George R Reilly and the first LGBTQ legal victory in US history

The Black Cat. Photo:

By Amy O’Hair

George R Reilly (1903–1985) was a powerful player in midcentury San Francisco politics who was born and grew up in Sunnyside, a member of one of the first families there. He was on the State Board of Equalization (BOE) for 44 years, the agency that regulated taxes and liquor licenses. The position gave him a lot of power in the state, and he used some of that power to sanction regular harassment of gay people in public places.

Image of George R Reilly from obituary in BoE Annual Report, June 1985. SF Public Library.

Under his chairmanship, the BOE targeted bars where gay people gathered, in order to revoke their liquor licenses. Reilly’s program of hate and harassment failed; the legacy he ended up leaving was his name on the important 1951 California Supreme Court case, Stoumen v Reilly, the first victory in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights.

The Black Cat (n.d.). San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

The case involved the famous Black Cat bar in North Beach. The owner, Sol Stoumen, took the BOE to court and fought for the right of his patrons to gather at his bar. The case weighed the basic human right to free association, regardless of sexual preference. The court ruled against the BOE. George R Reilly lost the suit, lost the right to use liquor-licensing to enforce harassment and deprivation of basic rights for LGBTQ people. It was an historic win—although harassment persisted for years after this for other reasons.

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