OLEAN, NY -- In the early 1940s, San Francisco became the new Paris.
Much like the French capital a century earlier, the California city became a Bohemia that attracted novelists, poets, painters and other creative folk who expressed themselves with art, Kaplan Harris, an associate professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, told an audience gathered for a National Poetry Month event at the Olean Public Library.
New York City had been America’s known beacon for creative people until poet-painter Kenneth Rexroth forever changed San Francisco, Harris noted.
“The career of Rexroth made San Francisco into what most people know today — the free, liberal city that it is,” he explained. “Rexroth showed art to people and was compared to Picasso. His work made the city more cosmopolitan, so more liberal people came to San Francisco.”
Among those who flocked to San Francisco were those who wanted to escape accepted views that limited sexual expression. Harris described San Francisco as "the sex capital of the nation" in the decades of the '40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Across America, “you couldn’t call yourself homosexual without getting arrested for obscenity,” Harris explained. “San Francisco was ground zero for gay liberation in the United States.”
Harris also credited the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest homophile organizations in America, with promoting the appeal of San Francisco. The society published gay liberation news from around the world, along with poems by homosexual writers.
“It said San Francisco was a paradise for gay people,” Harris said. “It detailed San Francisco as modern and worldly.”
In the early 1970s, the Gay Sunshine newspaper became a guide for homosexuals, producing columns on events and movements affecting homosexuals around the world, listing jobs in a classifieds section, and covering stories on political issues that concerned outcast populations such as women, homosexuals and minorities, he added.
Harris is working on a book that he hopes to complete by the end of this year, “The Age of Activism: San Francisco, 1968-1982.”
He noted that during the time period he covers in his book, gay studies began.
“Nowadays, colleges have gay studies majors and scholarships. Myself, I became interested in the history of feminism and masculinity, changes in society. I wanted to know the history that nobody ever told me,” Harris said.