As the sun set over San Francisco on July 4, 1973, the Reverend Raymond Broshears locked up his community center and started walking home through the Tenderloin, the city’s infamous slum.
A gay preacher from the Midwest, Broshears was dressed in black clerical garb and a white priest’s collar. A heavy metal cross, the size of a door knocker, hung from his thick neck, and his gut bulged from beneath his shirt. Following close behind him, he noticed, was a group of teenagers—about a dozen of them, he’d later recall, between the ages of 12 and 18. They were looking for a fight. Earlier in the day, Broshears had called the police to complain that the teens had been throwing cherry bombs into traffic. Now, they wanted payback.
As he approached the corner of Turk and Jones, the teens surrounded him. One boy punched him in the back of the head. Another hit him in the groin. Broshears crumpled into a ball. They dragged him down the sidewalk, then onto the street, kicking and punching him, until a bus driver showed up and the kids ran away. The beating had left Broshears with a bloody nose and bruises all over his body. His right arm, he later wrote, was “treated for partial temporary paralysis.” Elisa Rleigh, a friend, recalls that Broshears “was beaten up really, really, really badly. Like within an inch of his life.”
Beatdowns like the one Broshears experienced were common, Rleigh says, especially in the Tenderloin. San Francisco was a “gay mecca” in the early 1970s, but gangs often targeted the growing number of young gay residents in the neighborhood. Broshears claimed he had a list of dead gay men—all unsolved murders. Gays in San Francisco, he believed, were under siege—both from the gangs and the crooked cops who were supposed to serve and protect all of the city’s residents.
Now, sitting in a hospital bed, his face and arms mangled, Broshears was enraged and wanted to strike back. The violence against his flock—poor gay men, drag queens and trans people—had to stop. He wanted, as he’d later tell a reporter, to strike terror into the hearts of “all those young punks who have been beating up my faggots.”
And that’s when the idea crystallized: He’d fight back. With fists. With knives. With pool cues and chains—with anything necessary to protect the vulnerable kids who hung around his community center. His idea was to train his crew in karate and judo, and arm them so they could protect themselves—and one another. He knew the idea was crazy, and he knew the police would hate him for it. But he didn’t give a damn. He wanted to form his own gang—for self-defense.
Two days later, Broshears held a press conference at his community center in the Tenderloin and announced the founding of the nation’s first gay militant patrol. Its name: the Lavender Panthers. He modeled the group after the Black Panthers and even cribbed their logo—a panther on the prowl. As he spoke, Broshears took his .410-gauge shotgun down from the wall and held it out to the room full of spectators. Some gasped. Then, hoisting it high above his head, he announced that gay men should begin to arm themselves with guns. “We are now forced to act,” he bellowed. “The police look the other way when a gay is beaten. The beaten person is threatened as if he were the criminal, not the victim. We shall retaliate. Never again will we just sit by!”
To Punch a Nazi
Forty-four years after Broshears launched the Lavender Panthers, a young, self-proclaimed white nationalist named Richard Spencer was standing on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., boasting about Donald Trump. It was January 20, 2017, the day the new president was sworn into office. Spencer was wearing a gray suit, a blue vest and an insignia of “Pepe,” a meme of an anthropomorphic frog that the so-called alt-right has co-opted as a symbol of white nationalism. His hair was styled in a way best described as Aryan hipster chic. As Spencer spoke on camera that morning with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., condemning the “leftist protesters,” a grin stretched across his face. But as he motioned to the pin on his lapel, a man in a black hoodie swooped in and landed a sucker punch on his right cheekbone. Spencer’s knees buckled, and he staggered for a moment, while his attacker slunk away.
A day later, after the video had gone viral—and was celebrated in some circles—The New York Times posed a question to its readers: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?”
It was a surprising moment for many on the left. Since the 1960s in the United States, most mainstream movements for social change have been explicitly nonviolent, and their main tactics have involved peaceful protests. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently put out a 10-step guide to “Fight Hate” that included “speaking up” and “pressuring leaders.” Some researchers have even shown that nonviolent political movements are more successful than violent ones. Researchers at Harvard University’s Belfer Center compiled data on resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006 and found that “major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.”
A small contingent of white nationalists attempted to stage a “free speech” rally in downtown Boston on August 19, 2017. Over 40,000 counterdemonstrators surrounded them. By 1:30 p.m., the Boston police had announced that the rally had ended, and riot police were then forced to create an evacuation route for the white supremacists to leave. There were at least 33 arrests.
