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ACLU honors frisky San Francisco queer
who told police to halt

The great LGBT influx to San Francisco began in 1965 when Herb Donaldson refused police intimidation, seen honored by the American Civil Liberties Union at center
with Matt Cole, national director of the ACLU LGBT Special Project, right,
and Assemblyman Mark Leno.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Pat Murphy

Copyright fogcityjournal.com

June 23, 2006

Finally one man had enough, God damn it.

The spotlights on homosexuals grouped in public, the incessant permit checks, the lack of a search warrant.

"God damn it, that's enough. You can't come in again without a search warrant."

It was a pivotal moment for San Francisco, an historic stance, for a cornered people.

The young attorney, who thought he just ended his career, struck a solitary defiance.

And just as quickly attorney Herbert M. Donaldson was whisked into a San Francisco police van.

San Francisco Police load Herbert Donaldson
into police van without explanation,
without giving a reason for his arrest.
Photo Courtesy Louise Swig


San Francisco, land of the untamable, always had co-existed with its gay population if heads stayed bowed.

Early gay and lesbian organizations already were in place in San Francisco but organized cries for equality to replace co-existence was confined to dismissible gay women and men themselves.

That changed in 1965 San Francisco.

Local religious leaders of repute began suggesting equality was due everyone even on an earthly homophobic world.

With eye-popping audacity they formed the Council on Religion and The Homosexual and on a sparkling Saturday evening held a public fundraiser at what is now the California Culinary Academy on Polk Street.


Police reacted with what was then a common intimidation.

They set up spotlights across from the event to expose gathering homosexuals.

A good half of those invited still entered.

Then police entered to check event permits, Donaldson recalls.

Event permits were in order.

Then police returned to check health permits, also fully verified.

Police made their fourth attempt to suppress the gathering, returning to enter again.

It was then Herb Donaldson said no more.

Judge Herbert M. Donaldson


After Donaldson was released from jail he learned the police had sent a copy of his arrest report to the California Bar Association and the youth thought his career was shattered.


The police were not yet finished with homosexuals purported fully human by undismissible voices.

Homosexuals were a blight on San Francisco, began a police public relations campaign.

The department sent press releases, published worldwide, alerting humanity that an estimated 75,000 homosexuals had seeped the City.

As a result of the 'God damn it,' and worldwide public relations ridicule, the first great influx of LGBT sisters and brothers to San Francisco began.


Herb Donaldson was not ruined.

His career advanced and in 1983 Governor Jerry Brown created Donaldson a judge.

Along the way he founded Capricorn Coffees becoming a successful businessman, a free flowing philanthropist to progressive causes and countless LGBT youth who wanted to become politically active.

Only recently retired, Donaldson presided over the California Mental Health Court which he created.


Through the seeming solitude others stood with Donaldson both at his side and across the generations.

Living reminders encircled him last night with tribute.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) first kicked back at homophobia in 1936 by challenging a Boston ban on the lesbian themed 'The Children's Hour.'

The City of Boston prevailed, the stage play was banned, but ACLU commitment grew.

It continued to represent sporadic LGBT cases. By 1956, gay representation was a recurrent ACLU effort. They successfully represented Lawrence Ferlinghetti whose City Lights Book Store homoerotic 'Howl' brought another blackout attempt. They successfully represented attorney Donaldson as well.

After hearing the evidence Judge Leo Friedman instructed the jury to acquit Donaldson, and the jury came back saying they would done so anyway.

In 1986 the ACLU formed a special LGBT division now staffed with 22 attorneys in four cities.

Matt Cole, who authored San Francisco's first LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance and now heads the national ACLU LGBT Special Project, led the Thursday Donaldson tribute.

Matt Cole


"A funny thing happened on the way to jail - the next day Herb Donaldson was an ACLU client because Herb Donaldson was the lawyer who planted his feet and stood in that door and said to the San Francisco Police enough is enough," smiled Cole.

"They jury went out and deliberated and came back not long afterward and announced that they had found the defendant not guilty. And that they would have done it even if the judge hadn't told them to do it.

"The thing is that was a critical moment in San Francisco history.

"Some important things started to change when a judge and a jury said that you couldn't be convicted as a criminal for standing up to that kind of police harassment.

Dorothy Erhlich, national executive director of the ACLU, in background at left,
with Bruce Deming, at right, of the Covington and Burling Law Firm.
The firm joined with the ACLU in the 1936 'Children's Hour' lawsuit against Boston Ban.


"There were no gay parades, no gay proclamations, no gay exhibit at the library, there weren't gay people in courses in the high schools or in the grammar schools. There were no openly elected officials, there were no openly gay judges. There weren't any openly gay lawyers in San Francisco in 1965.


"What this man did was to take his career and his life that he had at that point in his hands and put it all at risk.

"To stand up and say enough is enough.

"That was the beginning of the end that gay people had to cower in the shadows in San Francisco."


"First I want to thank the ACLU for inviting me to be an honored guest," Donaldson responded.

"Secondly I want to correct one thing that Matt said.

"I didn't say enough is enough.

"I said, 'Well God damn it.'

"And I learned a lesson. I always thought that when police were arresting you they would tell you what they were arresting you for.

"Instead they simply hauled me out to the paddy wagon without saying a word.

"So I learned a few things. It was great experience, it was one of the high experiences because at the time I actually thought my career was over.

"Because when the police filed their report they put at the bottom 'copy to the State Bar of California' and I thought 'well maybe this is it' because thanks to the ACLU I was well represented.

"The ACLU headquarters were in a small group of offices at First and Market at that time. They actually weren't super offices - they were a little dingy.

"And Marshall Krause came forward and asked if we needed representation. There was another lawyer, actually two lawyers who were arrested as well after I was as well as a housewife who had the temerity to ask the police if they had a ticket (to the event).

"Thanks to the fact that the ACLU came forward and represented me most of criminal BAR down at the Hall of Justice signed on as 'of counsel' for the trial.

"And I remember that well because... each juror was asked they knew any of these lawyers and there was a whole bunch of lawyers that people did know.

"Judge Leo Friedman was the judge and I'm still grateful to the fact they he shortcutted the trial and got the verdict of not guilty.

"I want to tell you a couple of things about this which you may find amusing.

"The police I think found they were in a bind. So they put out the word to the newspapers that this was a real problem for San Francisco because San Francisco had 75,000 homosexuals.

"Well, this went out on the wires.

"And I can just see some of your friends looking at the wires and saying 'this is the promised land! Let's go there!

"And in fact we had a good gay population. There was a large number of us but after that it increased radically.

"The ACLU has been in court in my life since then. I've watched them grow from basically a small office. It has grown here in Northern California. I want to support it and I want to continue to support it.

"The turnout here today indicates to me that a lot of people really do support this really worthwhile organization. I get updates all the time on the computer as to what the ACLU is doing, what cases are being decided and so forth. There is a lot of activity in this country that the ACLU is associated with.

"The fact that the ACLU is associated and prosecuting some of these cases really puts us, those of us in the GLBT community, where we know we have an ally that's not going to fail us. It's not going to turn its back on us. It's been with us for the past 50 years and even before that.

"I'm proud to be a member of the ACLU and I want to thank all of you for coming tonight"

And thank you Herb Donaldson, insists Assemblyman Mark Leno.


Hundreds of thousands will gather this Sunday - to Herb Donaldson's delight - for the Pride 2006 Celebration.

(Contact Herb Donaldson at HerbertDonaldson@stanfordalumni.org)




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