Dismembering Elliot Blackstone

Reflections on a Queer Community's Favorite Cop

“Homosexuals and police are dedicated antagonists.”
~LIFE Magazine, December 1971

“We love you Sergeant Blackstone, the gay’s cop.”
~Inscription on award for Sgt. Elliot Blackstone, SFPD

Cops throughout San Francisco’s history have had the freedom to be crooked. That is to say, they could and did accept money or sexual services in exchange for misprision, thereby becoming criminal themselves. In the Prohibition era, this meant cops pocketed money from bars serving anyone; in the late 1960s, this meant cops pocketed money from bars serving homosexuals, since it was now being homosexual, rather than being a bar, which was most pointedly criminal. For a cop to deal with gays in this extortionate manner was to be crooked twice – to be criminal, yes, but also to be meaningfully if slightly not straight, in the hippie sense, not on the straight and narrow, maintaining some underworld association, however rotten, with fruits. In rising out of this underworld, an act of gay civility, gay bar owners also publicized their abuse under this century-long system of police graft.1 To heal the damage of their exposure in the gay community (and therefore, for the first time, the community at large), SFPD assigned a public relations officer to the Central City2 area, a loosely designated ghetto3 concentrated about the Tenderloin with extensions out to living quarters in Polk Street and South of Market, the corner of Turk & Taylor west to Leavenworth where queens turned tricks, and gay bars which lined the Embarcadero. That officer was Elliot Blackstone.

Bird’s eye view of San Francisco in 1968, with the following annotations: purple marks the Embarcadero, where Elliot did a foot beat before reassignment to community relations; yellow marks Polk Street, home to many queers; blue marks the site of the Central Police Station, to be built next year; green marks Glide Memorial Church (mentioned later); white outlines the heart of the Tenderloin; orange represents the strolls frequented by street queens selling sex.

Within five years, Officer Elliot had so insinuated himself in regional queer life that the gay community actively protested his removal from Central City in 1974.4 After his retirement next year he continued to attend local drag shows, gay business functions, and activist meetings within the queer-supporting faction of his Presbyterian church, where he would pass around donation tins to crowdfund transsexual hormone therapy. “An effective policeman,” Elliot said, “is a social worker.” His labor did not entail arrests, but rather finding trans street workers new employment, securing them women’s bathroom access, and placing them in contact with estrogen providers. While other police had blocked resources for the queer community, Elliot controlled them – not all of them, of course, but an unhealthy portion. For this reason he became invaluable to women like me. A huge number of transsexuals passed through his hands, his little reminiscences of them often near all that remains: Louise Ergestrasse, with “hands the size of basketballs… but personality-wise, she was definitely female”; Terry Peoples, who “got into a heated argument with [her boyfriend] and stepped out of the car at about 20 or 30 miles an hour”; Anne Magnusson, who “had enough money to do [castration] and everything else and… just couldn’t go through her fear of pain.”5 Together with them and more, he organized Conversion Our Goal, the first known trans political organization in the nation, and the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first trans-specific counseling service. One of his many award plaques reads “Many Thanks, The Transsexual Community of San Francisco.” Another: “We love you Sergeant Blackstone, the gay’s cop.”

Those who gave Elliot such plaudits have mostly been the typically liberal blend of police professional and gay nonprofit interests, such as the Pride Foundation (Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshall) and California Credit Union League (Unsung Heroes Award). Their messaging on policework would seem to be that Elliot was a good cop, and one good apple freshens the barrel. Further along the gay and lesbian left, the kindest interpretation is of the sort offered by Devlyn Camp on his Mattachine Podcast: “He is proof that if our cities would defund police departments and put our money towards social services, citizens would be helped instead of brutalized.”6 But policing as social service, a conflation between mass incarceration and maintenance of transgender life, was precisely the function of Elliot’s career. His employment in a recently founded community relations unit was only possible by increased police funding through the Johnson administration’s war on crime. His commemoration on behalf of queers is, therefore, insidious.

President Lyndon Johnson and Co. had more generally fused their war on crime with their war on poverty, rerouting community grants and welfare through a newly created Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. Alongside increased arrests, this federal police expansionism turned cops into overseers of nearly every funded city program for “derelict youths” – an incredible category which exactly collapsed the street queen with the Black child. Thus the discipline of white gender (a real, physical, carceral discipline) endeavored to shape the African American in combination with the transsexual.7 In a 1968 KQED radio interview with four young Black men from the Hunters Point ghetto, one praises “officer Jeffrey, who is on the community relations unit,” as a policeman who “stopped trying to create police problems. He started to reach the problem before it became a police problem.” But another, named Kameel,8 is critical of even this: “Don’t make me a good citizen,” he says. “Let me be a good citizen.”

