West Hollywood Pride parade watchers on Hugo's roof
West Hollywood Pride parade watchers on Hugo’s roof

The vote by local residents in 1984 to establish West Hollywood as a city was a years-long effort by an unlikely coalition of LGBT activists, seniors, and renters. Their intent was to form a city like no other with an emphasis on rights for gays, seniors and tenants.

It was an especially significant vote for gays and lesbians. Although the push for gay rights had begun decades earlier, those were still early days in push for equality, and homosexual acts were still illegal in most jurisdictions.

Los Angeles had long been at the forefront of the push for gay rights. The country’s first gay organization, the Mattachine Society, was founded in Silver Lake in 1950. (One of its members, designer Rudi Gernreich – inventor of the topless bikini – worked out of his studio at 8450 Santa Monica Blvd.)

In a May 2017 article for Los Angeles Magazine, Degen Pener laid this historical overview of the local movement:

In 1967, a group called PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) began holding Pride Night social gatherings at a West Hollywood bar, the Hub. After a violent police raid at another gay bar, Silver Lake’s Black Cat Tavern, PRIDE helped organize protests there—a full two years before the landmark Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village. In 1968, during a raid at a spot called the Patch in Wilmington, California, bar owner Lee Glaze led the crowd in resisting arrest, exclaiming onstage at one point, “It’s not against the law to be homosexual, and it’s not a crime to be in a gay bar.”

The nation’s first gay house of worship, Reverend Troy Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church, was founded in 1968 in Huntington Park. That same year the resistance group the Gay Liberation Front threw two “gay-ins,” a riff on the hippie “be-ins” of the time, at Griffith Park. Members of the Front and Perry’s church traveled to West Hollywood in 1970 to protest at Barneys Beanery, demanding the removal of a sign that said “Fagots Stay Out,” which had hung there since 1935. (The sign came down temporarily.) In 1971, Front cofounder Don Kilhefner helped establish the Gay Community Services Center in a Victorian house on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park. The first organization of its kind in the U.S., it’s active to this day as the LA LGBT Center. Also in 1971, lesbian activist Del Whan established the Gay Women’s Service Center in an Echo Park storefront. “Where gay liberation came in in Los Angeles was in the Echo Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood, North Hollywood corridor,” says Kilhefner, who is now a Jungian therapist. “That’s where the first militant, visible gay community began to emerge.”

It was in the 1970s that West Hollywood began to establish itself as a “gay ghetto” like the West Village in New York and the Castro in San Franciso, Pener says. Gay men and lesbians found the city’s walkability and scale made it an ideal place to establish a community. A number of new gay bars opened, and shops opened that catered to gay clientele.

All of this set the stage for the gay contingent that joined the coalition for cityhood. The referendum passed in November 1984, and on November 29, 1984, the 1.9-square mile territory that had been an unincorporated jurisdiction of Los Angeles County since its inception became the County’s 84th independent city.

The first city council elected that year was the first majority openly gay governing body in the world. The council adopted ordinances on rent stablization and discrimination based on sexual orientation that became models for legislation for cities nationwide.