20 Years Ago Today in Gay History: The AB101 Veto Riots Would’ve Blown Your Mind

Yesterday the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco held a program called “All the Rage: Stories From the AB101 Veto Riot,” featuring a documentary short about the queer riots in San Francisco in 1991 and a panel with organizers of the event twenty years ago and eyewitness accounts.  Called the AB 101 Veto Riot, it “ended with the police in retreat and a state office building in flames.”

I had never heard of the AB 101 Veto Riot before I got this press release, or the other two that accompany it in a trio, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 and the White Night Riot of 1979. It occurs to me that maybe no one has told you, either. Most of us got through school without even hearing about Stonewall, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to hear about. In honor of the people who put their safety on the line so that our rights had to be recognized, let’s take a moment to remedy that.

1991 found the queer community, especially in San Francisco, full of rage after a decade of watching their loved ones, their families and their best friends mowed down by AIDS while Reagan’s administration stood by and did nothing, and straight America was mostly just concerned about the possibility of the epidemic spreading from the deviant subculture to their own — as far as they were concerned, the fate of the freaks and the sexually confused were a foregone conclusion. The whole decade was defined by a never-bef0re-seen level of queer militancy and a culture of outrage, especially in San Francisco. The White Night riot was a response to the ridiculously lenient sentencing of Harvey Milk’s murderer Dan White in 1979, which caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to the area around City Hall. Over a dozen police cars were set on fire. Protesters fought back against police officers who covered their badges to avoid identification using tree branches, broken chunks of asphalt, and torn off parts of city buses. (You can read first-person accounts of a protester and a police officer at FoundSF, as well as at thecastro.net.)

LEAFLET FROM THE WHITE NIGHT RIOTS, VIA FOUNDSF.ORG

The Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which happened in 1966 and actually predates Stonewall, began when a group of transgender customers in a restaurant in the Tenderloin had finally had enough of police harassment and arrests (cross-dressing was illegal) and fought back against a raid by throwing the restaurant’s coffee cups and chairs, and shattering the windows of the restaurant that refused to serve them afterwards. (Check out the documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria  and this great interview with its creators.) Both riots were historic in their bravery and, more importantly, in terms of achieving change. After the protest, Mayor Dianne Feinstein appointed a pro-gay Chief of Police to ease tensions between queer activists and the police force. And glbtq.com reports that “In the aftermath of the riot at Compton’s, a network of transgender social, psychological, and medical support services was established, which culminated in 1968 with the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit [NTCU], the first such peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world.”

The AB 101 Veto Riot came after both of these, and seems to be the least known. It came after Stonewall, after the other two major San Francisco protests, and after the deaths of innumerable beloved people from AIDS. It was in response to a bill that you’ve probably never heard of — searching for AB 101 today will point you towards a childcare bill — because it never got to become real. Had it passed, it would have guaranteed statewide protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by private employers — something that, twenty years later, many states still don’t have. Instead, Governor Pete Wilson vetoed it. As a moderate Republican, Wilson had generally been regarded as a good thing for the queer community — he was relatively liberal on social issues, and publicly supported abortion rights. But when AB 101 came across his desk, he responded “politically on an issue of principle” and vetoed it, although polls showed that a majority of Californians would support it.  A later court decision, Soroka vs. Dayton Hudson, established that state labor code provisions did prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation and in fact brought harsher standards than AB101 would have (although a court decision doesn’t have the same weight or legal standing as a law). Wilson’s state government did  accept and enforce the ruling, but the damage was done as far as Wilson’s credibility in the eyes of the queer community; he had played his hand as someone willing to throw them under the bus, the latest in a long, long line of people willing to throw them under the bus and then arrest them in a baseless raid.

The night the veto was announced, 50,000 people marched throughout the city, their protests recalling the direct action of ACT UP and Queer Nation during the 80s. The details of what happened next are obscure — there seems to be virtually no written or at least publicly accessible record of what happened between queer protesters and police that night. We know that the GLBT History Museum’s exhibit includes “the shoe lost by mayoral candidate Frank Jordan when he was chased from the scene of the Castro District protest that preceded the riot… [and] a fragment of stained glass from the shattered windows at the entrance of the Old State Building.” Some proof of the riots having happened at least exists in the DIY history of the movement: the queer punk radical zines. Issue #2 of Three Dollar Bill features a photo of the rioters released by the police in an attempt to have them identified.

What we do know is that the governor was “zapped” by angry queer protesters when he later spoke at UCLA, bringing riot police to campus for the first time since the Vietnam War protests, and earning the new nickname Pete “Pariah” Wilson. One of the only available pieces of archived news from the period (abstract, not a full article) describes activists “smashing glass doors, tying up traffic, disrupting a [Pete Wilson] speech at Stanford by throwing eggs and paper wads. When an orange was hurled at Wilson, he caught it (nice catch, governor) and promptly lobbed it back at the protesters. Invited guests cheered.” The protests went on in a variety of forms for a full two weeks. Today, California has active anti-discrimination laws for queers on the books.

The reason that people in marginalized groups can often grow up, even go their whole lives, without knowing their history or the incredible and awe-inspiring things they’re heir to, is because that history just isn’t there. It happened, but that doesn’t mean there’s any record of it, anything to prove that the rights we enjoy (or more accurately, put up with until we can be more than second-class citizens) didn’t just blossom out of the benevolence and fair-mindedness of the figurs of authority. There isn’t so much as a Wikipedia entry on the AB 101 Veto Riots. Even the surviving, internet-archived journalism around the veto (mostly from the LA Times and other LA-based publications), while disapproving of Wilson, makes little remark about the protests. In order to read journalist records of the riots, you need to pay at least $3.95 each for a “document purchase” from the LA Times.

