West Hollywood: A Short History of WeHo’s LGBTQ World

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And why it matters beyond West Hollywood

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West Hollywood LGBTQ history is colorful and rich, and it makes a difference to millions affected by it. Marilyn Monroe, a fabulash gay icon, lived at seven different locations in West Hollywood from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. It’s a short, direct line from there to today’s oh-so-gay WeHo, where about 40% of the residents are gay. West Hollywood has the third largest concentration of same-sex households in California (after Palm Springs and Guerneville). Let’s connect the rainbow-colored dots that created an oasis of safety and community – alongside the thriving nightlife and the hub of queer culture. Long live West Hollywood LGBTQ history.

Walk this way: A day of gay in 2018

West Hollywood LGBTQ history includes two present-day, not-to-miss annual events. L.A. Pride Parade and Festival (June 9-10, 2018) is one of the world’s largest pride parades. Book hotels early (many have good deals) and come early or stay late. The other event is West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval (October 31), an extravaganza of killer drag queens and oh-so-gay-dress-up.

One City One Pride is a 40-day festival of LGBTQ Arts held from May 22 (Harvey Milk Day) through June (Pride month) in West Hollywood. It’s nothing short of amazing.

• The AIDS Monument will honor the 650,000 lives lost to this scourge, which devastated a generation and created a movement. For perspective, that’s more people than were lost in WWI and WWII combined. Until the monument – which seeks to memorialize those who died, honor caregivers and activists, and inform through education and consciousness raising – is completed in 2018, watch the simulated “fly-through.” Created by artist Daniel Tobin of Urban Art Projects, the monument chronicles the AIDS pandemic comprehensively, through the lens of eyewitnesses still with us.

The city of West Hollywood donated the land to the monument, heralded as the centerpiece of the $86 million revitalization of West Hollywood Park, across from the Pacific Design Center, and south of the intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente boulevards. It is the only such monument in the U.S., fitting because West Hollywood was ground zero for the AIDS pandemic. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the memorial’s largest donor to date, reflects the area’s premier position as a leader in treatment, services, and research. Donate towards the monument here.

• Thanks to gay spending power and discretionary income, more than 70 restaurants are located on the one-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. Dining Out For Life, an annual (national) one-night event to raise money for AIDS services organizations, returned to L.A. County in April, after a six year absence, with almost 30 restaurants participating in 2017. The event is opt-in, upwards of 50% of the receipts from your dining dollars benefit APLA Health and Project Angel Food. The largest donors in 2017 were Crossroads and SUR, both at 50%.

• The community mural at Wells Fargo (8571 Santa Monica), a 102-foot long indoor mural above the bank tellers and unveiled on June 5, 2014, highlights 32 key people, places, and events in West Hollywood’s LGBT history. Panels depict early pride marches, gay bars, the Chateau Marmont hotel, and early pioneers like lesbian activist Ivy Bottini and the Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church.

Out & About Tours highlight LGBTQ culture, heritage, and history, from West Hollywood to DTLA (that’d be Downtown L.A. for out-of-towners) and everywhere in between.

• The rainbow-colored crosswalk (at Santa Monica and N San Vincente), originally created as a temporary installation in June 2012 for Pride month, are now a permanent part of West Hollywood, an integral and tangible symbol to brand WeHo as a gay city. On Instagram use #rainbowcrosswalk to shout, “We’re here, we’re queer.” The crosswalk tells visitors that West Hollywood “is a sanctuary; it tells them that there is a safe place in America where the [lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual] community is celebrated,” City Councilman John Duran said when voting to allocated additional funds.

There’s no more wondering about “somewhere over the rainbow” for Dorothy, Judy Garland, or their followers. Rainbow flags fly year round on Santa Monica Boulevard and the L.A. County Sheriff’s vehicles sport a rainbow logo. (The city of West Hollywood contracts its policing from L.A. County.) 

Photo: Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board

West Hollywood LGBTQ history is celebrated at these cultural venues

• The West Hollywood Library (625 N San Vincente) houses an extensive collection of LGBTQ literature and history and along with the Ron Shipton HIV Information Center, a fee STD Clinic for testing, vaccines, treatments, and preventative services.

