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LGBTQ Civil Rights Pioneer George Raya Looks Back On 50 Years Of Progress

Cody Drabble / Capital Public Radio

Insight guest host Randol White (left) and LGBT activist George Raya (right)

Cody Drabble / Capital Public Radio

Civil rights for Americans who identify as LGBTQ have evolved significantly since members of that community stood up to police raids at New York’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969. 

George Raya’s work as a lobbyist and activist starting in the 1970s gave him a front seat to history, and he played a role in several equality milestones in California. As a student at Sacramento State, he and his friends won a First Amendment challenge in 1971, declaring that the student association and college trustees had to recognize the Society for Homosexual Freedom. That lawsuit opened the door for LGBTQ student groups across the state.

“When we had our first organizational meeting, which was at professor's home, every time there was a knock on their door, we [looked] first because we didn't know if it was the police coming or if it was another person coming to attend the meeting,” Raya says. “ Because at that point it was illegal [to be openly LGBTQ].”

During his career as a lobbyist in Sacramento in the 1970s, he was instrumental in getting the state to decriminalize same-sex relationships. But in the early days of the movement, financial support was hard to find.

“When I started in 1974, I lived partly on blood plasma donations because there was no money [for LGBTQ lobbyists]. I looked at [an old] budget, I was getting 400 dollars a month 425 for expenses. Fortunately I had people here that I could live with,” he says.

In 1977, the National Gay Task Force (now called the National LGBTQ Task Force) became the first group of openly gay lobbyists invited to the White House to tackle policy issues that affected the LGBTQ community.  George was invited to be part of that group as a representative from northern California. Their efforts funded hepatitis research that laid the groundwork for studying the transmission of AIDS in the early 1980s.

George Raya’s time living in San Francisco put him on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, where he volunteered with a hospice organization. 

“It was like being in a war. So many of my friends died, I stopped putting people in my address book in ink. I put them in pencil because my address book had so many crossed out names. It was every week, every day. And I'm just so lucky I survived,” Raya says.

George Raya joined Randol White to share memories from his front row seat to LGBTQ civil rights history.

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