The next week this radio program on police violence, titled “Cops and Robbers,” returned for a full hour on transsexual street workers in San Francisco. As much as I would like to aptly quote the three trans women present for this interview – Sylvia, Judy, and Mandy9 – this is difficult because, unlike the Black men, their community relations officer is present. Sergeant Elliot Blackstone’s voice regulates transsexual grievance; he is loud and long in defining the plights and solutions for victims who were in the room to define it themselves, as trans women who actually had suffered police violence, had been incarcerated, had been gangraped in male prisons.10 Journalists writing shock pieces on transsexual San Franciscans came to Elliot for quotation before they came to transsexual San Franciscans.11 For five-odd years trans women in the Bay were made to belong to Elliot. “I used to cringe when he called us his girls,” remembered Suzy Cooke, a trans woman who worked as Elliot’s secretary in 1971, “It was all I could do to keep from going Valerie Solanis [sic] on people who called us Elliott’s [sic12] girls. I wasn’t Elliott’s possession.”13

Cops abusing street queens and peeling gratuities off gay bars were obviously damaging queers in their presence. Sergeant Blackstone, however, was most obviously damaging queers in his absence. For this we resent him. Pain felt in Elliot’s absence was a manufactured condition for trans street workers, in much the same way pain felt in male absence is a manufactured condition for women generally. The circularity of Elliot’s role as reformer – a policeman protecting trans civilians from policemen – explains the legitimacy of our resentment and absurdity of our need.

By expressing this contradiction within police “community relations,” I do not mean to minimize the seriousness of the threat such work posed to the racist and transphobic policing establishment. “They [my police department] hated me,” Elliot said. This is true. “They thought it was wrong for a policeman to associate with these faggots.”14 Bob Jeffreys, the police liaison with the Black community of Hunters Point, was first assigned off community relations by the high brass for publicly admitting he had witnessed police brutality there, then bullied by his coworkers into resigning the SFPD entirely. (Bob was Black.) Elliot15 was also ousted from the SFPD, on perhaps worse terms: an internal agent planted cocaine on his desk, arresting two of his trans female associates for intent to distribute. His career never recovered. Such oustings and soon closures of community relations units left minority communities stranded against a vastly expanded police force, with none of the social resources. Sergeant Blackstone had personally voted against building “more and better jails”; nonetheless, many historians locate this, the dissolution of Johnson’s war on poverty, as the beginning of mass incarceration in the United States.16

When I speak of Elliot Blackstone as a disciplinarian, and refer to his work – and, moreover, the entire modern prison system – as the discipline of white gender, I mean many things. Firstly, I mean that he had and desired to maintain power to discipline his subjects. To ensure this maintenance his solidarity was not, ultimately, with street queens, but with his police department. When San Francisco mayor George Christopher, one of the few men with power to discipline the disciplinarians, informed the SFPD in light of its recent scandals officers were “either blind or incompetent” and would now be “promoted on merit,” Elliot staged a walkout with his fellow officers.17 To his death he refused to name the coworker who planted cocaine on his desk, even as he named the trans woman who took the fall – Jan Maxwell – whom he did manage to transfer from a male to female prison. And it was, of course, a trans woman who took the fall.

Secondly, I mean that Elliot used his resources and powers of access to declare, or attempt to declare, the meaning of transsexuality for transsexuals.18 It was when speaking of disciplining transsexual women that his contempt for us became most evident. “Part of my job,” Elliot said in interview, “was to make [transsexuals] realize that what the doctor was doing was what they needed.” Here he puts on a whining, childish voice in imitation of trans women coming to him for aid: “They won’t give me what I want. I want hormones. I want surgery. They won’t give me surgery. They want me to be psychoanalyzed.” “[O]f all the sexual variants that I’ve ever dealt with,” Elliot judged, “[transsexuals] was probably the most selfish group.”

Thirdly, and here finally, I allude to the archaic English Protestant sense of “disciplinarian,” that Elliot was a religious Presbyterian wanting his work to adhere to church doctrine. When asked, late in life, why he had “worked so hard on behalf of LGBT rights,” Elliot responded “Because my religion teaches me to love everybody.”19 “I think of myself as an attempted practicing Christian,” he said. “I have certain responsibilities to my God and my Church.” San Francisco in the late ‘60s was developing hippie religion, nominally progressive ministry (“not a religious right,” as Elliot described himself) spearheaded by Reverend Broshears of Glide Memorial Methodist Church. A new night ministry there employed priests to walk the Tenderloin after dark, to the nines in their clerical collar, counseling hustlers and drag queens.

It is not typical these facts about Elliot Blackstone are assembled for the sake of criticism. When he is remembered – and he is remembered in the name of queerness more than any other cop – it is usually for praise, sometimes for measured undecidability, and occasionally, though not often enough, for disdain. I have tried to place such remembrance, the piecing together of memory, to the side of Elliot Blackstone, in favor of dismemberment. In this way we can examine each distinctive piece of him, or more particularly the effects of him, which directly and necessarily contradict one other. “I’m what I call an economic conservative and a people liberal,” Elliot said in retrospective of his life – a gibberish position that makes no sense, yet serves as the claimed politic today of San Francisco business barons, Silicon Valley saviorism, and the Californian ideology20 writ large. This kind of role conflict or contradiction, my friends remind me,21 was always a central contradiction in a Johnsonian American liberalism which seeks to expand welfare at home while committing atrocities abroad (in Vietnam), only to collapse upon itself in the form of neoconservative backlash. Sergeant Elliot Blackstone could no more create this role conflict than dismantle it, but he could have at least remarked upon it, with clarity and aggression, and expressed some self-aware resistance. He did not; we can.

