Harold L. Call was born in Trenton, Missouri, on September 20, 1917, and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Upon graduation he took a job with the Kansas City Star . While on a business trip to Chicago, Call was arrested on a morals charge and, like many men of his generation, found his life changed, even though the case was ultimately dismissed.
Call moved to San Francisco in 1952 and shortly thereafter became one of the most important and controversial figures in the homophile movement. Call participated in the so-called conservative takeover of the Mattachine Foundation and subsequent formation of the Mattachine Society in 1953. Although there were other political and ideological elements to the change, Call thought new leadership was necessary because of the reluctance of the founders to present themselves and their agenda publicly. Upon assuming a leadership role in 1953, Call became one of the first American homosexuals to proclaim his sexuality publicly while fighting for homosexual civil rights.
With the emergence of the Mattachine Society, Call immediately began pressing his agenda, which included establishing a publications chapter in San Francisco. From this base of operations, society members led by Call and Donald S. Lucas started publishing the Mattachine Review in February 1955. Its circulation reached a peak of 3,000 copies around 1960. Politically the Review advanced homosexual rights arguing against the formation of a minority homosexual culture advocated by editors of the rival magazine ONE.
In 1954, Call and Lucas pioneered the practice of combining activism with commerce when they founded Pan-Graphic Press to print the Review and what they thought were quality works of fiction and nonfiction that presented homosexuality in an enlightened, objective and nonsensationalistic manner. Over the next twelve years, Pan-Graphic Press also published the Dorian Book Review Quarterly (a combination anticensorship journal and mail-order catalog) and Town Talk (one of the first gay publications to contain advertising and to be distributed free in gay bars).
Call and other leaders also spent a good deal of time working with professionals who were sympathetic to the cause of homosexual civil rights. To that end, Call built productive relationships with sexologist Alfred Kinsey (helping him to find homosexual subjects for his research) and psychologist Evelyn Hooker as well as with assorted lawyers, clergy, politicians, journalists, medical doctors, sociologists, business owners, and law enforcement personnel. Call provided financial support and printing services to Jose Sarria's campaign for San Francisco city supervisor in 1961--the first openly gay men to run for public office in the U.S. These relationships in turn helped make the society a recognized authority on homosexuality as well as other variant gender and sexual behaviors.
In 1962-63, Call became acquainted with the Rev. Ted McIlvenna of the Glide Urban Project who was doing outreach on the streets of the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. Call introduced McIlvenna to other gay and lesbian activists and helped inform him about the issues faced by homosexual persons. McIlvenna invited Call to participate in the historic consultation between religious leaders and gay/lesbian activists from May 31 to June 2, 1964, at a retreat center in Mill Valley, California. Call became one of the leaders of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) that was created out of this consultation. In this capacity, Call was one of the prime organizers of the Mardi Gras Ball on January 1, 1965, that turned the tide against police harrassment in San Francisco. Call also assisted CRH with printing and publications.
Call's writings published in The Mattachine Review in the mid-1960s reveal that, although he experienced his greatest successes with the society at that time, he also was beginning to see that organization fall apart. Call and the society were featured in a Life magazine spread and a CBS documentary The Homosexual hosted by Mike Wallace in 1964. Such extensive media coverage brought worldwide recognition but also countless requests for information and help. Simultaneously, new and more specialized organizations formed in San Francisco and started to take over some of the functions of the society as well as draw away monetary and volunteer resources. By the end of 1967, the society had moved from the offices it had occupied since 1954 into a space that was less of an office and counseling center and more of a sex shop and bookstore, and Donald Lucas, Call's business partner, moved on to other professional activities. It was around this time that the society really ceased to function as an activist, social service, and publishing organization.
The end of the society, however, did not mark the end of Call's career. In 1967, he founded the Adonis Bookstore in San Francisco, which preceded the opening of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in New York City amd thus was probably the nation's first gay bookstore. In the late 1960s, Call and his associates began presenting pornographic films privately to audiences and soon thereafter opened a public pornographic theater, the Circle J.
Call died on December 18, 2000, at the age of 83.
(This biographical statement taken largely from an article by Martin Meeker in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004--with additional information from historian James T. Sears.)
Biography Date: September, 2005
Council on Religion and the Homosexual | Gay Liberation Movement | New Year's Ball (San Francisco) | California | San Francisco | EXHIBIT Council on Religion and the Homosexual
“I met Hal in the mid-1980s at his club (The Circle J) when it was located on Ellis Street. I was in my 20's, and he appreciated my youth and other attributes I possessed. Hal was a very brusque man, but once he got to know you, he could be very kind and generous. He enjoyed travel, but preferred not to travel alone. He offered me a chance to join him on trips to San Diego, Yellowknife (Northwest Territories of Canada,) Vancouver, Australia and New Zealand. We enjoyed a good friendship until his death. I'm very grateful that I was able to count Hal as one of my friends.
– as remembered by William Pierson on July 10, 2018
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