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,
and Assemblyman Mark Leno.
By Pat Murphy
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
WE'RE HERE. WE'RE QUEER. GET USED TO IT
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.
UPPITY HOMOSEXUALS SCARED THE HORSES
Police reacted with what was then a common intimidation.
They set up spotlights across from the event to expose gathering
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.
IRONIC JUST DESERTS
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
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.
NO RUIN HERE
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.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO JAIL
"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
"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
with Bruce Deming, at right, of the Covington and Burling Law
The firm joined with the ACLU in the 1936 'Children's Hour' lawsuit
against Boston Ban.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
"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.
A RISK TAKEN
"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."
I DIDN'T SAY ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
"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
"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
"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
"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.
THEY STILL COME
Hundreds of thousands will gather this Sunday - to Herb Donaldson's
delight - for the Pride 2006 Celebration.
(Contact Herb Donaldson at HerbertDonaldson@stanfordalumni.org)