Out of the Archives
By Lambda Archives staff
Lambda Archives board member emeritus Chuck Kaminski keeps searching for the history of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ community. He shows up at random times at the Archives and selects a box to take a deep dive into its contents and often digs up buried gems.
Sometimes he’ll go online and search in different places and new ways until he turns up other pieces of our past. One such search led him to discover that San Diego had two chapters of the Mattachine Society in the early 1950s and Chuck, along with Lambda’s historian-in-residence Lillian Faderman, was able to get ONE Archive in Los Angeles to send us the 52 pages of that history.
A recent find was that the New York Public Library had an audio tape that was labeled as an interview with an “unknown man” about the formation of The Gay Center in San Diego. Chuck contacted the library and asked if they were willing to sell us a copy of the interview. But they said the interview had been donated by the International Gay Information Center, so we’d need the permission from San Diego’s Center to get the copy. Cara Dessert and the staff of The Center were happy to authorize that transfer of our history.
The tape is fascinating for several reasons. From the dates mentioned in it, it is clear the interview was recorded sometime between October of 1973 and April of 1974. The Center for Social Services (as it was then called) had just opened in September of 1973 so the details were fresh in the mind of the man being interviewed, including specific dates.
The interviewer mentions having spent four days in Los Angeles at their center (which was the first in the country, having started in 1969) and among the people she interviewed there was Morris Kight, the primary founder of that center who offered advice to the people starting the San Diego Center. San Diego’s was the second LGBT center in the country, even pre-dating New York’s by 10 years.
By researching the articles the interviewee mentions that he wrote for The Prodigal, (the San Diego Metropolitan Community Church newsletter that started publishing in 1970) and that he said he’ll have an article in the upcoming April 1974 issue of In Touch magazine about oppression, Chuck was able to determine that the man speaking is Charles David Hollenbeck, who usually wrote under the name “Charles David.” Back then, many people were reluctant to use their actual names in gay publications.
Lambda Archives has Jess Jessop’s and Bernie Michels’ notes on those meetings and Michels notes that David Hollenbeck was a participant in those early planning sessions.
Throughout the interview, Hollenbeck refers to Robert Jessop, (the driving force behind The Center and eventually the founder of Lambda Archives) as “Bob.” Everyone else called him “Jess.”
In October 1972, 12 people met at a house in Point Loma looking to expand from just being a phone line to an actual center. In February 1973, they had their first fundraiser. The organizers arranged for eight bar owners to guarantee the budget of The Center. If the center’s fundraising goals were not met, the bar owners would chip in funds to keep it operating. This was a unique agreement that was covered in The Advocate magazine.
On April 10, 1973, they put on a carnival that raised about $2,300 for The Center. Hollenbeck reported, “We exhausted ourselves emotionally.” And now that money was coming in it led to, “drastic shake-ups during some very hot meetings.” The upheavals after the carnival resulted in, “the resignation of the idealist who was leading this, Bernie Michels, and the resignation of several of the women who were bitching about drag things.” But he noted that they had “ a good representation of gay women.”
He said there was, “A big argument lasting four or five weeks or six weeks over what sort of a place should we get. The argument was to spend little and save what we have or spend a lot and trust…” (that more money would come in). “We spent a lot more than we thought we would. But so far it’s been all right. It’s a good house.” They moved in during September of 1973. “Women are cooperating tremendously. People are pouring in, taking advantage of it. It’s working. It was worth the gamble and worth the trouble.”
Hollenbeck said, “Bob Jessop took over as co-director,” but added, “the beautiful period of consensus is gone and you have to follow the lines of authority. They had to organize. But in a way I didn’t like.” Of Jessop he also said, “He is somewhat of a prima donna. But an organizational prima donna.”
Among Hollenbeck’s complaints was that the boards of The Center and the MCC told him he couldn’t “hook up” with people who called the hotline or came to the church for counseling.
He admits, “I’m a controversial guy. I’m a loner. I’m a maverick. I function best alone.”
And he talks about leading protests and stirring things up but adds that even back then they would get cops thanking them for protesting.
Unfortunately, the tape is incomplete. There is no introduction and there are pieces missing. After she left Hollenbeck, the interviewer apparently planned to visit the San Diego Center to interview Jess “Bob” Jessop. This makes Chuck Kaminski and the rest of us here at the Archives wonder if there is a tape somewhere out there of that interview or if there is a more complete version of this one. There is always more digging to do!
—Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at lambdaarchives.org.