Yet for some, Trump’s candidacy, and a flurry of apparent hate crimes following his victory, seemed to change their outlook. According to the most recent FBI data, reported crimes against the LGBT community and other minorities rose in 2016. Shortly after the presidential election that year, The Daily Beast found “martial-arts and defense-training classes are reporting unprecedented spikes in business from women, minorities, and LGBT clients.” In 2017, under President Trump, at least 28 transgender people were killed—the deadliest year on record. Many of them were people of color. Meanwhile, murders by American white supremacists doubled.
Suddenly, educating your attacker seemed naïve to some—if not dangerous. And a growing body of young activists—antifa supporters and other groups—seem to feel that violence and self-defense are the only solutions to what they see as an emboldened movement of white supremacists and other far-right hate groups.
It’s clear which side Broshears would have been on. He had a singular focus. An obsession. “Drag queens, old folk, hustlers, ex-cons, transsexuals and queers see me as their last hope,” he once declared. Or as he later put it: “I believe in confrontation politics…. I’d work with the muthafuckin’ devil to bring about gay rights.”
Though he co-founded the first gay pride parade in San Francisco and ran for Congress, Broshears has largely been forgotten. Little has been documented about his life or his radical band of vigilantes. He and his Panthers don’t even have a Wikipedia page. But combing through FBI case files, copies of lawsuits, old news clippings and Broshears’s personal archives, I was able to discover the lost history of Broshears and his gang of vigilantes. More than three decades after his death, what he fought for and the way he fought have suddenly returned to the forefront of American politics. The legacy of his triumphs and the tragedy of his defeats live on in America’s culture wars.
Gays, Groping and Gospel
Broshears was born on February 10, 1935, as “Earl Raymond Allen” (his mother remarried when he was 3 years old and changed his name). He contracted polio at a young age and was raised by his grandmother and three aunts in the small town of Centreville, Illinois. Broshears later wrote that he was an extremely religious teenager and that his grandmother always wanted him to be a preacher.
At 14, Broshears taught in his local Bible school, and about a year later, he became the superintendent of the Midway Baptist Mission Church, which still considers homosexuality a sin. At 16, he left school to work as an orderly at the Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois, for $20 a week. He lived with his Aunt Violet and sent a few bucks each month back to his grandmother in Centreville. Soon, however, he joined the Navy as a medical corpsman, before being discharged in 1955 for what he’d later describe as “medical reasons.” During this period, Broshears also claimed to have suffered a “serious injury to the head causing what was then thought to be a minor brain dysfunction.”
The Navy gave Broshears a modest pension, and that was his only reliable source of income for the rest of his life. During the next several years, he studied in small Bible colleges and preached across the South and Midwest, focusing on the rights of the poor and elderly.
Sometime in the late 1950s, he graduated from the Lee Bible College in Tennessee, and he later studied with Billy James Hargis, one of America’s most famous—and anti-gay—Christian evangelists at the time. It was with Hargis that Broshears perfected his style of Southern preacher oratory. “I’m just a poor country preacher trying to make it in the big city,” he would later joke, putting on a Southern drawl. (The journalist George Mendenhall of the Bay Area Reporter would later claim that Hargis “dropped” Broshears after he found out he was gay.)
In the early 1960s, Broshears continued traveling and preaching. At that time, in his late 20s, he got involved in the civil rights movement. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality, which fought for desegregation. That fight got him in trouble. In 1965, he participated in a sit-in in Belleville, Illinois, to protest the mistreatment of African-Americans. The details are murky—and the Belleville police department could not locate records related to the incident—but Broshears was arrested for groping a 17-year-old boy. “It wasn’t child molesting or anything like it,” Broshears told a reporter in 1972. “I was arrested for ‘groping a minor.’ He was fully dressed, there was no other physical contact involved.” That boy, however—who was not named in any reports, likely because of his age—was apparently the nephew of Belleville’s mayor. No other details exist, and none of the people I interviewed recalled Broshears ever discussing it in detail.
The incident was a local scandal, and Broshears was sentenced to six months in county jail. It was an embarrassment for his family, but it was also a time for Broshears to reflect on who he was—and what he wanted to do with his life. Locked up in a small-town county jail, he felt mistreated, confused and angry at the police. (Later, Broshears would write that in that jail he “learned all about homosexuality.”) When he was released, in December 1965, news had traveled that Broshears was a sex offender, so he bought a ticket, headed west and left everything behind. “I came to San Francisco, the gay mecca,” he would later say, “to become a faggot.”
