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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: The Lavender Panthers, San Francisco's LGBT Vigilantes

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 4:14 PM

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The Reverend Ray Broshears, an ordained minister and gay rights activist with a mustache to die for, was beaten senseless on July 4, 1973. He had called the police earlier on "some young toughs" who were lighting fireworks outside of his Helping Hands Gay Community Service Center.

The police showed up and didn't do much except tell the toughs who had called them. Once the cops took off, the toughs went to work on the reverend in what turned out to be an origin story worthy of a superhero movie.

Two days later, Rev. Ray (as he preferred to be called) took a page from San Francisco's vigilante history as he brandished a rifle at a press conference.

"Flanked by two 'drag queens armed with rifles and pistols," according to the Associated Press, he announced that the Lavender Panthers would be patrolling Polk Street and South of Market armed with sawed-off pool cues.

“We deplore violence, but we must meet force with force,” Broshears said, clad in a clerical collar with a crucifix hanging around his neck. “Never again will a gay person be beaten without retaliation.”

Described a few months later by Time magazine as "a stiff-wristed team of gay vigilantes," the Lavender Panthers numbered "21 homosexuals, including two lesbians who are reputedly the toughest hombres in the lot."

"All of the Panthers know judo, karate, Kung Fu or plain-old alley fighting," according to Time.

Those martial arts skills came into play in a gay-bashing incident described in Time where some young dudes started pushing around a pair of men leaving the Naked Grape, "a well-known gay bar."

Broshears and the Panthers pulled up in a gray VW van "and lit into them."

"We didn't even ask questions," Broshears told Time. "We just took out our pool cues and started flailing ass."

The SFPD permitted the pool cues at least for a while, but forbade the Lavender Panthers from carrying firearms. Broshears did, however, keep a shotgun in his office that he boasted would "leave a hole in a man big enough to drive a tank through Georgia."

Broshears also encouraged people in the LGBT community to keep guns in their homes for self-defense.

Before forming the Lavender Panthers, Broshears formed the Gay Activists Alliance in 1971, and was one of the founders of San Francisco’s first gay pride parade in 1972. He also performed one of the city's first same-sex marriages for three lesbian couples in 1972. Although the marriages weren't legally recognized, the act garnered Broshears a bit of publicity at the time, just as the Lavender Panthers would a year later.

While Broshears was effective at gaining attention, he was viewed with suspicion within other factions of the early LGBT movement itself. According to author Christina B. Hanhardt in “Perverse Modernities: Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence" (Duke University Press Books, 2013), Broshears was rumored to have been an FBI informant and even involved in the assassination of JFK.

Broshears did testify against an alleged associate of Lee Harvey Oswald, pilot David Ferrie, during New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's hearings on the JFK assassination.

In the end, Broshears was just as alienated from the emerging homosexual middle class in the Castro as those in the Tenderloin that he served. "Many of the city's affluent gays do not like the idea of hard-eyed homosexual toughs causing commotion in the streets," according to Time.

The Lavender Panthers dissolved in 1974. Broshears attempted to revive his modern day vigilance committee in 1979, but he could no longer get the attention of the press or a changing LGBT community.

Broshears died in relative obscurity from a cerebral hemorrhage on January 10, 1982.


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Bob Calhoun

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