San Francisco is regularly recognized as one of the most visited cities in the world, and equally as often is dubbed the most European city in America. The Bay Area is laid-back, a proponent of a live-and-let-live ethos that has attracted a population with equal parts creativity and quirk.
It’s the fictional home of Marvel’s Mutants, the X-Men and Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
It’s also called the gayest city in the world, a veritable Capital of the Queers with some estimating that 30% of the population identifies as LGBT. The city, and the Bay Area as a whole, has welcomed the weary, the weird and the wacky for more than a century.
“Who wouldn’t come here?”
The first wave was during the Gold Rush of the late 1800s, when broke gold diggers traveled long distances arrived in San Francisco. They had no prospects – and no women. So they made do, and are said to be the ones who invented the Hanky Code to organize their newfound homo desires.
Post-World War II, soldiers of both genders -- who surely got a taste of same-sex forbidden delights -- descended on the city and began to carve a niche for themselves amidst the already-thriving gay scene. Then came a spread in Life magazine in 1964, maliciously declaring San Francisco the Gay Capital of the nation. While the tone was accusatory, and led to an outcry against the profligate homosexuals infesting California, it had one unintentional effect.
"Thousands of gay people poured into California now that they knew where to go,” explains Kathy Amendola, owner of Cruisin’ the Castro, about the meteoric rise of gay San Francisco in the 1960s. “And in 1967, the summer of love exploded in the Haight. At the time, CBS had a theory that a drug like LSD puts you on a higher level of consciousness. They thought that there were so many tens of thousands of people in one place at one time on such a high level of consciousness that it shifted energy.”
“San Francisco could not stop people from pouring in, from the gays to the hippies,” she continues. “San Francisco was supposed to be the utopia: free drugs, free food and free love. Who wouldn't come here?”
Why it's called “The Utopia”
San Francisco has always attracted dreamers and idealists, beatniks and counterculturists, those who think that a better world is possible. Thus the city has become a symbol of liberalism, a Mecca for many and for some a representation on everything that is wrong with America.
For me, San Francisco is more than just a cliché of drugged-out hippies, or even of handkerchiefed homos cruising the streets. It’s got an energy that you can savor, a magical serenity that makes molecules vibrate more vigorously. It’s exhilarating. San Francisco is freedom from judgment, a place where people are living their lives mindfully, yet without much regard to what people think.
“We recycle 77% of our garbage and food. We still have that sense of utopia,” Kathy, tells me without the slightest hint of new-age pretense. She, like most San Franciscans, is serious about her community’s shared values.
Which, in this traveler’s book, makes it pretty damn close to a Utopia. A place where anyone is welcomed, that resonates with the contribution of every person that has ever been there. It’s glorious.
“You gotta give ‘em hope”
Harvey Milk was known as the “Mayor of the Castro,” and is widely credited with bringing the gays to the Castro. He saw the Castro’s cheaper rent and better climate when he was living over the hill in Haight-Ashbury, and jumped at the chance to open a camera store right on Castro Street.
Today, the camera store sits empty awaiting the embattled move of the Human Rights Campaign store. In its window is an image of a group of people outside the Castro Theatre waving a flag that says “Gay Revolution.” Above, from the second floor where Milk used to live, is a mural of Harvey looking down on the street. On his chest is painted one of his most potent phrases: “You gotta give ‘em hope.”
Visiting the Castro is a must for every gay person. The Castro is unlike any other remaining gayborhood in contemporary society. It’s our Mecca, not just because there are a lot of gay people there, but also because its meaning is real, its history breathing, its impact widespread.
Milk first spoke out at the corner of Market and Castro right underneath where the Pride flag now billows. He stepped up on that box, and he shouted loud. He became the change, and brought the neighborhood – and the nation – with him.
Murals abound depict the decimation of the AIDS crisis, and how the city’s gay population rallied, protested, and fought incessantly to stem the tide of deaths.
The recent opening of the GLBT Historical Museum on 18th Street is a much-needed fulcrum of our collective queer identity. The handsome museum facilitates an understanding of our history as a group, and shows those younger folks like myself the oft-unbelievable realities of gay life in decades past.
As I stood in front of the picture of Leonard Maltovich on the cover of Time magazine in September 1978, I nearly cried. I had never heard of him, nor had I ever noticed the large plaque commemorating him on the corner of 18th and Castro. He was discharged from the military for being gay, saying: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
My visit to the museum was the day before DADT was repealed. I had no idea we had been fighting for this long.
“Telephone, telewire, or tell a queer”
The queer experience is central to the San Francisco experience, as it is the city’s acceptance – not just tolerance – of queer people of all kinds that really makes it unique. This is not the “diversity” of New York, rather a whole-hearted commitment to queering the world.
Standing outside Hotel Abri near Union Square, I hear the buzz of four different languages and it strikes me that there are so many microcosms in this city, neighborhoods so distinct they could be in different cities or even states. San Francisco, at its geographical core, is queer.
It’s not for everyone, but if you are one, you will know the second you set foot in the City by the Bay, take that first breath of cool, moist air, and look around. It will electrify you, and like your first true love, you will never be able to shake it.
San Francisco gets under your skin, into your blood and hooks you for life.