The notorious and mysterious Bohemian Grove retreat, tucked among the redwoods of western Sonoma County, has been contracting with the county for security services for the past 15 years. But if two county supervisors have their way, that may come to an end soon.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors now has a female majority, and two of those supervisors pushed back this week on an agenda item to approve a contract with the 147-year-old boys' club, citing its discriminatory membership. As the Press-Democrat reports, the objection was led by supervisors Shirlee Zane and Lynda Hopkins, with Hopkins asking, "How does this still exist in 2019?"
Bohemian Grove is the summer retreat of the San Francisco-based Bohemian Club — a fraternal organization originally founded in 1872 by Chronicle newsmen as a place for journalists and artists to hob nob. Over the years, the club took on a very different character as businessmen and politicians with greater financial resources were allowed to join, and ultimately they dominated the membership. Bohemian Grove, thus, took on the aura of world-controlling secret societies (à la the annual Bilderberg Meeting), and was met with protests in recent decades by activists who believed wars and conspiracies were hatched within the Grove's gates.
Those protests have faded, as the New York Times reported back in 2010, but the place remains shrouded in some level of intrigue. A prime example of its allure: One of Bohemian Grove's notorious infiltrators in recent years was Alex Jones, who produced a very low-quality documentary out of the footage he shot there for InfoWars back in 2000.
Jones captured some footage of a goofy ceremony performed as part of the annual three-week campout, called the Cremation of Care — members wear robes and burn a coffin, called the "Care," as an effigy in front of a 40-foot owl. As a spokesperson for the Bohemian Club told the Washington Post in 2011, the Cremation of Care is simply "a traditional musical drama celebrating nature and summertime."
Jones of course was obsessed with this as an occult ceremony, trying to tell a story about some weird occult strain binding world leaders. But in reality it's always just been a private men's club where the rich and powerful get to act like teenagers again, all with the air of century-plus-old ritual like the Masons. Known features of the three weekends in July: peeing behind trees, "lakeside chats" by notable figures, nudity, drunken debauchery, and a "what happens here stays here" code of honor.
But as Sonoma supervisor Shirlee Zane said this week, "We’re basically consenting to gender discrimination" by providing Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies to guard the gates of the Grove. "If they banned blacks, Jews or gays, wouldn’t there be an outcry?” Zane said, per the Chronicle. “Why is it still OK to discriminate against women?”
Zane and Hopkins successfully pushed off a decision on the contract to next week, saying that they need to reexamine the legality of the deal the county has with the club. The Chronicle reports that Zane said she may end up approving the contract after all, for this year, so that she doesn't deprive the Sheriff's department of the $150,000 in income that gets reimbursed by the Bohemian Club. But she says she hopes that the department can assign only female deputies to the detail in the hope that they get called onto the grounds of the retreat and can make things awkward for everyone.
The Grove last made headlines in 2016 when 600 current and former employees of the club — the waiters, cooks, bartenders, and bellmen who serve the elite guests — sued the club over unpaid wages, claiming they had been systematically over-worked and underpaid.
If this particular moment of pushback by Sonoma County supervisors doesn't amount to anything this year, expect this issue of gender discrimination to hover over this annual event for years to come. Institutions like Augusta National Golf Club, which resisted permitting women well into this century, but even they have relented. But then again, Augusta provides proper toilets.