By the early 1970s, the gay liberation movement was in full bloom in San Francisco. At the start of the decade, a small band of “hair fairies” staged the California city’s first Pride celebration, marking the first anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City. Two years later, in 1972, locals organized San Francisco’s first Pride parade, which drew some 2,000 participants and 15,000 spectators. The city’s LGBTQ population swelled with migrants who’d come to find kinship in the newly christened gay mecca, and leaders of the growing community started attracting unprecedented media coverage
One of these activists stood out from the rest. Clad in a clerical collar, with a heavy silver cross hanging from his neck, he carried a gun and commanded a group of people on the offensive against anti-LGBTQ violence. He was the Reverend Raymond Broshears, and his followers were the Lavender Panthers.
“Reverend Ray,” as he liked to be called, garnered much attention during his time as an activist in the Bay Area. By the time of his death in 1982, he’d made many enemies, among them fellow gay activists who condemned his penchant for fighting violence with violence. But he’d also gained the loyalty of those he attempted to protect: the impoverished members of San Francisco’s LGBTQ community.
Broshears was born in Illinois in 1935. He was “an extremely religious teenager” who taught Bible school as early as age 14, and his grandmother encouraged him to become a preacher, wrote Eric Markowitz for Newsweek in 2018. He served in the Navy but was medically discharged in 1955, reportedly due to a head injury. Broshears then studied at various Christian colleges, at one point under the mentorship of Billy James Hargis, a notorious anti-gay evangelist.
In the mid-1960s, Broshears joined the Congress of Racial Equality and participated in a sit-in protesting segregation in Illinois. It was there that he was arrested for groping a 17-year-old boy. According to Newsweek, Broshears later told a reporter the teenager was fully dressed and that “no other physical contact” took place. “It wasn’t child molesting or anything like it,” he added. (The San Francisco Examiner later reported that Broshears said he was falsely accused.)
Broshears was sentenced to six months in prison. By the time of his release, news of his alleged crime had spread, so he decided to leave Illinois and start anew in San Francisco.
“California and San Francisco have always attracted seekers: people who are not fitting in where they are, people who are living their lives differently,” says Jim Van Buskirk, co-author of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. The city “gradually earned that reputation, which was self-fulfilling. The more people heard about it, [the more thought,] ‘Oh, well, maybe that’s a place that I can go and be safe.’”
San Francisco’s status as a gay haven stretches back to the mid-19th century Gold Rush, when the city gained a reputation for “sex and lawlessness,” becoming a place “where anything goes,” writes Nan Alamilla Boyd in Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. During World War II, when the military regularly removed gay men from service via “blue discharges,” some soldiers processed through the port city of San Francisco decided to stick around.
Over the decades, word of mouth brought more and more gay people to the area. In 1964, Life magazine deemed San Francisco the “gay capital” of America, noting that the city boasted more than 30 gay bars. In 1976, psychologist and community leader Martin Stoll told ABC7 that San Francisco “has always been known as a place that could accept people with different lifestyles, and certainly the gay lifestyle is a different lifestyle.”
Community was not the same as safety, though. Gay men still faced discrimination from law enforcement and the general public. Van Buskirk moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, and during his first visit to a gay bar, his companions offered him memorable advice: “If you’re dancing with another man, don’t touch [him],” they warned. “And if the lights suddenly go on, it means it’s a raid. So here’s what to do, here’s what not to do, [and] there’s the rear entrance to this space.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, San Francisco was home to multiple gay neighborhoods. One was the Castro, a community populated mainly by middle-class white gay men. Broshears made his home in another district: the Tenderloin, a neighborhood with a reputation for drugs, violence and sex work. Residents were outsiders, says Joseph Plaster, author of Kids on the Street: Queer Kinship and Religion in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Impoverished people, transgender women and sex workers were “actively policed out of other parts of the city and into this zone that was set aside for vice and crime,” he says.
As early as 1966, Broshears worked as an adviser to Vanguard, a group for LGBTQ youth in the Tenderloin. He was ordained by the Universal Life Church in 1967 and the Orthodox Episcopal Catholic Church in 1968. In 1970, he founded the San Francisco chapter of the Gay Activists Alliance, “which he called a ‘street people’s gay organization,’” says Plaster.
In a community of people outwardly rejected by most Christians, Broshears continued to center his work around religion. In 1972, he established a brick-and-mortar home for his Helping Hands street ministry in the heart of the Meat Rack, “the queer prostitution district in the Tenderloin,” according to Plaster.