Life on the Meat Rack
Broshears arrived in San Francisco just before Christmas in 1965—the year Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Selma, Alabama; the year the U.S. military expanded the war in Vietnam; and the year the Rolling Stones released “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Broshears was 31 years old and knew no one in the city, but he quickly found a low-rent studio apartment on Turk Street. A group of “women spiritualists,” he would later say, took him in and introduced him to local clergy members. Broshears drifted between churches for several months, until he met a clergy member at the Glide Memorial Methodist Church who encouraged him to start his own street ministry.
In Broshears’s neighborhood, the Tenderloin, he encountered gay runaways, trans men and women, and drag queens—many of whom resorted to prostitution to get by. “It’s hell,” one Tenderloin resident told an Advocate reporter at the time. “You start there as a kid. You can’t qualify for welfare because you’re too young, you can’t get a job, and there’s nowhere to go. You start selling your body to earn a living, out on the street at night, on the meat rack in front of Flagg’s Shoe Store, or where the action is.”
In the Tenderloin, Broshears witnessed the violence against and misery of the gay and trans community: police looking to pad their arrest numbers, straight teenagers who thought it was fun to beat up drag queens or gay men, or sociopathic assailants like the “Doodler,” a serial killer believed to be responsible for 14 murders of gay men in the mid-’70s. Danger lurked everywhere—and the police, Broshears believed, were part of the problem. “To Ray, the police represented the establishment, and they represented everything he was fighting against,” Rleigh, Broshears’s close friend, tells me. “Rules. Authority. Oppression.”
A typical night in the Tenderloin would go something like this, Rleigh says: Young gay men and drag queens would go out to the bars, kids would come to harass them—throw bottles or smoke bombs or beat them up—and the police wouldn’t do anything. “If you called the police, it was like, ‘OK, figure it out yourself.’”
Broshears wanted to help those in his neighborhood who needed it most: local transgender sex workers, drag queens, transients, impoverished gay men and runaways. In 1969, he started a support group, the Helping Hands Center, which offered free legal counsel, provided by volunteer attorneys. He even began a meal delivery unit for the elderly called the Old Folks Defense League. “Christ ministered to the needs of his people,” Broshears once mused. “When people were hungry, he fed them. Christ wasn’t quiet either. He was a rebel.”
Throughout the 1970s, Broshears threw an annual drag queen ball at the Veterans Administration for wounded soldiers, brought food and clothing to prisoners, gave advice to prostitutes and even officiated at the occasional gay wedding, though not technically legal. He even became a licensed bail bondsman so he could get young gay men out of jail after the cops threw them behind bars. Often, the men emerged from their cells beaten and bloodied. Such was the case one night in 1973. Broshears recalled retrieving a black man who was beaten by police. His nose, Broshears would later recall, was “swollen as big as an apple.”
Ray Broshears and Lavender Panthers pose during a Coast magazine photo shoot.
Broshears was also outraged by the onslaught of raids. In San Francisco, as in New York and Los Angeles, police incursions on gay and drag queen bars were common and often ended in violent clashes. One of the more infamous raids in San Francisco came on September 14, 1961, at the Tay-Bush Inn, an after-hours joint on the corner of Taylor and Bush. Hundreds of young gay men were dancing at 3:15 in the morning when the jukebox turned silent. Outside, dozens of uniformed officers were waiting with billy clubs and paddy wagons. That night, the police arrested 103 men—most on the bogus charge of “visitors to a disorderly house.”
While gay men and drag queens were getting busted by police, they also had to put up with daily threats of violence from gangs. In the early 1970s, San Francisco had a huge surge of gay men moving to the area, and though the city was seen as a tolerant bastion of free speech and love, not everyone welcomed the new residents. Al Borvice, a Hispanic attorney, told The Washington Post in 1979 that the ’70s represented a hostile takeover for Latino families—a “blitzkrieg”—as rents for homes and businesses skyrocketed. A “festering hate” began to develop, he said, “especially among the young whose relatives are getting displaced. So they’re looking at a target. They’re looking at gays as the target.”
In his time traveling the South, Broshears had never advocated violence in the face of police harassment or brutality. But that changed one night in August 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria, a popular late-night spot for drag queens. The management and the workers there weren’t happy about their clientele—and wanted them out. One worker called the police that evening, and they arrived with paddy wagons, ready to forcibly remove the drag queens from the diner. This time, however, one of the “transvestites,” as Broshears would later say, fought back. As a police officer put his hand on a drag queen to get her out of the diner, she threw coffee in the cop’s face. “With that, cups, saucers and trays began flying around the place and all directed at the police,” Broshears later wrote.
