Looking at LGBTQ+ history in Central California

FRESNO, Calif. -- The 1969 "Stonewall Riots" are seen as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Stonewall Inn customers in New York City stood up against police raids sparking activism and awareness. But the push for equality began long before that.

"In the 60s, all this in Fresno was mostly agriculture," said El Daña. "Being raised out on the farm, I thought I was the only one that was gay....I felt kind of alone."

El Daña is one of Central Valley's first male impersonators, better known today as "drag kings." She'd lip-sync to Tom Jones, Ritchie Valens, Glen Campbell at gay bars in the Central Valley, drawing crowds from San Francisco and Los Angeles. But her shows began years after she discovered gay bars even existed.

"When I first went to the Orange Ogre, I thought I had died and gone to heaven," she said. "My face was in awe, my eyes got big, because I'm like, I'm not the only one!"

The Orange Ogre and other gay bars in Fresno were safe spaces for LGBTQ+ members.

"You could be yourself. You can make friends, make acquaintances and and if you just wanted to go sit there and have a drink, nobody bothered you," said El Daña

Although gay bars were considered a refuge, customers were not fully safe from homophobia.

"One time, it got really bad. The bartenders and all the guys that were in there said 'there's some guys outside that want to cause problems. Who's going to go outside to straighten them out?' So, the truck drivers got a good beating and never came back again. They found out that gay men can be just as men like them."

It would be years before the LGBTQ community could truly live life out in the open. But that didn't stop them from connecting with each other.

"You either went out to the bars, you went to house parties, or you left town or somewhere else. Usually, up to the city and that was the connections that you can make," said Bill Welzenbach.

Bill Welzenbach met his late partner, Bob, at a bar in Bakersfield in the 1950s.

"We met and boom, that was it. It was kind of like love at first sight," he said.

Together, they bought a home in Fresno about 10 years later.

"I don't know how the hell we got it. They didn't loan to two men or to women," said Welzenbach.

Welzenbach never came out to his family or friends, but he says they knew.

"I remember the first time that wherever we walked down a public street, and we're arm and arm with the Castro district, the first time we were out there. That was really a big thrill. We didn't do anything to cover it up but we were overt about it. That's the way you had to be."

October is LGBTQ History Month and the ABC Owned Television stations are highlighting the people, events, and places that helped launch the LGBTQ rights movement, the fight for long-lasting change. For more stories like this one, click here.

Reference material coordinated in conjunction with local LGBTQ+ archives and the ONE Archives Foundation.

The ONE Archives Foundation is the independent community partner that supports ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries, the largest repository of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world. Founded in 1952 as ONE Inc., the publisher of ONE Magazine, ONE Archives Foundation is the oldest active LGBTQ organization in the United States. In 2010, ONE Archives Foundation deposited its vast collection of LGBTQ historical materials with the USC Libraries. Today, the organization is dedicated to promoting this important resource through diverse activities including educational initiatives, fundraising, and range of public programs.

ONE Archives Foundation's flagship K-12 education programs provide educators with the resources they need to teach accurate and authentic LGBTQ+ history, including professional development webinars and free LGBTQ+ lesson plans available for download on our website. In addition, ONE Archives Foundation mentors youth to become ambassadors for LGBTQ+ history through the Youth Ambassadors for Queer History program. Learn more here.
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