Lesbian and Gay Roots of Santa Barbara

November 10, 2019 • by Dallin Mello

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Hathor Hammet guided me into her quaint apartment, the sound of the busy Highway 101 filling her open windows as she gestured towards an aged dining room chair. A twin bed sat compactly next to her lazy-boy recliner, as a TV reminiscent of a microwave played silent images of the local Santa Barbara news. Her walls displayed hand crafted animal masks and awards given by the community, the words “Local Hero” standing out amidst the cluttered surface.

“When I came out in 1968, there was no real community as you think of community,” said Hammet, “it was pre-Stonewall, it was when we were considered mentally ill and being gay or lesbian was actually illegal.”

Hammet came to Santa Barbara in 1969 when she was just 17, after spending a year living in one of Salvation Army’s Home for the Girls, a youth center in Los Angeles that focused on the rehabilitation of “homosexuals” through religion and therapy. “It was a very intense program with group therapy and they made me wear a dress because they thought that would cure me,” Hammet said. Once able to declare herself emancipated minor she caught the first bus North.

“There was once much more to do [in Santa Barbara] for lesbian and gay people,” Hammet said as she flipped through old photos from the 1970’s. A smile filled her face looking at the images of women on sunny sidewalks, others on red leather stools in a crowded bar, their faces decorating her memory.

“When I turned 21, I spent most of my time in the Odyssey bar, which is where the Fish Enterprise is now,” Hammet explained, “In fact all of our bars, gay and lesbian, were in now what we would call the Funk Zone, there was the Pub, and then eventually the Trackside, and the Piano Bar...” The Odyssey Bar, which closed in 1989, was a special place for lesbian women in Santa Barbara. “It was wonderful. It had a jukebox with women’s music with all these performers that would come and they sang songs, with the correct pronouns, using the word she, singing about loving women,” Hammet described, “those were good times.”

However, not all moments were good for Hammet. Like many other gay and lesbian people, Hammet faced forms of homophobia. “They’d yell stuff at us, sometimes they’d throw stuff at us. One time I got cornered and beat up,” she described, “I was by myself but I’d been with my girlfriend and someone saw me, a couple of guys, and you know calling me queer.” People would also target the spaces she’d enter, including the Odyssey Bar. “Sometimes if no one was watching someone would throw a cherry bomb that would explode in the middle of the room,” said Hammet, “I don’t know if we ever reported it.”

Yet in the midst of discrimination, their community continued to flourish, their collective pain forged a community that was very much alive and fighting for justice.

Hammet remembers how many spaces there were for gay and lesbian people: two more bars, a yearly film festival, a bookstore, and a community of individuals willing to protest against any form of discrimination.

“We were revolutionaries,” Hammet said as she recalled protests that occurred in Santa Barbara. She describes an action in 1991 against Pete Wilson, the state’s governor at the time, who opposed Assembly Bill 101, an initiative to fight for fair housing for all, including LGBT folks. “There were hundreds and hundreds of us here in Santa Barbara and this was unusual,” Hammet said, “I don’t think we had a permit or anything and we just took over, and were yelling “out of the closets and into the streets.’”

Hammet pulls out a stack of black and white newspapers from an envelope on her desk, the word “Bulletin” reading as the title. “Anything gay and lesbian related, would be printed in here,” Hammet said. The publication offered a space for gay and lesbian folks to be heard and acknowledged, “it was essential in our community,” Hammet said.

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She sat back down in the lazyboy recliner, and upon letting out a heavy sigh, said “it seemed like we had so much, and now we have nothing... ”

A 15 minute drive from Hammet’s apartment lives Claude Raffin, another elder member of the Santa Barbara’s gay and lesbian community. He walks from room to room, talking about the expansions and changes to his house’s layout that now serves as his vacation spot when he’s not in Las Vegas. “We began to remodel in 1997, and the only aspect left from that time is the fireplace,” he said while pointing to an aged rockfront surface. Large glass windows compose a wall of the home boasting views of the Channel Islands and water so blue it mimics the sky.