A riot ensued. The drag queens sent sugar shakers flying through the front windows, shattering glass throughout Compton’s. More police arrived. But the bar patrons wouldn’t back down, Broshears said, and used their “extremely heavy purses” to smash the cops in the face—and attack them the “below the belt.” There were maybe 60 drag queens, and they overwhelmed the police. As more cop cars arrived, some protesters lit a squad car on fire and burned a newspaper stand to the ground.
“We got tired of being harassed,” Amanda St. Jaymes, a transgender woman who was at the riot, later said. “We got tired of being made to go into the men’s room when we were dressed like women. We wanted our rights.”
The next night, after new glass windows had been installed, drag queens showed up again and smashed the windows once more. There is some debate over whether Broshears participated in the riot or simply wrote about it later. Susan Stryker, a professor and LGBT historian, says “it’s plausible or even likely” that he was there that night. Either way, she says, Broshears “was certainly the torchbearer,” in terms of chronicling the incident.” Today, it’s considered the first LGBT riot in American history. As Stryker puts it, “Years of pent-up resentment boiled out into the night.”
‘Nothing Disgusts Me More’
By 1970, Broshears’s rage wasn’t reserved for the police or the gangs who harassed his flock. He frequently targeted the wealthier gay rights groups, like the Society for Individual Rights (SIR); he believed they were too comfortable working with the city’s leadership. He did not believe in incremental change. “I’m out for the total good of the people,” he told a reporter once. “I don’t give a fuck if I’m liked or not.”
And it showed. At one demonstration, he staged a fake crucifixion on the steps of a telephone company, after it was alleged that the company had discriminatory hiring practices. The stunt—and others—got some attention, and he often used that attention to criticize not just his target but what he saw as the laziness of other gay rights groups. “Nothing disgusts me more than a faggot on the sideline,” he told the Berkeley Barb at the crucifixion.
The tension between Broshears and more mainstream gay groups increased in October 1971, during the Tavern Guild’s annual “Beaux Arts Ball,” a fancy society party for the LGBT community. Broshears wasn’t invited, but that didn’t stop him from showing up with members of his flock. He picketed the ball, shouting into a bullhorn that the event “degrades street gays and transvestites, as well as women.” One official from the Tavern Guild—it’s not clear who—called the police to complain that a “lunatic fringe,” according to the Berkeley Barb, and a bunch of “ex-convicts, prostitutes and mental patients” were ruining their event. The cops forced Broshears to leave, but his group stayed across the street, jeering at guests as they entered. “Our protest,” he told a reporter, “was against the Tavern Guild and the Society for Individual Rights for keeping us in their capitalistic gay ghetto and for claiming to speak for gay people.”
The mainstream LGBT groups hated Broshears as much as he hated them. Winston Leyland, the editor of Gay Sunshine, which reported on news about gay liberation, called Broshears “the single most harmful person to the gay movement.”
Marchers in Western dress march in the International Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco during Gay Freedom Week, proclaimed by then–San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and California’s Governor Edmund Brown Jr.
Either way, it was hard to deny his impact on LGBT life in the city. About a year before he created the Panthers, in June 1972, Broshears helped organize San Francisco’s first gay pride parade. The event was a success—about 15,000 people showed up. But for Broshears, it was a personal disaster that ended in a near brawl with a group of lesbian women from San Jose.
According to one published account, the incident began at the corner of Pine and Montgomery in the Financial District before the parade began. A group of women, described as the “San Jose Radical Lesbians,” approached Broshears and an unnamed man in a gray suit. The women carried a sign that read, “Off Prick Power.” Broshears felt this sign was “obscene” and told them they couldn’t carry it. He then allegedly ripped it from their hands and tore it to shreds. Meanwhile, the man in the gray suit apparently threatened the women with a knife he claimed to have in his briefcase.
Later that afternoon, the women confronted Broshears again. This time, witnesses saw him “launching himself bodily into the midst of the women, striking out furiously in all directions.” The crowd pulled him away, and later at least one gay organization condemned Broshears’s behavior and demanded an apology.
The following year, Broshears was not allowed to participate in the parade—but by then, he’d already set his sights higher.
The next summer, he stood at the lectern, shotgun in hand, and announced the formation of the Lavender Panthers. The reaction was swift and negative from the establishment groups. “The Rev. Mr. Broshears does not represent the gay community in San Francisco,” said Frank Fitch, then the president of SIR, at a news conference. “We feel the use of violence to respond to violence solves nothing.”
‘Gays Fight Back!’
