Robert Berner was waiting in line for movie tickets on Market Street when he noticed an attractive young man staring at him. They locked eyes, but it was too dangerous to speak. Berner had only just arrived in San Francisco, but this was the late 1950s. He had been warned that police didn't take kindly to males loitering in the streets.
"We wanted to get to know each other, so we started walking together, and it just happened to be in the direction of his house," Berner remembered. "We picked up some beer and ice cream on the way."When Berner starting dating his late partner of 55 years, William Heintz, there were few public places they could safely go together. They took long drives, exploring Napa Valley and Sonoma when it was still countryside, an area they ultimately settled in.
"The elephant was his totem animal," Berner explained, "and here I am, devastated, surrounded by all of his things. He became the elephant in my room, so I saw to his wishes soon after he passed away in February."
Heintz was a well-known journalist in the Bay Area who authored many books, and he was regarded as a preeminent wine historian. His personal achievements, however, make up a small portion of the donation.
"The initial connection had to do with San Francisco history, but there are rich layers that connect Berner and Heintz to the burgeoning LGBT movement of the 1960s, the tremendously fertile poetry and music scene, the calligraphy circle of San Francisco, and the history of wine-making," remarked Tim Wilson, the librarian processing the archives at the Gay and Lesbian Center.
They set out to create a community which accepted them. The Society for Individual Rights (SIR) was formed in 1964, and marked the first time large numbers of gay men and women in San Francisco openly participated in a political entity.
"It wasn't all the sadness and bitterness you find in the books," Berner points out. SIR encouraged its members to focus on more than their sexuality, so while there were successful campaigns and fundraising activities, there were classes offered on calligraphy, along with bridge clubs and bowling leagues."There were big dances with tables that ran 30 feet long, with people of all sorts gathered around it," Berner said. He was overcome with emotion as he recalled how special and free these nights felt, when he was able to hold Heintz's hand in public.
"We had so much fun. We'd still be having fun if Bill was here."
The San Francisco History Center is located on the sixth floor of the San Francisco Public Street, 100 Larkin (at Grove). It is open to the public Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday, 12 p.m.-6 p.m., Sunday, 10 p.m.-6 p.m.and Sunday, 12 p.m.-5 p.m.