By focusing his activism on the most vulnerable—and most targeted—members of the gay community, Broshears developed a complex relationship with local law enforcement. Authorities regularly raided gay bars, prompting owners to band together against police harassment in 1962 as the Tavern Guild of San Francisco. Transgender women were regularly arrested for crimes like female impersonation and sidewalk obstruction.
In 1966, tensions between police and Tenderloin residents exploded when a fight between cops and a group of drag queens, transgender women and other LGBTQ locals broke out at the popular restaurant Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. A policeman grabbed one of the locals, who retaliated by throwing a cup of coffee in his face. According to NPR’s “Code Switch,” the only surviving contemporary record of the incident is a brief article written by Broshears for the 1972 Pride parade program.
“[Broshears] saw all of these young people, some of them surviving through sex work, many of them marginally housed, were constantly either physically or emotionally abused by the police,” says Plaster.
The fraught relationship between authorities and the gay community exacerbated the issue Broshears devoted most of his time to: civilian-on-civilian violence. As he told Time magazine in 1973, LGBTQ people didn’t trust the cops, so they didn’t call the police when they were assaulted. Victims of anti-gay violence believed “police are likely to accuse them of having invited the beating by propositioning someone,” Time reported. Broshears claimed to have logged 300 muggings and beatings of gay people in San Francisco over a six-month period; law enforcement countered by citing “only a couple of isolated incidents … on their records,” Time wrote.
On the evening of July 4, 1973, Broshears walked out of the Helping Hands Community Service Center and found a group of teenagers waiting for him. They had been setting off fireworks in the area earlier in the day, so Broshears had called the cops on them. They wanted revenge, and the reverend was an easy target. The teenagers attacked him, beating him unconscious.
While he lay in a hospital bed, nursing bruises and temporary paralysis of his right arm, Broshears came up with an idea. He was angry, fed up with what he believed was a proliferation of “queer bashing” without consequences.
“Next thing he does is shows up at a press conference with guns,” says the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, in the 2019 documentary That Was Ray. “And the gay community in San Francisco went absolutely bonkers.”
On July 6, Broshears gathered a group of reporters at his community center. Flanked by drag queens and brandishing a .410-gauge shotgun, he announced the establishment of a new group: the Lavender Panthers. He had worked quickly, gathering a team of LGBTQ people who were tired of violence against their community and wanted to do something about it. The San Francisco Examiner reported that “indifferent hostility of police toward gay beatings” had driven Broshears to found the organization.
“We are now forced to act,” he said. “The police look the other way when a gay is beaten. The beaten person is threatened as if he were the criminal, not the victim. We shall retaliate. Never again will we just sit by!”
Broshears wanted to contradict the popular notion that gay people were “cowards and pansies” who wouldn’t fight back. The striking image of an armed gay priest leading a vigilante group of LGBTQ people garnered features in Rolling Stone and Coast magazines.
“He was a brilliant marketing man without even knowing it,” says Elisa Rleigh, a close friend of Broshears, in That Was Ray. “With his gun, he would hold it above his head. I knew he wasn’t going to load it and shoot anybody, but nobody else knew that.”
The Lavender Panthers took to the streets at night, armed not with guns but rather sawed-off pool cues, clubs, whistles, chains and red spray paint. The group had a hotline people could call if they needed help. As Broshears told Time, the Panthers’ goal was to scare “all those young punks who have been beating up my faggots.”
One night in fall 1973, four teenagers started harassing two gay men outside a gay bar called the Naked Grape. Broshears and some Lavender Panthers drove up in a gray Volkswagen and pounced.
“We didn’t even ask questions,” Broshears told Time. “We just took out our pool cues and started flailing ass.”
Broshears modeled his Lavender Panthers on the Black Panther Party, a militant Black power organization founded by activists Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in nearby Oakland in 1966. In addition to running social programs, the Black Panthers famously armed their members and patrolled the streets, seeking to defend Black people from rampant police violence. Broshears adopted the group’s name and branding, and he imitated its approach to self-defense. But unlike the Black Panther Party, which was active for 16 years and boasted 2,000 members at its peak in 1968, the Lavender Panthers lasted less than a year and had just 21 members in October 1973, according to Time.
Seale and Newton may have been completely unaware of Broshears’ take on their organization’s name and mission; no evidence suggests the pair supported or disapproved of his venture. But as Van Buskin says, Newton did advocate for collaboration between his own followers and the gay and women’s liberation movements.
“Homosexuals are not enemies of the people,” he said in an August 1970 speech. “They are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as possible.”