In August 1973, after Broshears created his vigilante group, Bill Sievert, a freelance reporter for Rolling Stone, vividly remembers the night he took a ride-along with them. He recalls sitting in a white Volkswagen bus, with a couple of guys to his left and right holding pool cues and metal chains. Broshears was up front with the shotgun. “I was terrified,” Sievert says. “I didn’t want to get into a fight with anybody.”
Broshears would occasionally tell reporters his shotgun wasn’t loaded, but according to Rleigh, he filled the shells with rock salt so if he shot someone, it wouldn’t just break their skin—it would burn too. Broshears was fond of his weapon and once boasted that a blast from it would “leave a hole in a man big enough to drive a tank through Georgia.”
Sievert doesn’t remember if the shotgun was loaded that night, but he does remember how teenagers would drive their cars through the Mission, the Castro and the Tenderloin late at night, shouting anti-gay slurs and threatening violence. “If you were walking to your car late at night, or you’re leaving a bar in the Castro, and you had to walk several blocks away towards the Mission, you were nervous,” he says. “We knew there were gangs of kids who would beat up on gay people.”
The Lavender Panthers, he says, offered protection. They even had a hotline people could call for help. “The cops were not particularly interested in us,” Sievert recalls, “[and] people got word that there was this group of militant queers out there who would take you on with chains and baseball bats.”
In early 1974, Broshears started directing the Panthers to patrol Folsom Street, in part because of a series of killings in the area. These would later be known as the “Zebra” murders, in which a group of men who called themselves the “Death Angels” shot and killed at least 15 people and maybe many more. During this stretch of murders—from 1973 to 1974—Broshears made the bizarre claim that the San Francisco police “chiefie-poo,” Donald Scott, was too busy playing “movie star” to do his detective work. Unlike the police who were goofing off, Broshears claimed, “the Panther Patrol has hit one gang twice…but of course the Panthers have no arresting power, only ‘beating power.’”
Sergeant Elliott Blackstone of the San Francisco Police Department, assigned to the district where the Panthers operated, said there were occasional instances of queer bashing and police harassment—but not to the level Broshears claimed. “There’s no question that these kinds of problems exist,” he told a reporter in 1974. “But I just don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as Ray would have you believe.”
Indeed, Broshears had a reputation for exaggeration and lies. “He was a little like Donald Trump,” says Sievert. “He couldn’t take criticism. He would blow up at the oddest thing. And you’re never quite sure what to believe. Ray would tell you something, and you wouldn’t take it for gospel because Ray said it.”
Jim Boyd-Thompson, a onetime Lavender Panther, agrees. He laughs at the suggestion that Broshears and the Panthers were doling out beatdowns on a nightly basis. “We just walked around the neighborhood and looked mean,” he says.
The Reverend Ray Broshears, right, and the Lavender Panthers. The first San Francisco gay pride parade, in June 1972, ended at the City Hall steps.
Broshears, he adds, often inflated the size of the patrols. (Broshears said he had 21 Panthers, but it was likely closer to nine, according to one report at the time.) Most of them just carried mace, bullhorns, chains and pool cues. Sometimes, Broshears would lie to a reporter and say they all carried shotguns.
Either way, the Panthers did patrol parts of the city, walking along the seawall in Golden Gate Park, shining flashlights into men’s bathrooms, looking for anyone who might need help. On weeknights, they’d travel around in a car and jump out as soon as they saw trouble. On weekends, Broshears, said they would double the shift with two cars and a foot patrol.
Even if they didn’t all carry loaded shotguns, the presence of Broshears and the Panthers alarmed plenty of residents—and the community was divided over whether to support them. Shortly after Broshears created the group, one newspaper columnist conducted man-on-the-street interviews in the Tenderloin, asking people how they felt about the gay vigilante patrol. “I think it’s fantastic,” Ernie Hase, an architect, told the paper.
Jim Tarplee, a telephone receptionist and volunteer for the Helping Hands Center, was also sympathetic. “I don’t advocate violence,” he said. “However, since people beat up gays and the police don’t protect them, maybe the Lavender Panthers are the answer.”
Not everyone was so pleased that a bunch of armed vigilantes were patrolling the streets. One afternoon in early 1974, Jim Ward, a bar owner, came to Broshears’s office to confront him about the Panthers. Broshears told him that his group was necessary to protect transgender and gay people. Ward laughed. “Oh Ray, you’re the biggest sissy around, and you know it.” A reporter observing this scene acknowledged that Broshears didn’t say anything—he just grinned sheepishly. “For all the tough talk and the fondling of the shogun,” the reporter wrote, “the founder of the Lavender Panthers is a cream puff at heart.”
