a helper inside of me even then. Throughout 1970, a year, I took these 24-hour phone calls. By about March, I realized that this couldn’t go on. What I was hearing was that gay people were having problems basically caused by their oppression. About March of 1970, April of 1970, I called a meeting at the Gay Liberation Front called the Gay Survival Committee. Just think of those words, “Gay Survival Committee.” What we were dealing with in 1970 wasn't, "Let's have a parade." It was basic, fundamental survival. Some didn't—many didn't survive.
August and Chris: This was pre-Google, pre-Ellen, pre-Queer Eye. Many people felt like they were doomed to a life of self-hatred, loneliness and persecution. Seeing the dire need for support in their newly formed community, in 1971, Don and fellow activist Morris Kight founded the Gay Community Services Center. It was the first nonprofit in America to have the word “gay” in its name. The story goes President Richard Nixon was so hesitant to approve a nonprofit with the word “gay” in its name that the Secretary of Treasury, David Kennedy, kept the Gay Community Services Center's application in his desk drawer.
Don: They knew we had a perfect application that they should grant, and so their strategy was to not act on it and hope we would go away.
August: And you didn't.
August and Chris: The Gay Community Services Center, which later evolved into the LA LGBT Center, was the first gay center in America. More than just a safe place, it was an invaluable resource to the community.
Don: Something happened to people when they came to a Center which in the front of it had a big sign hanging, “Gay Community Services Center.” They could walk into a space where there were all these gay and lesbian and trans people. We were acting normally, and we were asking them, "What do you need?" There was something healing in being able to do that rather than say, "Call the police." "Call the reverend." "Call a shrink." It was like, "How can we help you?"
August and Chris: The early days were not easy; in fact, they were scary.
Don: All of the death threats I got were in connection with organizing the Gay Community Services Center. Probably the threat that concerned me the most was somebody called me up at the Center and said, "I know where you live, Don Kilhefner," and gave me the address of the commune that I lived in. Then he said, "I know which room you live in because I can see it from—" and then he gave the name of the street. I thought, "Holy shit. This guy has specific information." I lived in fear for about a month. Then, as happens with fear many times, it can't maintain itself forever.
August and Chris: The Gay Community Services Center has since become the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the largest and most influential organization of its kind in America. It is a beacon of hope for LGBTQ people of all stripes, providing essential services such as free STD testing, housing for homeless LGBTQ youth, and numerous other invaluable programs that continue to enrich the community. It has come a long way from its roots in a creaky old Victorian house on Wilshire Boulevard.
Don: I can remember the day before our clinic got licensed. Morris Kight and I were in the clinic. We were trying to transform our closets into a laboratory, and we were able to do it within 48 hours and have it passed by the Los Angeles County Health Department.
August and Chris: Now more than ever, vested interests are erasing the history of the radical activists who dedicated their lives to fight for what is right. Don has seen his legacy minimized and partly erased in his lifetime. The list of examples is long, but perhaps the clearest and most recent example of this involves the LGBT Center. Its current administration refuses to acknowledge him as a co-founder. Instead, they reduced his legacy and contribution by bestowing upon him the title “Founding Executive Director.” In the hype of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the LA LGBT Center also decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The only issue with that was that it was not the center's 50th anniversary.
The Gay Community Service Center was founded in 1971. In fact, other anniversaries have been celebrated based on the 1971 founding year too. Now the question is, where do we get the year 1969? It’s from another group Don co-founded called the Gay Survival Committee. Don gave me a copy of his invitation to the Center's star-studded 50th-anniversary celebration and his further correspondence with Laurie Jean, the Center's current CEO. Unaware of the 50th-anniversary extravaganza, he was only invited a month before the event. Laurie Jean had no room at her table for the Founding Executive Director.
Don: How'd it make me feel? Both sad and a little angry because not just Morris and I but hundreds of people worked to make the Center happen. Hundreds and hundreds developing into the largest Center of its kind in the world. She just dismisses our involvement as nothing. Secondly, the fact that it grew out of the Gay Liberation Front's Gay Survival Committee, she refuses to address that by name. I was there. I was the “Founding Executive Director.” It was largely my vision for the Community Center. I was there, and to have her try to rewrite that history and pretend like it didn't happen, it's not the way you treat your elders.
