gay history palm springs

Preserving History

The LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert will start with an exhibit open during Pride weekend toward its bigger endeavor of documenting gay history in the Coachella Valley.

JIM POWERS Current Digital, LGBT

gay history palm springs

Hidden among the lantana and under a tree is a time capsule on Arenas Road in Palm Springs that is slated to be opened in 80 years.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY DAVID GRAY

It’s easy to walk right by it. Situated in an island that jets out onto Arenas Road between Streetbar and Hunters in the heart of the Palm Springs gay corridor sits a cement tomb of sorts. It’s a part of LGBTQ+ history that most people likely don’t even know exists.

The plaque reads: Arenas Road. Time Capsule. Dedicated October 2001. To Be Opened 2101.

David Gray heard there was a time capsule, but it took a friend of his, Will Paige, to point it out to him. It won’t be the last fact-finding mission that Gray will be on. As co-founder of The LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert, the Massachusetts transplant formed a committee in 2019 to uncover the history of the LGBTQ+ community in the Coachella Valley.

Their efforts will be on display during Greater Palm Springs Pride weekend beginning tonight (6-8 p.m. Nov. 4) with an exhibit at the Welwood Murray Memorial Library in Palm Springs. The display will be available for viewing the entire weekend, Nov. 5-6, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Nov. 7, noon to 5:30 p.m.

gaybarcathedralcity
Daddy Warbucks, a gay bar in Cathedral city in 1985. It was closed and torn down in the 1990s.
What you will see is an assortment of memorabilia (photographs, matchbook covers, brochures, and fliers), each painstakingly documented to verify its authenticity including a very large watercolor painting of the late Bob Hoven, founder and publisher of the California magazine MegaScene, one of the Coachella Valley’s first gay publications. The painting by Streetbar co-owner David Farnsworth has hung in the bar for years.

“It was a painting of him as a grand duchess,” Gray says. “He used to hold court at Streetbar. They decided the painting had been there long enough and nobody knows who he is anymore.”

That’s what Gray and his committee hope to rectify over time. This opening exhibition is just a foray into a much bigger undertaking. But Gray has seen it succeed before. He was a member of the History Project, which documents, preserves, and shares New England’s LGBTQ history.

“They have been operating now for 20-30 years, and they have a huge website, lots of archives, and an interactive walk through Boston where you can take your phone and find a spot,” Gray says. “So this idea was sort of in the back of my head.”

Palm Springs Life chats further with Gray about this new endeavor and any unusual findings so far.

What happened when you first began to inquire about gay history in Palm Springs?

I started inquiring around like, 'Does anyone have any history somewhere we could look at or have?' Historical Society said, 'No, we've got three or four pictures.' And Pride organization said, 'Well, we kind of know our history and we did a timeline, but we don't really have anything.' So, I basically said to Pride, 'If I do this and start this organization, is that stepping on your toes, and is that something you want to do? No, they didn't want to do that. They said, 'No, no, no'.\

I saw on Facebook that you were able to raise some funds to get started.

That was sort of to kick it off. And that was pretty successful. I raised over $3000. That was pretty good. And we've got another $3000 commitment from other people, plus. So, we have the money to put on the exhibition. So, obviously we will continue to fundraise, because long range plans would be to become a 501c3, probably. Although we've received a verbal proposal from somebody to do something different, so we'll see. But I told them that the committee couldn't really make any decisions like that until after the first of the year.  

streetbaradpalmsprings
An early advertisement by Streetbar, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

What is guiding this project?

This project is really a project to base on documented history, not hearsay. There have been people who have written books about gay Palm Springs. Mostly based on celebrities. A lot of which is sort of undocumented, and it might be a fantasy. Because people lived different lives in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. But that doesn't necessarily prove that they had sex with men, or that they were women who had relationships with women.

So, we are being very careful about that. Because we imagine that in the future, writers or historians may want to go back and find things. And if they do, we want to make sure that we have proved that what we are saying is true. It also helps with this inaugural exhibition, because we know that people will come and say, "Oh, why did you forget this?" Or, "Why didn't you put this?" Or, "How come this?" Or, "Did you know that?" And our line is going to have to be, "We couldn't include everything, and we're very happy to know about that, or correct something if you know something's wrong. Here's our website. Here's our email and our phone number. Here's a card. You can write us and tell us how you know that.

What have you found during your research, so far. Any surprises?

Pride is celebrating 35 years this year, so I asked Ron DeHarte (CEO of Greater Palm Springs Pride), 'Do you have any pictures? Do we know anything much more about it?' But nobody had anything. He's inquired, and nobody had anything. And through my library background, I know a little bit more about how to do research. And so, I came upon a thing accidentally, really, through the Massachusetts online library archive that referenced vaguely something about Palm Springs Pride. And I could see that the year was really too old. So, I clicked on it to see what they were referring to, and it took me to another place. And it referenced a collection of photos and poster of a Pride celebration in Palm Springs in 1986. And I'm like, 'So, where are those things?" Well, it turns out that they are actually at One Archive in LA. But when you click on it, it basically just said, 'A scrapbook, a poster, and they're in box whatever.' And it gave you a reference, but there was nothing. So I wrote to One Archive and told them who I was and I know you're probably short staffed, but is there anybody there that can go and open that box and see what's in there? And they did, and lo and behold, there was a poster and a scrapbook. So we now have a high resolution of this poster. And I sent that up to Ron and he was like, 'Oh my God. I can't believe you actually found this.' And so, we will print that to what its original size was, and we'll have it in the exhibition. But I think that that probably was one of our more interesting things, because nobody here seemed to be able to find any such thing.

What's the next step for the organization?

I think there's a lot of people who are very excited about it. What we really want to do is raise enough funds so that we can provide grants to researchers, a young archivist, to say, 'Here's something we would like to find out more information about, and we'll give you 500, $1000 to do that.' The other thing is that in the next year, we want to build a board. We want to do a joint project with the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce to identify all the gay and lesbian people on the Walk Of Stars, so that on their app, when gay people come, they could go and see this people and find out who they are.

• READ NEXT: Gay Palm Springs: How It Came to Be in the Desert.