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Raffin and his late partner, Jon Gathercole, moved to Santa Barbara in 1980, and quickly became involved in the gay community by making friends at local bars. “There were two main gay bars back then, the Pub and the Trackside,” Raffin explained, “so everyday we’d go to the Pub after work, have a few cocktails and start meeting people.” Their community quickly grew as they began to host a myriad of parties and celebrations. “We had a house and a pool and we had parties that became orgies with people sleeping on the dining room table, someone in our bed,” Raffin continues, “We’d often awake to strangers, I’d ask Jon, ‘Do you remember him?’ he’d reply ‘No, but he’s cute.’ This goes back to the 70’s: free love, and free sex, there was a lot of promiscuity.”

The ability for gay men to be promiscuous, specifically in designated spaces, was important during the 1970’s and 80’s. “During that time, exclusive spaces and clubs were extremely necessary with the real danger people faced as coming out as gay,” explained Dr. Tristan Bridges, “both in terms of losing family members and friends, but also in being discriminated against at work and more.” Dr. Bridges, whose work at the University of California, Santa Barbara focuses on gender and sexuality studies, explained the detriments of being outed during these times, “losing your job for coming out as a sexual minority is today still a fear for many people, back then, it was even more of a fear. The legal forms of discrimination have existed for a long time.”

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Discrimination wasn’t the only challenging factor looming over the homosexual community.

“The AIDS crisis really decimated the gay community,” said Raffin, “We moved from San Jose to Santa Barbara just as it was getting started, and we went through our 30s and 40s doing what people do in their 70s and 80s, burying our friends.” Their sailboat, which once provided carefree leisure, turned into a site of mourning as they poured ashes of their friends into the Pacific Ocean. Even Santa Barbara, a community with an average income 10% higher than the national average, was affected by the AIDS epidemic, financial privilege sparing no one. Fear began to take over their lives, as their loved ones slipped from the world. “We’d call back to San Jose to ask about friends, and the response would usually go along the lines of ‘Haven’t you heard, he passed away,’” said Raffin.

The memories of those years stuck with Hammet, too. “Our friends that we knew, gay guys, were dying left and right. Every time you’d see a guy that looked like he lost weight, you’d panic,” Hammet said. “It seemed like there was a memorial every weekend.”

Amidst the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, a meeting point was created to build bridges between gay and lesbian people, “it felt like we were needed,” described Hammet.

Raffin shared similar thoughts,“This is when the lesbians came in, they stepped up, especially through the creation of AIDScap,” a volunteer based organization formed by Anne Wood in the early 80’s. Raffin and his late partner, Gathercole, joined the organization, that supported those debilitated by AIDs. He recalls grocery shopping, helping with cleaning, reading, and other household tasks. Yet for Gathercole, he’d often go a step further. As described by his surviving partner, “Some of [those affected by AIDS] were so weak they couldn’t bathe, so Jon would strip and go in the shower with them so they could. He was always right there, stepping in.”

Today, many of the spaces that once housed Hathor Hammet and Claude Raffin’s social groups have all since shut down, their memories and old images of the spaces are all they have left. All of the gay and lesbian bars, including the Odysey that Hammet so fondly remembered, have since closed, the Bulletin, their monthly gay and lesbian publication, went out of print in the 90’s, the bookstore out of business, and the film fesitval ending over ten years ago. There is a seemingly less need for political revolution today than 40 years ago. There is an assumption that since the AIDS epidemic is less severe, and that LGBTQ folks have become more accepted, that exclusive spaces are no longer necessary. But, discrimination and even violence is still common.

Homophobic attacks, like the November 3, 2019 assault at Rockfire Grill in Goleta, CA, and more nationally known atrocities, such as the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Shooting that claimed 49 lives, represent a persistent threat to LGBTQ people. And while the AIDS epidemic isn’t what it was, it’s still common: In 2017, over 17,000 people were diagnosed with the disease in the United States, and there are over 1.1 million people living with HIV.

Although the Santa Barbara that Hammet and Raffin both knew no longer exists, some of the issues they faced still do. The question today is if the Santa Barbara that exists reflects the LGBTQ community.

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