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Calm and Comfort: ‘Liberation Houses’ of the 1970s Gave Homeless LGBTQ in L.A. Refuge

Learn how housing and basic services become challenges to LGBTQ on "Prism."

From the outside, it’s not much to look at. The small Colonial Revival-style bungalow on North Edgemont Street seems like just another life-worn structure in East Hollywood. But during the 1970s, this sterile little house was a warm home for an unusual family — a place of refuge for dozens of young, displaced members of the LBGTQ community. It was called “Liberation House.”

According to pioneering gay activist and community organizer Dr. Donald Kilhefner, co-founder of what became the Gay Community Services Center (now the Los Angeles LBGT Center), for centuries, gay people had lived in the shadows, generally afraid to forcefully organize and live life openly.

Left to right: John Platonia, Jim Kepner (moustache), Howard Fox (standing), June Herrle, Jim-Ed Thompson, Ralph Schaeffer, Morris Kight, Don Kilhefner (far right) and another person at the Gay Community Services Center, 1971. | Pat Rocco
Left to right: John Platonia, Jim Kepner (moustache), Howard Fox (standing), June Herrle, Jim-Ed Thompson, Ralph Schaeffer, Morris Kight, Don Kilhefner (far right) and another person at the Gay Community Services Center, 1971. | Pat Rocco, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries​

“You have to understand what it was like being gay in 1969,” he says, “because gay people were an oppressed people and oppressed by hetero supremacy. Just as Black people were oppressed by White supremacy and women by male supremacy, gay people were also oppressed by hetero supremacy, and we never before had fought back.”

The Stonewall Uprising in Greenwich Village in June 1969 would change all that. With the uprising, a new fervor to fight for equality sprang up throughout gay America, including in Los Angeles. 

According to Kilhefner, gay people faced homophobia entrenched in “the church, where they called us sinful; in all forms of government, which called us illegal; and the mental health industry, which called us sick. So, we were dealing with an environment in which we were demonized, and some people say there was intellectual and physical genocide against us. So that’s the environment we’re talking about in 1969 and 1970.”

Kilhefner became a member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the chairman of the offshoot Gay Survival Committee in L.A., which evolved into the Gay Community Service Center. Members of the movement, including co-founder Morris Kight, took no salary, and many lived in the group’s rambling old rented mansion on Wilshire Boulevard

Through their outreach work, they met countless LBGTQ youth who had come to tumultuous 1970s Los Angeles in search of freedom. According to Ian M. Baldwin

“Queer Angelenos faced new housing challenges in the 1970s. Activists estimated that hundreds of queers migrated to L.A. monthly. Martin Meeker argued these migrants descended upon ‘imagined communities’ in search of gay utopias. New arrivals placed additional stress on critical resources.” 

It was clear that something must be done to help these resourceless youth, many who found themselves living on the streets far from the liberal paradise of L.A. they had imagined. “It hardly needs pointing out,” Kilhefner wrote in an internal memo, “that our gay brothers and sisters need places to live too. If we don’t house our homeless, who will?” 

Enter Gay Liberation Front member Jon Platania, a housing activist who had worked for the department of Housing and Urban Development. Platania lost his job in 1970 when the LAPD entrapped him in Griffith Park. He threw his energy and considerable knowledge into finding a solution to this housing crisis. In the summer of 1971, he found an affordable, ideal spot.  

“Jon was able to rent this house — It was a three-bedroom [or] four-bedroom house, little, little thing, and needed a lot of attention — but it was inhabitable, and we opened it up as our first Liberation House,” Kilhefner says.

Soon, 35 men had moved into the cramped house at 1168 N. Edgemont Street. Young men who were “not too prepared for anything,” Platania later recalled

“We helped a lot of people, primarily young people,” Kilhefner says. “It was primarily young people who decided to leave East Jesus Iowa and come to Los Angeles, or were kicked out and were trying to find their way, or were lost, or just needed help …. Probably 95% of the residents were between the ages of 18 and probably 30, 35 at the most … as part of the Gay Liberation Front’s attempt to create a community where we took care of each other.”

There were soon six Liberation Houses (most now torn down) up and running across downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. These men (and some women) hailed from all across the country. According to Ian M. Baldwin:

Contact sheet of young men at the Gay Community Services Center Liberation House and at the Gaywill Shop, 1971. | Pat Rocco, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries
Contact sheet of young men at the Gay Community Services Center Liberation House and at the Gaywill Shop, 1971. | Pat Rocco, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries

“At one house in 1973, individuals came from Watts, Downtown, and Northridge. Some came from elsewhere in Southern California: one man made the journey from Lake Elsinore, another from San Luis Obispo, and one woman came from Riverside. Outside California, new arrivals traveled from Moss Point, Mississippi; Portland, Oregon; Cincinnati, Ohio; Hope, Indiana; and Honolulu, Hawaii.” 