If that was true, Broshears tried to hide it. On September 12, 1973, Broshears claimed the Panthers fought back valiantly when a gang arrived in San Francisco from nearby Sunnyvale to rob queer men. Broshears later wrote in his self-published magazine, the Gay Crusader, that during the scuffle, one of the gang members shouted, “We needed some quick money, so we came up here to roll some of you queers!” Broshears claimed the Lavender Panthers emerged brandishing weapons, “Panther Terrence” administered a “couple slaps in the face,” and the youths ran off. “Panther Terrence may have altered this punk’s future ideas on ‘queer-bashing,’ as the punks call it,” Broshears wrote.
Other times, it was the Panthers who got hurt. In 1974, Broshears told a reporter that one lesbian member of the Panthers gang received more than 12 stitches to close a gash on her throat that she received in a “battle with some more serious queen-rollers.”
Broshears clearly relished the attention the vigilante crew brought him. In early 1974, Coast magazine (now defunct) put his picture on the cover. In that photo—taken by a young Annie Leibovitz, according to the credits—he holds a shotgun high above his head while a young man hides beneath Broshears’s hulking frame. Broshears poses under a banner that reads, “Gays fight back!” John Parker, the reporter for Coast, wrote that Broshears “likes to create a menacing air about himself, screaming motherfucker at anyone giving him the slightest provocation.”
As news of the Lavender Panthers traveled around the country, some men were even emboldened. As I poured through Broshears’s personal archives, I found several letters addressed to him. One from Michigan reads: “Dear Sirs; I have decided to come out of the closet. I would like any information you could send me about your organization.” Another man wrote from Tennessee, telling Broshears that he was starting to have “homosexual fantasies” and asked Broshears for his assistance. “Yours is the only organization I know of that might help,” he wrote. “There is no one locally in which [sic] I can talk about these feelings.”
He then added a P.S.: “This isn’t helping my marriage.”
Hate Mail and Death Threats
By the spring of 1974, as he continued to receive more attention for the Panthers, Broshears concocted an ambitious plan: a last-minute run for Congress in San Francisco’s 5th District. Broshears estimated he had about 3,000 followers, but a run for office was a potentially dangerous gambit.
As much as the Panthers brought him fame, the association also brought him notoriety. Broshears regularly received hate mail and death threats. One anonymous letter sent to him said “Kill all drag queens” and “Kill all homosexuals” over and over.
Some felt Broshears and his group were actually exacerbating violence in the Tenderloin. “It’s about time that somebody socks it to you…you disgusting fat tub of shit,” one anonymous sender wrote. “People like you don’t deserve to be called human.” A run for Congress—as a gay vigilante clergyman openly calling for violence against police—made him a bigger target. “If Broshears was killed,” Blackstone, the San Francisco police sergeant, said, according to the LGBT historian Christina Hanhardt, “they’d need the Civic Auditorium to hold the suspects.”
But Broshears didn’t let the letters and the death threats stop him. He filed the paperwork, registered on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket and submitted a short biography to a local newspaper: “He is single, an avowed homosexual and the founder of the Lavender Panther Party.”
In one of his first interviews, Broshears slammed the military-industrial complex, announced that he wanted California to secede from the United States, said he favored nationalizing health care and claimed one of his first acts as a congressman would be to free any prisoners convicted of sex or marijuana crimes. “The U.S.,” he declared, “has drifted into a corporate democracy, which is a fancy word for fascism.”
As Broshears’s fame increased, however, his mental stability seemed to suffer. The purpose of the Panthers was to go after gay bashers and investigate unsolved crimes. But in September 1973, Broshears was involved in a violent altercation with members of his volunteer group—including Tarplee.
People arrive at a drag ball, circa 1965. Events like these were held by the Imperial Court of San Francisco. At the time, it was illegal for men to dress as women, and the most vulnerable were frequently harassed by police.
I was unable to locate Tarplee for this story. But from piecing together what happened from news stories and Broshears’s recollections—it appears that Broshears threw Tarplee and another man through a plate-glass window at the Helping Hands Center. The police arrived and arrested Broshears on September 15, 1973. Broshears told people he planned to file false arrest charges, but he never did. Eventually, the charges were dropped. Tarplee and the other man, Dominic Berte, told The Advocate that they had become “enemies” of Broshears and that police needed to intervene. “The law must take a hand now in stopping this man and his hate campaign,” Tarplee said. When asked for comment by an Advocatereporter, Broshears threatened him, saying he’d sue “and do other things” to him if he wrote a story.