• The June Mazer Lesbian Archives (at UCLA, 626 North Robertson), founded in 1981 in Oakland, California, is the largest collection on the West Coast “dedicated to preserving and promoting lesbian and feminist history and culture.”

ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries (909 West Adams) is the first museum in Southern California exclusively dedicated to gay history and the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world. The ONE Gallery is at 626 North Robertson.

• The Los Angeles LGBT Center, hosting the 19th annual Trans Pride L.A. in 2017, is the “largest organization in the world offering programs, services, and global advocacy that span four broad categories: health, social services and housing, cultural and education, and leadership and advocacy.” Its WeHo location is 8745 Santa Monica.

For even more information and resources visit the city of West Hollywood’s website and WEHOville. You’ll be even more amazed at West Hollywood’s LGBTQ history.

West Hollywood LGBTQ History:

Setting a Hollywood stage for excess in the 1920s and 1930s

West Hollywood LGBTQ history all began in Sherman, which sprang up as a settlement for railroad workers back in 1896 who declined to be swallowed into the jurisdiction of the city of Los Angeles. (Witness the early signs of a fiercely independence streak which remains today.) Beyond the reach of the law, when Prohibition started in 1920, casinos grew and alcohol flowed freely here, wedged between a blossoming Hollywood movie industry and tony Beverly Hills, where the movie stars lived. Sumptuous nightclubs (like Trocadero and Ciro’s) popped up on Sunset Boulevard to satisfy decadent desires. In 1927 the unincorporated Sherman renamed itself West Hollywood to leverage the popularity of its neighbor’s name.

Gender bending, documented since the dawn of time, publically flourished in this movie-star-studded nightclub scene. Wild parties in the 1930s were held at the Garden of Allah, the Sunset Boulevard villa of the lesbian actress, Alla Nazimova. (It’s rumored that Joni Mitchell’s “paved paradise put up a parking lot” lyrics referred to the razing of this enclave.) The sharp wit of satirist Dorothy Parker attracted a gay male posse to parties here too. Attendees often spoke in code about their sexuality, declaring, “I’m a friend of Dorothy.” (Over time, it was incorrectly but not surprisingly assumed that Dorothy referenced another gay icon, Judy Garland, and The Wizard of Oz. We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy; this is WeHo.)

Foundations grow wider and then crack in the 1950s and ‘60s

The Sunset Strip remained the nucleus for adult entertainment until it decamped for Las Vegas in the 1950s. During the same decade, the gay icon Marilyn Monroe lived at seven different locations in West Hollywood. Ciro’s began holding the world’s first Sunday afternoon T-Dances, at which gay men could dance together (even though it was illegal.) The city of Los Angeles continued to try to annex the little pocket of West Hollywood. When hippies infiltrated and invaded in the 1960s, residents tried repeatedly to incorporate as an independent city so they could “pass stricter ordinances regulating the teenage and long-hair activity.” Still West Hollywood resisted. While the counter culture revived the Sunset Strip (at venues like the Roxy and Whiskey a Go-Go), the gays began colonizing Santa Monica Boulevard. The west end became known as “Boys Town” although it was also home to The Palms, a lesbian bar. (Note: it closed in 2013.) Lest you think all was quiet in Boys Town, though, Barney’s Beanery, popular since the 1920s, was loud and proud about their very visible sign over the bar and their matchbook covers: “Fagots Stay Out.” Good luck with that; the train had left the station. (No matter that they could not spell “faggots” correctly.)

When non-mandatory five digit zip codes were introduced on July 1, 1963, West Hollywood, this oh-so-gay city received 90069 based on its earlier designation of LA-69, ascribed by postal workers. Was it a mere coincidence they would assign to a gay refuge a number filled with so much sexual innuendo? WeHo gays choose to believe.