Each house was overseen by a responsible, older house manager, like Ralph Schaffer (who was later brutally murdered in the GLF’s Gaywill Funky Shoppe). He ran the house on Edgemont. These houses were about affirmation, comfort and safety for youths who had been disowned by their families and communities. According to Ian M. Baldwin:

“Residents wanted ‘to be in a place called a liberation house. That’s where [one] wants to be. It wasn’t a homeless shelter. I wouldn’t have managed a homeless shelter for love or money,’ he [Platania] insisted. ‘The minute you say homeless shelter, my mind goes to bedbugs, and drinks, and druggies, and washouts. But liberation house, that calls to me. ‘I’m going to this place to be liberated.’”

Residents paid rent on a sliding scale with a base of $1.50 a day and were expected to do chores, as well as help in the maintenance of the home. Their days were structured, with an aim towards becoming self-sufficient, thriving adults.  

“During the day from 9 o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the afternoon, they were out of the house looking for jobs, or trying to get back into school, or doing whatever they needed to do, to move their lives forward. And then at 5, they were allowed to come back, and there was a dinner,” Kilhefner explains. He continues; 

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“People came back into the house at about 5, got comfortable …. Then there was dinner, and then after dinner, it was usually some kind of event, usually, a group session where people would talk about what their day was like — if they were trying to get back into school how that was going, if they were looking for a job how that was going .… We also did political consciousness-raising.  There would be gay liberation consciousness-raising groups in the evening talking about how they as young gay people were oppressed and what the Gay Liberation Movement was all about. So that they could get involved in changing their community, and many of them after they graduated from the houses and got their own apartment, many of them got involved.”

This political education gave residents hope and a belief in a better tomorrow. According to Baldwin:

The Gay Community Services Center Gaywill Funky Shoppe and Recycling Center, 1971. | Pat Rocco, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries
The Gay Community Services Center Gaywill Funky Shoppe and Recycling Center, 1971. | Pat Rocco, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries

“Residents were ‘bright, fun’ and believed ‘that the world was on the precipice of a great change. In their lifetime, everyone would have medical care; everybody would have housing; everybody would have everything that we were trying to put into place.’ In most houses, ‘there was a great enthusiasm, a great hope, a great optimism...This is what it could look like. This is how it could be done. This is what you could do if you wanted to do it right.’”

To support the Gay Liberation Front’s many missions, including the Liberation House project, treasurer Ken Bartley found funds wherever he could. “Ken largely oversaw the operation of these houses, making sure that we had food, making sure that the rent was paid, that the house manager was doing his job,” Kilhefner says. 

Donations were few and far between and many social service organizations and charities refused to even meet with leaders. “We didn’t have any money,” Kilhefner explains. “Nobody was funding us with anything. We were lepers; we were social lepers."

“On Friday nights, we had something called a gay funky dance,” he says. “Gay people and anybody of any age could come, and there was great music. We would have as many as, oh, 150 to 200 people there, at a time when same-sex dancing was outlawed. But in L.A., we paid no attention to it. And the Gay Liberation Front, the center, had dances there, and it would bring in, after all the expenses — maybe $150 to $200 a week. And then we opened the Gaywill Funky Shoppe … on Griffith Park Boulevard. That would bring in $150, $200 a week. And with that money, we ran a human service agency.”

Stanley Williams (sitting) was the shop manager for the Gay Community Services Center Gaywill Funky Shoppe, circa 1972. | ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries
Stanley Williams (sitting) was the shop manager for the Gay Community Services Center Gaywill Funky Shoppe, circa 1972. | ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries

Although disruptions and drama were natural occurrences within the Liberation Houses, many residents found them to be a safe stepping stone to success.  “People found jobs, jobs were plentiful then,” Kilhefner explains. “People would find jobs, and in two or three weeks, they would move out of the house into their own apartment, and we would then bring somebody new into their spot.”

One Liberation House’s exit succinctly read: “Found job. Moved. Paid rent. Good kid, no problem.”

In 1976, as more and more low-cost housing became available to gay youth, the Liberation Houses were phased out. However, their impact can be felt to this day across L.A.’s social services community. “They provided the prototype for housing programs that have developed for housing homeless youth and … others,” Kilhefner says. “Today … the Gay Community Services Center has changed its name to LGBT Center and still runs a housing program. We have provided housing services to homeless people for the last 50 years uninterrupted.  The whole thing is amazing.”

While enormous progress has been made, there is still a great need for housing and service for homeless LBGTQ youth. “Today, the center has a very rich and successful program of housing for young people, particularly homeless gay and lesbian youth,” Kilhefner says. “But estimated research indicates that about 40% of young people who are homeless in L.A. are either gay, lesbian or trans. Forty percent!  We represent probably 10% of the population.” 

Working hard to change this statistic, the LGBT center provides legal aid, education and employment opportunities, both transitional housing and host homes to young people in need. The struggle continues, and it all started in a little bungalow in East Hollywood half a century ago. 

 

The project to digitize organizational records from ONE Inc. at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
 

Top Image: Contact sheet of young men at the Gay Community Services Center Liberation House and at the Gaywill Shop, 1971. | Pat Rocco, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries

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