Despite this incident, Broshears’s followers had an almost cultlike admiration for him. But his paranoia—and the growing fervor of his detractors—seemed to increase. Rleigh, his close friend, tells me that Broshears believed the CIA and FBI were poisoning him. At one point, he purged two members of the Panthers, claiming they were “infiltrators.”
Broshears also began using racial epithets—a strange thing for a civil rights leader to do. In the Coast story about the Panthers, for instance, Broshears described how one Panther patrol was on the lookout for a group of pimps who drove a white Cadillac and were allegedly responsible for five beatings and robberies. “I’d hate to be those black motherfuckers when we find them,” Broshears said. “Because you know what they’re going to be when we get ahold of them? Niggers!”
What drove Broshears to use this language? The Coast reporter didn’t confront Broshears about it, but I found one person—Greg Pennington—who confirmed that Broshears would often have explosive bursts in which he’d say racist (and even nonsensical) things. Pennington says that for several years in the mid-’70s he maintained a tumultuous friendship with Broshears, until at some point, he just gave up dealing with him. “He was racist—he used the N-word. That upset me a lot.”
During his run for Congress, Broshears avoided any race-related scandals. But his quest for political office was quixotic. He had next to no money for a campaign and failed to make inroads with more progressive, liberal voters. No newspapers endorsed him. He used his magazine, the Gay Crusader, to print free advertising for himself, but the ads weren’t well done. “Rev. Ray Broshears may be a bitter pill to swallow,” he wrote, “but when you do, you will find yourself in great shape.”
The race wasn’t close. Broshears collected 3,999 votes—about 2.4 percent of the total. The loss, however inevitable, was a blow to Broshears’s ego—a blow that would soon precipitate a larger fall.
‘He Had No Real Friends’
Rleigh, Broshears’s old friend, knew the notoriety of the Panthers was draining—both on him and the group. The first time they met, she was freshly out of high school, working for a telephone answering station in San Francisco and recording messages for the Helping Hands Center. One day, she recalls, he called her office, screaming about something. She doesn’t remember what, but she says she shouted back at him—and he backed down. “From there, I just got to know him in a way that other people didn’t get to,” she says. “Maybe because I was a woman, and I was actually someone who stood up to him, and he wasn’t used to that.”
Later, she began volunteering at the Helping Hands Center and spent time hanging out with Broshears, earning his trust. Despite his positioning himself as a tough, militant gay man who touted a shotgun around San Francisco, she knew Broshears was a wounded, terrified man. Late at night, she says, Broshears would call her in tears, sobbing. “Most of the time, I think Ray was extremely paranoid,” Rleigh says. “I think he was afraid. I think he was lonely and afraid.”
She continues, “I think he had no real friends. People he knew were either clinging to him because he had a reputation in the city, or people clung on to him because they were afraid too. But I think as far as true friends—there were very, very few. And I think I was really one of them. Maybe the only one.”
The Reverend Ray Broshears goes picnicking.
There were also persistent rumors about Broshears and the young people to whom he ministered. “I know Ray could be a real letch,” Rleigh tells me. “He could really take advantage” of people. She says Broshears would occasionally offer runaways and sex workers a quid pro quo by offering food, legal services and shelter in exchange for sex—though she never knew of an instance in which he physically forced himself on anyone.
Rleigh believes much of Broshears’s aberrant behavior stemmed from a trauma early in his life. In a 1972 interview with The Advocate, Broshears said he was not simply discharged from the Navy back in the 1950s for “medical reasons”—he was sexually assaulted.
“I knew he was raped,” Rleigh says. “I know that experience damaged him in a lot of ways. I think that’s part of the reason why his dark side existed.… It literally changed his life. It changed who he was.”
Stryker, the LGBT historian, didn’t know about the incident, but through her research of Broshears’s writing, she concludes that Broshears “seems to have experienced physical violence directed at himself and seems to have been traumatized, to say the least.”
318 Letters of Support
The Lavender Panthers came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1974. On a Saturday night in late April that year, a few teenagers were throwing water balloons into the Pendulum Bar on 18th Street near the Castro, a popular gay hangout. The bartender came outside to stop them, and the kids allegedly jumped him. Then, someone must have called the Panther hotline, because the group arrived shortly after the scuffle broke out.
Four Panthers—two men, two women—began to wail on the juveniles, according to Broshears. Parents of the teens complained to police, and on May 8 the Panthers held a meeting with the San Francisco Police Department.