Then, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, on the other side of the country in New York City, the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village was raided by police. Although few places welcomed openly gay people in the 1950s and 1960s, bars continued to do so, and Stonewall was a popular refuge. Owned by the mafia, it welcomed marginalized drag queens, butch lesbians, and the transgendered. Spontaneous riots and demonstrations erupted; the rebellion was the spark that ignited the gay libration movement in the U.S. One year later, on June 28, 1970, Christopher Street Liberation Day, the first Gay Pride marches were held simultaneously in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Let us now, dear readers, put to bed one piece of fake news: Accounts by unreliable sources tried to link the accidental barbiturate overdose of gay icon Judy Garland on June 22 to the Stonewall riots, as in, the gay were drowning their sorrows at the Inn because their beloved Judy had just died and were so distraught that the police had to raid the place. Puh-leeze. Long live the truth about West Hollywood LGBTQ history.

West Hollywood LGBTQ history in the 1970s and 1980s

When Ciro’s closed and its (illegal) T-dances ceased, gays began opening their own bars and dance clubs since unincorporated West Hollywood was still out of reach from the L.A. police department. Lesbian sports teams formed. Anti-gay laws against gays dancing together were repealed in 1975; glittery disco balls rotated like there was no tomorrow. Cheap rents attracted older teens who gravitated to L.A. for television careers and because they could not be “out” in their hometowns. Clubs grew less back-alley and more mainstream. West Hollywood started becoming a spiritual home for gay cops, gay teachers, and gay politicians as the gay rights movement started growing. Still, in April 1976 a Time article described eastern end of Santa Monica Boulevard (known for its male hustlers and transvestites) as a “a flexible ribbon of smut that expands or contracts according to the apathy or indignation of the surrounding stucco-house neighborhoods.”

In 1984 West Hollywood consisted mostly of gays, Jews, and seniors. Eighty-five percent of the population rented their housing, and when spurred to enact rent-control laws when L.A. County moved to scrap then, finally decided to incorporate in 1984. At the same time, with a voting block of approximately 50% gay residents, they voted in a majority gay city council and the first openly lesbian mayor. (Mayor Terrigno herself removed the Barney’s Beanery “Fagot” sign.)

As a bonafide city, West Hollywood could also then start receiving funds to combat the bourgeoning HIV/AIDS pandemic that was starting to ravage its community. The epidemic officially began in the U.S. on June 5, 1981 when the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control) reported clusters of PCP (pneumocystis pneumonia) in five gay men in L.A.

In 1985 West Hollywood was the first place in the U.S. to allow domestic partnership benefits and legally recognize same-sex relationships. (Per usual, WeHo is at the forefront of trends, setting the table for an ensuing tide of gay marriage to sweep the nation state-by-state, culminating in the Supreme Court codifying marriage equality in 2015.)

West Hollywood LGBT history in the 1990s and 2000s

1993: Elton John (and husband David Furnish) begin holding their Annual Academy Awards Viewing Party at the Pacific Design Center

1993: Sheryl Crow crows that all she wants to do “is have some fun, until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.” Do you really think she would have penned that ode had the gays not laid the foundation for serious fun prior to that? Yeah, that’s rhetorical.

1999: A three-year $34 million beautification project along Santa Monica Boulevard is undertaken – moving power lines underground, removing railroad tracks, widening sidewalks, greening up those sidewalks with trees. Gay bars, stores, and restaurants flourish faster.

2007: The National Trust for Historic Preservation designates West Hollywood as one of America’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” because of its vibrant, creative, and diverse population and businesses (read: LGBTQ).

2008: The savvy Lady Gaga, just beginning to launch a career, cements her adoration by – and for – the gays with performances around West Hollywood (first at Here Lounge, then at Tom Whitman’s Wonderland, Ultra Suede (now PH Hollywood), Club Tiger Heat, and The Apple (now The Robertson). “Born this Way”, an anthem empowering the gay community, debuts three years later.

West Hollywood LGBTQ history is made daily.

Best Places to Stay in West Hollywood

Alta Cienega Motel
Andaz West Hollywood
Best Western Plus Sunset Plaza
The Jeremy West Hollywood
The London West Hollywood
Ramada Plaza West Hollywood Hotel and Suites
Sunset Marquis West Hollywood
Sunset Tower Hotel

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