It’s no secret today that Palm Springs has been one of the epicenters of the LGBTQ+ community for decades. But finding proof of that, and any mention that those who helped shape the city in its early days were part of that community, has been a tall task.
“The word LGBTQ, the word gay, it’s a silent history,” said Ron deHarte, president & CEO of Greater Palm Springs Pride, during the recent Talk of The Town event put on by ONE-PS. “And you have to really dig deep to find reference to somebody who is gay who made contributions to our community.”
Anyone visiting the city today might have reason to doubt deHarte. Pride flags are abundant, the Arenas District is often packed, and Mayor Christy Holstege recently proudly proclaimed that Palm Springs is “the gayest community in America.” Visitors flock not only to Pride, but other events catering to the LGBTQ+ population, including the International Bear Convergence, The Dinah, and The White Party.
It wasn’t always that way. Talk to anyone who has lived in the city for a few decades and they’ll tell you that while it was well-known members of the LGBTQ+ community would be welcomed in the city, it was equally well-known that hotels, nightclubs, and other businesses kept that fact hidden, or were forced to make it appear subtle, in promotional materials that appeared in mainstream publications.
“You would have to dig deep to find references to gay and lesbians to the early history of Palm Springs,” deHarte said.
If the recent success of one new organization — The LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert — is any indication, that history is about to emerge from the shadows. More than 1,000 people toured the organization’s inaugural display during this month’s Pride celebration, despite the fact it was somewhat tucked away in an auxiliary room of the Welwood Murray Memorial Library downtown.
Those who visited the library display could see historical artifacts in display cases and read about significant events in the history of the city’s LGBTQ+ community dating back decades on multiple panels.
David Gray, who co-founded The LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert, told those in attendance during the Talk of The Town event he was buoyed by the success of the event and the fact the organization raised $700 in donations during its weekend run, November 4 through 7. He said he was equally excited that momentum exists to expand the scope and presence of the display in the city and beyond.
While education of current generations is important, Gray said that his organization’s efforts would ultimately pay off for future residents.
“One of the things this organization is trying to do is to collect artifacts,” he said. “We want to make sure we are documenting everything with a source, so it’s not just sort of hearsay. That way, researchers in the future have a place they can go to to find the real history.”
For now, Gray said, The LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert is focusing on the basics. Donations will go toward building a website, purchasing archival appropriate storage boxes, and enhancing displays. There are no plans to place the collection on permanent display. Rather, he said, it will be designed to travel.
“We’re willing to let organizations borrow the panels,” Gray said, “but not the memorabilia.”
Something permanent is in the works, however, according to deHarte. He and others are leading a campaign to create an LGBTQ+ wall of honor and landmark monument, “someplace of significance in the city.”
“It’s something you would think Palm Springs would already have, but we don’t,” deHarte said, adding that he hopes to see it in place before the 40th anniversary of the city’s Pride celebration in 2026. “It really is meaningful when we look at how far Palm Springs has come and who helped us get there.”
Gray and deHarte agree that another meaningful gesture on permanent fixtures already in place in the city seems like a no-brainer. An estimated 25 percent of recipients of a plaque on the city’s Walk of Stars are members of the LGBTQ+ community but not identified as such on their stars. They hope to work with the Chamber of Commerce to affix that recognition on the plaques.
“If we don’t document the history, then there is no history for us to remember,” deHarte said. “And for those who come after us, how will they learn how we got to where we are today?”
How to help: Anyone interested in donating or helping The LGBTQ+ History & Archives of the Desert can reach out to the group via email at [email protected]. You can also follow the organization on Facebook. Interested in the future wall of honor? Email organizers at [email protected].