1

This is (among others) the so-called “gayola” scandal of 1960, which has been fantastically dissected by Christopher Agee in his article “Gayola: Police professionalization and the politics of San Francisco's gay bars, 1950-1968” in Journal of the History of Sexuality (2006).

2

“Central City” is a name used by the San Francisco police for the heavily queer area surveilled by Central Station. It has no other meaning, except in the related sense that its aggregation as an area under police jurisdiction allowed the application of federal war on poverty funds for the region.

3

The use of the word “ghetto” for gay villages is somewhat controversial. I do think it is warranted here for street queens specifically, given the alarming frequency with which police and other forces pushed trans women into the Tenderloin. In interview between Susan Stryker and Suzy Cooke:

SC: …you could get marked as a drug dealer, marked as a prostitute. I sort of wound up being labeled a drug dealer. But I was also labeled as being out of my neighborhood by them.
SS: In the Haight?
SC: Yes.
SS: They told you what part of the city you should be living in based on what type of person they had you labeled as?
SC: Yes, that's right.
SS: And they said you should be living in the Tenderloin because of the kind of person you were?
SC: Yeah, I should have been living in the Tenderloin.
SS: Because you were a drug dealer or because you were a tranny ?
SC: Well, probably both…

4

See the article “Blackstone Out!” on the first page of Crusader: Voice of West Coast Gay Liberation, December 1974.

5

These quotations come from Susan Stryker’s significant interview with Elliot Blackstone. All quotations are from this source unless otherwise cited.

6

Devlyn offers this comment somewhat offhandedly in an introduction to the KQED radio interview with three transsexuals I cite later in the post. I am appreciative of their bringing this interview to my attention, as it incited this essay.

7

The former has been better studied, most famously through Black feminist critique of the Johnson-era Moynihan Report, titled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. Of women, bell hooks writes that “Moynihan suggested that the negative effects of racist oppression of black people could be eliminated if black females were more passive, subservient, and supportive of patriarchy.” Of men, Hortense Spillers writes that “Moynihan… argu[es] black males should dominate because that is the way the majority culture carries things out.” She then describes this repainting of Black family life in nuclear white through the language of a gender clinic: “Those persons living a perceived ‘matriarchal’ pattern are, therefore, caught in a state of social ‘pathology’.” A strong history of the Moynihan Report and its interpretations is Daniel Geary’s Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (2015).

8

I believe his name is Kameel. All that I recognized in the audio is a moment where he rapidly mentions his first name only. I could find no further evidence of identity for any of these four men. Kameel later expresses an affinity for communism.

9

I suspect Mandy to be Amanda Taylor. I have no clue who the other women are outside of the program. Both interviews are available through the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (1, 2).

10

Suzy Cooke is not present in interview here but states her rape in interview with Susan Stryker. The women present allude to it and name multiple short-term incarcerations.

11

A clear example of this is the March 6 1967 edition of San Francisco Chronicle, article “S.F.’s Transsexuals” on pg. 1 & 12.

12

There seems to be some serious silent contention across a number of sources for the number of t’s in Elliot’s name. I have picked one arbitrarily.

13

This quote is from Suzy’s rather humorous blog. Thanks to Zagria’s profile on Elliot Blackstone for bringing this blog to my attention.

14

This quote is from Wyatt Buchanan’s obituary of Elliot for SF Gate.

15

If not already clear, Elliot was a white cisheterosexual man. He describes in interview with Susan Stryker a single drunken hook-up with two other men just after he left the Navy (aged ~24) as his sole homosexual experience.

16

See for instance From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton (2017).

17

This information on Bob Jeffreys and Elliot is provided in Christopher Agee’s The Streets of San Francisco (2014), an excellent extension of his earlier essay on the Gayola scandal.

18

There is room for potential interpretation of the work of Susan Stryker on San Franciscan transsexuals (and the work of others: Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child, Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed) that the transsexual is an assimilative entity manufactured to replace the “street queen” for exactly the reason that transsexuality is defined by people like Elliot Blackstone. I do not follow this interpretation, but I understand it.

19

This quote is apparently from a post-screening interview he did for Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s documentary Screaming Queens. The quote itself is from a Comptons Cafeteria riot website, and the documentary itself is available online.

20

This is a reference to the classic essay The Californian Ideology by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron (1995). The first 8 of 10 sections are must-read.

21

Here this friend is Ignatz Maria, whose conversations with me have surely improved this essay immeasurably.