Tim Wolfred, psychologist and community college board member, looked out over an evening assembly in the nation's most visible and politically active homosexual community. Neither he nor his audience was very happy.
After a series of steady advances, they have fallen on bad times. A virulent, mysterious disease is killing homosexuals. The murderer of the city's first homosexual supervisor is about to be released after only five years in prison. The city's mayor has grown distant from the gay community. What has gone wrong?
"If we're wimpy about our issues, we're going to end up with wimpy politicians," Wolfred told his audience at a debate last Wednesday on the proposed recall of Mayor Dianne Feinstein. He pleaded for the old solidarity that forced urban officeholders throughout the country to seek the votes of homosexuals.
The gay community is still growing in influence, perhaps more rapidly than any other political minority in the country. The Democrats have created a Gay-Lesbian Caucus in the Democratic National Committee. Even the California Republican Party, a hotbed of conservative life styles, has begun to appeal for gay support and to promise new concern for gay political issues.
But unhappiness reigns in San Francisco, where the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club, which favors the recall of Mayor Feinstein, debated the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club, which opposes it. Feinstein is seen as a backslider in support of the gay cause by some, and a useful, if inconsistent, moderate by others. The recall election, which was forced by 24,000 signatures collected by a tiny, self-described communist group known as the White Panthers, is a week from today. The White Panthers said they want to remove Feinstein because she supported gun control, which would deprive them of weapons they say they need to protect themselves from police.
Coincidentally, their signature drive provided an outlet for gay resentment of Feinstein and gay community leaders belatedly joined the campaign.
Paul Boneberg, a 30-year-old bookstore manager and president of the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club, said he and most other gay leaders did not sign the petitions for recall but later supported it because "we saw it as a battle we could not afford to lose."
In a telephone interview, Feinstein said she expects to spend $400,000 and win the recall election. Her opponents, not only gays but also liberal Democrats displeased with her support for big downtown development, said they expect to spend $4,000 and lose. But they would be heartened by an anti-Feinstein vote of 30 percent or more. Adept at steering a middle course through the multi-colored amusement park of San Francisco politics, Feinstein has no announced, credible opponent for her projected run for a second four-year term in November. "If she comes out of this the recall without a ripple of protest, it's free and clear in November," said Catherine Cusic, a respiratory therapist and lesbian member of the Harvey Milk club.
Milk, San Francisco's first avowed homosexual supervisor, was murdered in a a City Hall shooting along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Their killer, anti-homosexual supervisor and former policeman Dan White, received a five-year sentence for manslaughter, triggering riots in the gay community.
White is scheduled for release from prison in January.
Feinstein, as president of the Board of Supervisors, became acting mayor afer Moscone's death. She promised city jobs for homosexuals and action against police harassment and won election as mayor in 1979 with heavy gay support.
At last week's debate, gay activists complained she had given gays only 16 of a possible 300 government positions in a city with a homosexual population of 15 to 20 percent. In the District of Columbia, one speaker said, Mayor Marion Barry has appointed more than 50 gays to city boards and commissions.
Mayor Feinstein, some speakers said, had not curbed police harassment. And she vetoed a bill to grant gay couples the equivalent of a city marriage license, so they could try to claim health insurance benefits under their partner's policies.
Feinstein said in an interview that she had made 166 board and commission appointments so far, with 17 going to gays. She said she transferred one police captain and made other adjustments in police procedures in response to complaints from homosexuals. She described the "domestic partners registration" bill as flawed. "There was no requirement for residency, no requirement for longevity of the relationship, no mutual obligations," she said.
During the debate, Toklas club president Randy Stallings said his club's vote to oppose the recall of Feinstein had been close, but the majority felt bound by practical politics. "We do not intend to spend the next four years without a voice for the lesbian and gay community in her office," he said.
But Robert Bacci, a gay Republican attorney, said Feinstein and other politicians cannot risk any bold measures if they have to contend with recall votes.
Bacci's club, Concerned Republicans for Individual Rights, has met with a representative of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian to discuss gay concerns.
Democratic presidential candidates are also testing gay waters in California. Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.) will address the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, a leading gay organization, later this month. Sen. Alan Cranston (Calif.) is cosponsoring a gay civil rights bill.
Cranston also has said he supports more federal funding for research on a cure for the devastating disease, Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).