The Green Room of the San Francisco Veterans Building has been taken over for the night by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a charity organization that mashes Catholic imagery and drag, perhaps San Francisco's most iconic gay group. But among the drag queens and leather daddies are military veterans in garrison caps and vests decorated with medals.
This is the Sister's bingo night, an event to raise money for the various nonprofit organizations the order supports. Above the stage hangs the banner of the Sisters' partner in the event: American Legion Post 448, also known as the Alexander Hamilton post.
It may seem like a strange partnership drag nuns joining forces with the American Legion, the country's largest veterans' organization with 14,000 posts worldwide. The goals of the Legion are traditionally conservative: uphold the constitution, make national security the top priority, demand loyalty to the union, and "foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism," according to its preamble. It even maintains a pseudo-military rank structure among its members.
But the partnership isn't so strange. The 448 is the only Legion post in the nation for gays and lesbians who once served in the military. Its relationship with the Sisters is a "good partnership," as Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms Morningstar Vancil puts it, and a "win-win situation." The post runs the outside bar since city bingo rules don't allow liquor during the game and the Sisters get the room at the vets' reduced rental rate.
The bingo proceeds go to the Sisters' charities while the proceeds from the bar go to Post's causes, particularly its ongoing push to repeal the military's long-standing ban preventing homosexuals from serving openly. Today, that cause seems more hopeful than ever considering that the current presidential administration has promised to bring the ban to an end.
"We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we're fighting two wars," President Barack Obama said in his speech to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission on Oct. 10.
However, some of the post members are only cautiously optimistic about Obama's promise after the long, tough climb just to establish a gay post in San Francisco.
Noted gay rights activist and veteran Dr. Paul D. Hardman formed the post in 1984, naming it after Alexander Hamilton, who wrote affectionate letters to Continental Army Capt. John Laurens. A quote from one letter appears on the post's Web site: "I wish, my dear Laurens, that it might be in my power, by action, rather than words, to convince you that I love you." Hardman and some historians have speculated on a homosexual relationship between the two.
Hardman needed at least 15 gay veterans to form the post and he got 18, including the late Marcus Hernandez, former leather columnist for the LGBT newspaper Bay Area Reporter. But acceptance was hard to get in the early days.
According to Arch Wilson, World War II vet and the oldest living founding member at 85, the post had a difficult time getting approved. During the approval process, the Legion stalled, losing applications and paperwork, which Wilson attributes to old-guard homophobia.
"They absolutely had no tolerance for homosexuals in their midst," Wilson said
At first, the 448 wasn't even allowed in the Veterans Building. But they had a powerful weapon: the city's nondiscrimination ordinances. Since the building was city property, the American Legion had to abide by the ordinances. The threat of a lawsuit was leverage enough to allow the Alexander Hamilton Post an office and its charter, but not a seat on the War Memorial Commission that ran the building.