Understanding and Preserving Pain and Joy

From August 1965 until the end of 1966, a youth group called Vanguard met in the Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. It is the first known queer youth organization in the United States, and most of its members were queer street youth. The GLBT Historical Society had digitized V, the magazine published by Vanguard, so when I found it I was entranced. I needed to understand the youth who published it. I visited the archives in person in January 2022, not long after hitting a wall in my research.
My senior history thesis was titled, “A Significant but Finite Space: The Limitations and Successes of the Vanguard Organization in Fostering Community for San Francisco’s Trans and Gender Nonconforming Youth, 1965–1966.” Previous scholarship about Vanguard has focused mostly on its public facing self and activism, but I focused more on its internal self: weekly meetings, community dances, and the social and material benefits of Vanguard. I especially highlighted the experiences of trans and/or gender-nonconforming members. I argued that Vanguard had significant limitations, but gave such residents relative freedom from discrimination that pervaded their lives, allowing them to safely express their identities in supportive community spaces.

The information I uncovered in the archives clarified the many contradictions in my sources. Stories that I uncovered from meeting minutes, newspaper articles, and letters became critical to my argument. Additionally, getting to hold the original magazine issues and flip through them was a powerful experience. The most interesting and useful item I found in the archives was a 2016 retrospective essay by Vanguard founder Adrian Ravarour, which gave me unique insight into Vanguard’s internal social dynamics. I learned that in 1965, the members held “family” Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, an instance of Vanguard serving as a replacement family group for queer youth who had run from or been abandoned by their blood family. I also learned that Vanguard’s second president was disliked by the Tenderloin’s trans and gender-nonconforming residents, suggesting that despite Vanguard publicly lambasting homophile organizations for emphasizing gender conformity, it was not a perfect respite from transphobia.

I came out publicly as trans near the end of my junior year. In part, this project was a way to reflect on who I am, what I value, and what history I’m entering into. I have also worked with kids and teenagers in classrooms and summer camps since I was a high schooler. This is our history, and we cannot effectively move forward without understanding the past. So much of Vanguard’s story is still relevant. Further, many of the people and stories I wrote about have been largely forgotten. It is important to remember and honor queer people who came before us, understanding and preserving their pain and their joy.

A disproportionate number of homeless youth today are queer, and many states have been passing laws targeting trans youth. We must use past queer experiences as inspiration to take action in the present. Queer and especially trans youth today need communities where they can care for each other and exist as their full selves while fighting for the right to exist and thrive. They need organizations like Vanguard.

To learn more about Jeremy’s project, email them at [email protected]. To explore issues of magazine (later Vanguardmagazine), click here. (The first three issues were published by the Vanguard group, and the rest in 1966 by someone connected to Vanguard after the group collapsed and was reorganized.)
Jeremy Sass recently graduated from Vassar College with a BA in history and a minor in education. They researched the Vanguard queer youth organization at the GLBT Historical Society’s archives as part of their senior thesis. Since graduating, she has moved to Boston and works as a data integrity assistant at the MIT AgeLab. In their free time, they love to read, watch science fiction, and do origami.