The cops then told Broshears he and the Lavender Panthers would all be arrested unless they disbanded. Broshears wanted to keep fighting for what he believed in, but as he told a reporter at the time, a police lieutenant explained his choice in stark terms. “We will squash the Lavender Panthers like bugs,” the cop purportedly said, and Broshears would get sent “up the river” if they didn’t stop “messing around.”
At a press conference on May 22, Broshears said he was dissolving the group. But he also claimed it had been a success. Broshears said that he had received 318 letters of support from people around the country and that the Panthers “contributed much in the way of personal safety awareness” of people living in the Tenderloin.
Years later, Mendenhall, the journalist for the Bay Area Reporter, concluded that despite Broshears’s exaggerations, the group drove home an important message: “Gay people are not sissies,” he wrote. “And [they] will use self-defense” whenever necessary.
Over the next several years, Broshears continued his protests, but by the late 1970s, he was gaining weight and becoming more and more reclusive. “He had a lot more health issues,” Rleigh says. “He was just really not a very happy person. He had a lot of depression. He was very sad…. He didn’t feel like he had a good life.”
He still put on the annual drag queen ball at Fort Miley, but his activism waned. His tirades in the Gay Crusader grew angrier, and he began sending strange letters. In one, he contacted a local television station and demanded it play more episodes of Benny Hill.
Broshears, I learned, also became subject to FBI scrutiny. In one report, from the mid-’70s, an agent writes that Broshears called the bureau’s offices multiple times. “He became paranoiac by insinuating that the federal government intended to arrest and shoot all homosexuals,” the agent—whose name was redacted—wrote. “He rambled on about Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and a host of others who had been described as homosexuals.”
Was Broshears going crazy? Broshears himself wrote that he had suffered a brain injury in the Navy, causing some sort of dysfunction. I ran this theory by Pennington, Broshears’s friend, but he disagrees. “What I saw were signs of outright schizophrenia.” In fact, Broshears’s FBI case file includes one report from 1969 that said he had been diagnosed at a Palo Alto hospital as someone with “schizophrenic reaction” and was “paranoid [and] incompetent,” among other things.
Either way, some of his claims struck plenty of his contemporaries as bizarre. He claimed he once lived with David Ferrie, the American pilot who some alleged had played a role in the assassination of President John Kennedy. But as the writer Adam Gorightly put it in his Caught in the Crossfire: Kerry Thornley, Oswald and the Garrison Investigation, Broshears likely “had fabricated his entire association with Ferrie.”
By 1981, as his body and mind continued to deteriorate, Broshears announced that he would stop publishing the Gay Crusader. “Again, thanks to all who have helped us, you can never know just how much it has meant,” he wrote. “The city of San Francisco’s poor, elderly and gay communities…have been helped by our being just what we were—honest and not out to make bucks.”
Loneliness in the Tenderloin
On January 10, 1982, long after the Lavender Panthers had disbanded, Rleigh received a phone call from Elmer Wilhelm, a friend of Broshears: Ray was dead. He was just a month shy of his 47th birthday. Rleigh tells me that Broshears was found alone in his apartment at 990 Geary Street, three days after he died, still dressed in his pajamas. An autopsy would later show a cerebral hemorrhage killed him.
Broshears had already been out of the public eye for several years, and more well-regarded LGBT leaders had risen to fame—especially Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978. By the time Broshears died, many in San Francisco had forgotten about him.
Those who did remember him argued about his legacy. Mendenhall, the journalist for The Bay Area Reporter, called several gay activists and politicians to solicit their reactions. Jim Foster, the former president of SIR, told him: “I think his death will affect the community here to the extent that he had a remarkable ability to unite many diverse interests in opposition to his positions. He would create so much controversy that he would end up bringing the rest of us together.”
Blackstone, the San Francisco police officer, said: “Ray loved people, but he didn’t know how to say that. I could never understand his bitterness.”
In his final days, Broshears wrote his own obituary—and signed it in Rleigh’s name. “I don’t know why he did that,” she says. “Maybe it was a way to say goodbye to me, and to thank me in a way…. I really don’t know.” The obituary contained a brief history of his upbringing, along with several pictures of himself at demonstrations he was proud of. He even did the layout. It was classic Broshears: There he was in one photo, demonstrating outside the Langley Porter Hospital in 1972, protesting electroshock therapy. In another, he’s posing with a bullhorn on City Hall, protesting police brutality. And then another, outside the Helping Hands Center, with his beloved shotgun.
After a long list of accomplishments, Broshears wrote the coda to his own life: “Ray has been around!”
As Randy Johnson, an activist friend of his, put it to Mendenhall, “He did all the right things in the wrong way.”