When it comes to things like the AB 101 Veto Riots — or really, anything else — queer history initiatives and the existence of places like the GLBT History Museum is vital — this is how we know who we are. Without making a space for the people who were there to tell us what happened, to tell us our entire history, we have no way of even knowing what we don’t know. When you’re deciding how you feel about Obama, about the HRC, about how DOMA will end, about whether our activism is working, about whether “equality” is ever going to happen — do you know about this? Is this something you even have the option to find out about? What other parts of our history are living on only in our memories?

Well, not this moment, not anymore. Last night’s program at the GLBT History Museum saw a documentary short film on the riots released to the public with its creator Steve Elkins present. It also featured the experience and eyewitness accounts of organizers Lito Sandoval and Ingrid Nelson in a “living history panel” moderated by veteran activist Laura Thomas, as well as the work of Bob Ostertag, whose music composition “All the Rage” for the Kronos Quartet features audio from the riots. (You can listen to Ostertag’s piece on his website.) What’s more, the exhibit “No Apologies, No Regrets: The AB101 Veto Riot” will be on display at the GLBT History Museum until October 15th, featuring artifacts and documents about the riots and the people involved. Go see it if you can, and tell someone else in your life about it if you can’t. Remember what people you don’t know did for you and your family twenty years ago today, and keep remembering it as we take up the same struggle. Because if we don’t take responsibility for keeping our history alive, no one will.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 752 articles for us.

29 Comments

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    Excellent piece. It happens far too often that someone will bring up some incredibly important but marginalised event in LGBT history and I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. Love Autostraddles gay history articles!

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    Rachel, I rarely comment on articles because I am usually stuck at work and can’t remember my log in password. But that doesn’t matter right now. This article is so full of passion and purpose, I teared up. Today I feel prouder of being queer than I have in a while (and girl, I feel very proud every day, so this is saying something).
    Thank you so much for helping our community keep our history alive. Now off to facebook, so I can post a link to this in ALL the walls.

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    Rachel, I rarely comment on articles because I am usually stuck at work and can’t remember my log in password. But that doesn’t matter right now. This article is so full of passion and purpose, I teared up. Today I feel prouder of being queer than I have in a while (and girl, I feel very proud every day, so this is saying something).
    Thank you so much for helping our community keep our history alive. Now off to facebook, so I can post a link to this in ALL the walls.

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    What a great article. Amazing how much of our history isn’t publicly-known.

    Also, I had kind of a laugh at the title, since also 20 years ago today in gay history, I was born lol.

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    This was wonderful. It makes me sad to know that there’s so much of queer history that even queer people don’t know about, but it makes me happy that Autostraddle exists and publishes articles like this so people can get educated.

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    This was a really cool article, Rachel! Every time I hear/read about things like this, I realize how much queer history is out there that I don’t know about. And it’s not even that I know that these events happened, but just don’t know the details, it’s that I’ve literally never heard of them before.

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    As the organizer of the panel at The GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, I’d like to thank you for this wonderfully impassioned piece of writing. Just two factual revisions: The AB101 Veto Riot happened the night after Pete Wilson vetoed the bill — and the crowd that protested in the Castro, then marched across the city before rioting at the Old State Building was more in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 people.

    The wave of protests around California in response to Pete Wilson’s veto was widely covered in the media at the time — but since 1991 was before the consumer Internet came along, newspapers and TV stations did not have websites — and most have not invested in developing online archives of their pre-Internet material. One exception is Time magazine, where readers can find a solid overview of the uprising around California: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,974022,00.html.

    Steve Elkin’s documentary short “All the Rage: Organizing the AB101 Veto Riot” is available online: http://www.vimeo.com/18039566. In addition, The GLBT History Museum will be posting a video from the program last night, where — in addition to the panelists — a dozen or more members of the audience offered memories from the evening and discussed why the San Francisco queer community finally reached a breaking point that evening in 1991.

    One way to make sure that histories of this sort are not lost is to support the GLBT Historical Society and its new GLBT History Museum. For details on becoming a member, visit http://www.glbthistory.org. People also can stay up to date by liking our Facebook page (search for “The GLBT Historical Society”).

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    This is a great article. Also, it’s sometimes weird to think “hey. there were regular people doing all these important things and now it affects you! and your rights!” Tiny little speck in the universe that I am, it’s cool to think about the legions of queers who came chronologically before me, and fought for our rights.

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    Excellent article! Our history is so, so important to understanding who we are now and where we’ve come from. It’s so important that we as a community hold onto and talk about the struggles and sacrifices of those who’ve come before, because we can’t depend on the mainstream to do it for us.

    Yay Autostraddle for being part of that!

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    If this reporter would go offline and check out microfiche and microfilm records of newspapers that are in many libraries, she will find more coverage of this event. Anything before 1985 is not online but is available.

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    Very glad to find out about Bob Ostertag’s existence; “All the Rage” is great stuff, and I’m really enjoying other recordings on his website. This whole article is great. Mucho obliged.

  12. Pingback: All the Rage | Radio Clash Music Podcast & Blog

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    As a member of Queer Nation who was there I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that not all of what happened is posted here and most of it should be. The police inside the glass doors heckled the protestors daring an action that would not be good for either party. I was up front the other side of the barricade being used as a battering ram. Pete Wilson the liar caused all of this and it was felt by him. This may have also marked the death of Queer Nation activism in San Fran because we all scattered after this or at least those of us not arrested.

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