August: Don did attend the 50th anniversary and was seated in the far back near the kitchen. When I spoke to him the day after the celebration, he told me about the hugs and love he received from the attendees. Hearing the stories helped my heart. As long as sources like the LGBTQ History Project exists, a legacy like Don Kilhefner's will not be easily erased or revised.
August and Chris: After years at the Center, Don felt the call to do something else. The Center had brought valuable survival tools to LGBTQ people in Los Angeles, and in its model, the center saved lives all across the world. With that, he could not help but wonder about the spirit of gay men. Gay men were becoming liberated but also lost in the brave, new world of sexual freedom. He wanted to provide another kind of service. He wanted to help gay men discover and explore their true place in humanity. In 1978, Don and his friend, the notorious activist Harry Hay, founded the Radical Faeries.
Don: There were faerie circles that Arthur Evans had started in the Bay Area. We didn't want them to be like that because what he was doing was trying to recreate the faeries as they come out of faerie history and lore in the Middle Ages. We were thinking about something more contemporary, more about gay consciousness. What is the consciousness that we carry, and what is the contribution we're making? Harry and I played volleyball back and forth. One day Harry called, and he said, "How about Radical?" I said, "Bingo. That's it."
August and Chris: On Labor Day weekend in 1978, over 200 men congregated in the Arizona desert outside of Tucson for the first Radical Faerie gathering. It was the first gathering of its kind, where gay men could gather outside their typical bar, bathhouse, or any urban or suburban setting and connect on a deeper level with nature and each other.
Don: We didn't want people to become spectators of this. We wanted it to be an exploration where we get together and talk to each other—that people bring their gifts with them and share those gifts with the other gay men there. There was a group called Louisiana Sissies. One of the Louisiana Sissies was doing a workshop on crochet lacemaking. Somebody else might be doing a workshop on gemstones, somebody else on auto-fellatio. Somebody else was doing a workshop by a pool, another night at the baths—how do we bring sensuality into a relationship rather than just orgasmic sex? Then there were general meetings, where we will be discussing gay consciousness, gay center spirituality, et cetera. These workshops were happening each day, with the content being created by the participants.
August and Chris: Gay men, as much as their brothers and sisters of other orientations, bring something unique to humanity. From a biological standpoint, they cannot reproduce, so what is their purpose? Why do homosexuals and even homosexual animals continue to exist? Don's intent with the Radical Faeries was to explore this and thus help gay men find their place in the world and define themselves as something more than just a sex act.
Don: All we talked about was a gathering of gay men to begin revising Gay Liberation and begin revisioning what it means to be gay. Why are we here? Why the fuck are there gay people? In terms of evolutionary biology and socio-biology, why do we keep reappearing? While our oppressors go down the drainpipe of history, why do we keep reappearing? Gay people wouldn't be there for thousands of years unless we're contributing to our species’ evolution. The question for us is what are we doing—not how do we become heterosexuals.
August and Chris: Don's lifelong fascination with the spiritual dimension of gayness continues to this day in his work as a Jungian depth psychologist. While many elders retire in their later years, Don remains engaged, active, and present, seeing clients of all races, ages, and sexual orientations. He listens to their struggles and guides them, much like he did half a century ago during the night shift in the Gay Liberation Front's tiny office.
Don: You know, there's something in me that is forward-moving. There is an energy in me, that's just my nature, that I tend to see the possibilities in things, and I don't get down for long. My therapist once said to me, "Do you know, Don, you're the kind of person that has to have a vision to be healthy. You're a vision carrier." When he said that, I poo-pooed it, but the more I thought about that over the years, I think there's some truth to it. That I see the possibilities in things, and those possibilities keep my energy forward-moving.
August and Chris: At his home in West Hollywood, Don's legacy surrounds him. From the African art which guided him off of a more traditional path early on, to the very first Radical Faerie gathering poster, you see a man whose life has taken many turns. A man who has accomplished much yet is always curious what the next thing to lean into is.
Don: There's a West African saying, "If elders are lost, adults will be lost. If Adults are lost, youth will be lost." It puts the emphasis on the importance of elders and providing a certain kind of stability. We need a community that honors ancestors, which requires elders, that depends on adults, and invites young people into the community.
The above interview was previously featured in the QueerCore Podcast.