A troubling event in The Examiner’s history: Friday of the Purple Hand

We like the concept of using this moment to raise awareness of the history of the gay rights movement and the price people paid for being themselves.

This month marks an anniversary that is troubling for those of us who work at today’s San Francisco Examiner because the event cannot be farther from who we are and what our publication is today.

And while it happened several decades and owners ago, before any of us worked at The Examiner, we decided to address it.

Fifty years ago on Halloween, a group of about 45 to 60 demonstrators peacefully picketed outside the then-Examiner office at 110 Fifth St. to protest an Oct. 25, 1969 story headlined “The Dreary Revels of S.F. ‘Gay’ Clubs.”

Written by Robert Patterson, the article used grotesque, hateful words that we will not repeat here to describe members of the LGBTQ community. His story was about after-hours clubs in San Francisco, which were then known as “gay breakfast clubs.” It is sickening to read it, and the vocabulary the writer used.

According to news accounts of the time and recollected history, the protesters carried signs and marched outside of The Examiner office without incident, chanting “Say it loud, we’re gay and we’re proud” until two people — presumed to be press men — dumped a plastic bag of ink onto the sidewalk from the roof of the building. Some of the demonstrators then spread their hands in the ink and onto the walls and windows of the building, leaving behind their inky handprints, giving the protest the name “Friday of the Purple Hand.”

The Examiner wrote about the protest and listed the name, age and occupation of every person who was arrested by police during the demonstration, which got more heated after the ink-dumping, although the most lethal of weapons used by the protesters were quaint: bags of eggs that they apparently planned to toss. (One cop apparently was hit in the head with a picket sign).

The Examiner was owned by the Hearst family at the time, and as far as we can tell, the past publishers, owners and editors never commented on the event, nor on the story in question.

Today, we are changing that. We were contacted by The Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer, a volunteer activist with a San Francisco nonprofit called Welcome (www.sfwelcome.com). Since 2001, Welcome has organized creative ways to communally respond to poverty, particularly for homeless and hungry members of the LGBTQ community. In pointing out the upcoming anniversary, Rohrer said an apology from The Examiner would help heal those who were impacted, and would bring the context of the past to today.

“In our present day, there are few examples of individuals and institutions apologizing in healthy and productive ways, ” she wrote.

We like the concept of using this moment to raise awareness — especially for those who did not live through these times — of the history of the gay rights movement and the price people paid for being themselves and for who they loved.

We are sorry that the Examiner’s name is associated with this terrible historical event; it is not who we are today. Most of our current staff were not born 50 years ago. None of us worked at The Examiner during this era, just on the heels of Stonewall, when anti-gay laws and attitudes still dominated much of society and institutions. These narrow, hateful attitudes of the past had an impact on my personal life and those I loved, just as they hurt many of you, and/or your loved ones, who are reading this.

That is why we will not ignore what happened under the banner of the Examiner eagle a half century ago. It seems relevant that the San Francisco Media Co. publisher redesigned the eagle when the publication celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015.

Just as the eagle is different from the one that watched over our masthead a half century ago, so too are the stories we write today, the people who write them, and their awareness of the past. Thankfully, too, there have been changes in attitudes, or at least the laws, of many institutions that allowed these ignorant viewpoints to prevail: the police, the psychiatrists who diagnosed LGBTQ people as being mentally ill, the laws the legislators used to discriminate, and more.

It is always hard to tease out how much a news organization reflects society and how much it shapes it. In many cases, it is a little of both.

Today, in 2019, we will let our work and progressive editorial viewpoint speak for itself, and leave it up to you, our readers, of every gender, age and ethnicity to judge how our journalists are doing in reflecting your life, and our society, and in playing a part in changing it, because, of course, we are not done yet in being woke.

If there is a silver lining to the events that led up to that day 50 years ago when a group of leaders, in their well-directed anger, left their handprints on the walls of The Examiner, it is that it motivated them and others to leave their imprint on a gay rights movement that would change everything, and expand the meaning of love.

For that we are grateful.

Deborah Petersen is editor-in-chief of San Francisco Media Company.

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