While many LGBTQ activists desired acceptance, Broshears wanted to be feared, says Markowitz in That Was Ray. In the reverend's quest to fight violence with violence, he made many enemies. At the time, mainstream gay activism in San Francisco centered on the Castro. Activists were largely white, middle-class men who successfully pushed the “politics of respectability,” Plaster says. Broshears had no intentions of participating in such politics, so the “gay elite denounced him,” Plaster adds.
The day after Broshears introduced the Lavender Panthers, leaders of the gay community in the Bay Area held a televised press conference.
“The Reverend Ray Broshears does not represent the gay community,” said Frank Fitch, a spokesperson for the Society for Individual Rights, during the broadcast. “While we recognize that there does exist a climate of hate, fear and ignorance against gay people in this country, and that that climate often results in violent acts perpetrated against us, we feel that the use of violence to respond to violence solves nothing.”
Trans women and drag queens protesting gentrification evictions in the Tenderloin circa 1975. (The man in the photo is controversial gay Reverend Ray Broshears.) pic.twitter.com/LnAdqGGVxM— Morgan M Page (@morganmpage) April 18, 2018
Aside from controversy over his methods, Broshears garnered criticism for his exaggerated claims, generally unpleasant behavior and murky reputation. In 1968, he was reportedly investigated in connection with John F. Kennedy’s assassination because his onetime roommate David Ferrie had previously lived with the president’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. Broshears told authorities he believed Oswald was bisexual and that the assassination involved multiple people.
Soon, the FBI started tracking the reverend’s complaints and correspondence, noting in one report that he was “a very controversial figure in the San Francisco area.” Another document in Broshears’ file says he called authorities to insinuate “that the federal government intended to arrest and shoot all homosexuals,” then “rambled on” about Oswald.
“Broshears was an unreliable character,” says Plaster. “Anything that he said in the press, you can’t necessarily take at face value.”
In the spring of 1974, Lavender Panthers beat up several teenagers who’d jumped a bartender at a gay bar. The youths’ parents complained to the police, who forced Broshears to disband the vigilante group. Exactly how many people the Panthers targeted in retaliation for anti-gay violence is unclear, but Time noted in October 1973 that authorities had received no complaints “from anyone the Panthers have accosted.”
After the Lavender Panthers dissolved, Broshears’ health declined. He became bitter and reclusive, suffering from probable mental health conditions, Rleigh told Newsweek. The comparative success of other gay activists made him jealous and resentful. He spent his final years calling the police on gay bars, suing other members of the LGBTQ community and harassing people who refused to take out ads in his self-published periodical, the Gay Crusader. In January 1982, Broshears suffered a cerebral stroke in his apartment and died at age 46.
Plaster attributes Broshears’ mercurial behavior in part to the trauma he experienced and observed throughout his life. The reverend was rejected by his family and religious authorities after they learned he was gay, and many of the youth he helped in the Tenderloin had been sexually or physically abused. “That kind of trauma can leave a mark on people and sometimes make it difficult for them to interact with other people,” Plaster says.
On January 14, 1982, the Bay Area Reporter ran a two-page obituary for Broshears. Written by gay journalist George Mendenhall, it included 17 testimonials from critics and friends alike. Ben Gardiner, president of the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club, praised Broshears’ wit and ability to call attention to injustices but called him “treacherous, with little compassion for anybody.” Gardiner added, “I am glad he is dead. It is safer now.”
Praise for Broshears came mainly from his home: the Tenderloin. Street kids, transgender women and drag queens regarded him as the only gay activist who stood up for their community, for “queer people who were impoverished or unhoused,” says Plaster.
6th July 1973: Gay Pentecostal Evangelist, Rev. Ray Broshears, creates the Lavender Panthers. The vigilante group patrolled the streets of San Francisco at night to prevent attacks on gay men. #OnThisDay #Queerstory pic.twitter.com/bA6FHjVFpa— Gay Community News (@GCNmag) July 6, 2018
Morris Kight, a gay activist and Los Angeles resident, urged readers of Broshears’ obituary “not to punish the dead.” Instead, he hoped readers would recognize the contributions the reverend made to the gay rights movement overall.
Despite his flaws, Broshears did succeed in bringing attention to violence against LGBTQ people. And through his community center and religious work, he took care of people the larger gay liberation movement left out, “serving and caring for street kids in the Tenderloin from the day he arrived to the day he died,” says Plaster.
Kight, for his part, concluded, “His positive impact was greater than most people noticed. … We should memorialize him with dignity. We should inventory his considerable contribution to gay liberation. If all else fails, we should let his death be a guide for the rest of us. If we feel we can do better, then we should.”
Editor's Note, June 30, 2023: This article has been updated to correctly state Morris Kight's place of residence.