Namesake of Christopher Park Was Not "a Rabid Homophobe"
Also read Evelyn's Guest Opinion about what should be required when considering a name change for a park, monument, or memorial in the August 2 issue of the Bay Area Reporter.
"All history is revisionist history." This surprising comment comes from James M. Banner Jr., cofounder of the National History Center of the American Historical Association, in an enlightening article posted at the National Endowment for the Arts. He defines revisionist history as "writing coexisting, diverse, and sometimes sharply clashing accounts of various subjects, accounts that challenged and sought to alter what had been written about them before." Banner adds that historians "come to hold different views, have different purposes, create different interpretations, and put forth their own distinctive understandings of 'the past.'” It should also be added that framing our history in its full and proper context, based on the evidence available, is essential.
Today we struggle with information that is not based in fact (eg, gaslighting), or that has been purposefully omitted (eg, whitewashing, item 4), for example, to erase the role of African Americans in colonial America. Either way, these intentional actions, used as a means to influence thought, beliefs, and political power, threaten the very foundation of truth and fact.
On the other hand, a full and proper historical context may be missed or overlooked, especially if the breadth of research is too narrow or incomplete. According to Banner, historians interpret research "as best we can by using all the evidence available and subjecting it to examination for authenticity, accuracy, and meaning. But since there are likely to be different ways to interpret the surviving evidence, the results of even the most experienced historians’ interpretations will often differ. That’s because each historian, indeed all people, will bring distinct interests, sensibilities, and minds to bear when they examine the same evidence."
A case in point is the recent accusation that former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, for whom District 8's Christopher Park and Playground in Diamond Heights is named, was "a rabid homophobe." The accusation was made in a statement to the Bay Area Reporter by a District 3 representative on the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. The representative had come to his conclusion while researching the history of LGBTQ+ bars in North Beach after World War II. In essence, he claimed that Christopher had been actively involved in the harassment and arrests of homosexual patrons. He had used only one source which, by the way, is a very credible one: Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, by Nan Alamilla Boyd at San Francisco State University. By basing his conclusion on only one historian's perspective, however, the full and proper historical context of this era of LGBTQ+ history was missed.
To rediscover that context, I first reviewed all mentions of George Christopher in local newspapers between 1920 and 1965. From that initial work, it became apparent that Christopher was working to clean up the San Francisco Police Department and not personally targeting gay bars. This revelation was confirmed by the helpful guidance of an archivist at ONE Archives at the University of Southern California, described as "the largest repository of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world." While their archives were closed at the time for renovation, he kindly forwarded a journal article about the history of policing and the gay community by historian Christopher Agee titled Gayola: Police Professionalization and the Politics of San Francisco's Gay Bars, 1950-1968 (Agee is also the author of the book, Streets of San Francisco).
In addition, I read Christopher's biography, Christopher of San Francisco, published in 1962 by George Dorsey, and was able to acquire a copy of MEN magazine, April 1955, on eBay to review the complete article by the SFPD's Lt. Belden. I also acquired from a local bookseller the Mattachine Review from October and November 1959 to learn more about the convention in Denver (please see the July 2023 issue of the Noe Valley Voice, page 5, for more details about these topics).
Lastly, I visited the archives of the GBLT Historical Society in San Francisco to review an oral history interview with Christopher recorded in 1990 and moderated by Scott Bishop, a graduate student at San Francisco State University who was focused on the history of the city's lesbian and gay communities (sadly, Bishop died of AIDS-related complications several months after the interview). I also reached out to former Mayor Art Agnos, who very generously shared his recollections of Mayor Christopher.
Also having reviewed Boyd's publication, the total sum of the information collected made it clear that the full historical context of Christopher's attitudes about the LGBTQ+ community and the actions he had taken to eliminate inappropriate policing of gay bars was the complete opposite of what had been originally stated in the Bay Area Reporter. This highlights how two researchers can come to describe such "sharply clashing accounts," as noted by Banner above, emphasizing the importance of basing conclusions on multiple sources rather than just one.