Sunday, March 20, 2011


In San Francisco, the "Vanguard Revisited" project is doing some of the most exciting work in community history that I've seen in quite some time. Initiated by oral historian and radio producer Joey Plaster, and activist minister Rev. Megan Rohrer, the project "resuscitates the history of the 1960s queer youth organization Vanguard and explores the ways in which its history is embodied in the present," according to the new project magazine. Programs in oral history, youth development, and other areas may have a lot to learn from the model of "Vanguard Revisited." Besides, the project's magazine, blog, audio program, and walking tours are just plain fun, vital, and provocative.

Let's step into the way-back machine for a moment. As far back as the 1960s, San Francisco's Tenderloin district has been a hangout spot for runaways and street youth, many of them LGBT or queer. Queer youth had flocked to San Francisco because of its growing reputation as a haven for outcasts. And the Tenderloin district was where many of them would gather; not coincidentally, it was also home to the "Meat Rack" area for young sex workers, the offices of the early "homophile" organization the Mattachine Society, an urban ministry in Glide Church, led by the Rev. Cecil Williams, and more. It was here in the Tenderloin in 1966 that queer street youth formed "Vanguard," a group for fun, socializing, and mutual support. They held street protests, put on weekly dances, and produced a magazine that covered sex, drugs, theology, loneliness. A 1966 statement protested police harassment, economic exploitation by adults, and drug problems to which adults seemed willfully blind. A hostile letter to the magazine (with the oddly affectionate salutation of "Darlings") said that the writer had "bought your filthy magazine from a street seller much to my dismay. I find it is nothing more than a rag for low-grade perverts, dope addicts and pacifists." At least he was in agreement with Vanguard youth. An underground 'zine that same year, 1966, ran a story headlined "Young Rejects Form Own Organization." The kids were doin' it for themselves!

Until fairly recently, this group -- which disbanded in name within a year or two -- was just a memory for surviving members to recount, and some faded papers in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. But that organization's oral history program coordinator, Joey Plaster, learned of the group, and saw a special resonance with today's youth. He joined forces with local minister Megan Rohrer to put the past in conversation with the present.

It would be a perfectly nifty little project to, say, republish one of the old "Vanguard" magazines. But what distinguishes "Vanguard Revisited" is that the history duo teamed up Larkin Street Youth Services and other local organizations to assemble a group of today's queer youth, who then submitted their own stories, poetry, and art in response to the contents of the original magazine. In "Vanguard Revisted" magazine, content from the 1960s "Vanguard" is paired with writings and art from today, often on similar themes. There's also a project blog, a series of oral histories, walking tours that feature clips of oral histories from original Vanguard members, and an upcoming tour to other cities. 

Instead of simply delivering history to queer youth, "Vanguard Revisited" actually enlists today's queer youth to quite literally make history -- to document history, and become a part of it. Youth draw a historical (or, in a sense, genealogical) line from themselves to homeless youth of the 1960s and before, perhaps even to the outcasts in the Bible. And in time, today's queer youth may become the ancestor's of tomorrow's fighters, writers, poets, and preachers.

Intrigued? Go visit the project website, where you can listen to an audio documentary with clips from oral history interviews of original "Vanguard" members, and download the "Vanguard Revisited" magazine. Also be sure to check out the project blog, with video clips of Tenderloin walking tours, and more


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