When Harry Dodge moved to San Francisco in 1985, he was what you might call a typical Midwestern transplant: Nineteen years old, footloose, gay, and ready for a change — a biological woman who would eventually take testosterone, grow a goatee, and characterize himself with "he" pronouns. He was, at that time, prone to fantasies about opening "an anarchist performance space with wrestling mats."
"There was something in me that always identified with San Francisco," Dodge says, decades later. "It had this sheen of being a gay mecca. That was sublimated for me, at that point, but clearly the things were intertwined."
Dodge found a one-bedroom apartment at 21st and Valencia streets for $275 a month, a deal forged with a wizened landlord who hadn't fixed anything in a long time. He began consorting with the bike messenger and punk crowds, dabbling in classes at San Francisco State University (where tuition was $286.50 a semester) and City College (where tuition was considerably lower, he says), and flitting through the city's seven or eight lesbian bars, which all seemed to have female names with a possessive apostrophe ("Amelia's," "Clementina's").
He also entertained ideas of opening his own venue, which at that time didn't seem like a pipe dream. The Mission harbored a fervent lesbian bohemia (including many women who, like Dodge, would later describe themselves as "gender-queer" or "gender-fluid"), and several of Dodge's friends had already launched their own bootstrap enterprises. Rents were cheap, and empty storefronts were there for the taking.
One such building, a rundown, turquoise-and-black tiled shell at 14th and Guerrero, caught Dodge's eye. He'd already teamed up with Silas Howard, bass player for the lesbian punk band Tribe 8, to launch a roving open mic called the Whiptail Lizard Lounge; once they set eyes on the 14th Street storefront, the two scrounged up $1500 for the security deposit, and hoped for the best. "We were rigid with panic, signing the lease," Dodge recalls. "We were already out of money."
Friends came in to paint the walls and scrape debris off the floor. A plumber acquaintance smoothed dirt all over the drains to make them look old, so that a health inspector would grandfather the place without imposing new regulations. An electrician friend rigged the wiring so that it bypassed the PG&E meter — allowing Dodge and Howard to pirate their electricity for the next seven years. They scrounged up enough money for a toaster oven and began serving beans and rice and black coffee. They hosted puppet shows, spoken-word nights, piano performances by the drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb (who now tour Broadway, but were then a Mission District fixture). They christened the place Red Dora's Bearded Lady.
"I went there every single day," spoken word poet and author Michelle Tea remembers. "Everyone was always on the back patio smoking pot and drinking coffee. ... At night they'd change the lighting and people would sit on the counter and do performance."
Twenty years later, the Bearded Lady is long gone, as is the Mission District lesbian neighborhood that helped birth it. Dodge and Howard moved to New York and Los Angeles, respectively, to pursue artistic careers; their friends dispersed throughout the country. The storefront at 485 14th St. is still gay-owned, and still has turquoise tile on its facade — but it now houses an architecture firm.
This type of exodus is typical of what's happening in San Francisco now. Rents are ballooning, competition is fierce, the creative class can't afford to live here anymore. But it's also illustrative of a migratory pattern that's become ubiquitous. All over the country, lesbian districts are evaporating, even as their gay counterparts — places like the Castro, West Hollywood near L.A., Chelsea in New York, and D.C.'s Dupont Circle — are becoming more affluent, and staying close to the city center. The reasons for this are many, and open to conjecture, but the trend is undeniable.
San Francisco's lesbian enclave has shifted four times in the last 30 years, from Valencia Street to Noe Valley to Bernal Heights, and now, to Oakland, moving around in response to or anticipation of the next economic upheaval. They comprised a solid cultural vanguard in San Francisco during the '80s and '90s; then they set up shop in Oakland before it became a place to pay attention to.
Perhaps that shows how a pioneering spirit can save a vulnerable population. After all, many of the city's once-prevalent subcultures — Burners, bikers, artists, and even gay men — are doing the same thing. So are the African-American families who used to populate the Fillmore and Bayview neighborhoods, Latinos who once prospered in the Mission, and scores of middle-class couples who want to raise children.
But it's also unsettling, as San Francisco prepares for its 44th annual Pride celebration. Rainbow flags still billow along Market Street, Pride banners flap in store windows downtown. But a broad swath of the population they represent has slowly disappeared.
It's long been conventional wisdom that, once a population is priced out of San Francisco, its members flee either south — to San Mateo, Daly City, and Burlingame — or east, to Berkeley and Oakland. And lesbians have chosen the latter route. A well-trod statistic, extrapolated from 2010 census data, posits that Oakland now has more same-sex female couples per capita than any other city on the West Coast, save for Guerneville. Crunching numbers for the S.F.-based online real estate site Trulia, economist Jed Kolko ranked Guerneville the sixth most "lesbian-friendly" ZIP code in the U.S., and Oakland's Redwood Heights neighborhood the eighth. California Health Interview data shows that women comprised 72 percent of Alameda County's gay population in 2012 — up from 51 percent in 2003. In San Francisco, their ranks were comparatively low: Women represented 26 percent of the city's gay population in 2003, and 24 percent in 2012.
Yet, if women are fleeing to the suburbs, their gay male counterparts are flocking to San Francisco's most desirable and costly neighborhoods. The Castro District is still America's No. 1 hub for gay men, according to Kolko's 2012 Trulia study, even though it's become prohibitively expensive. Rental rates for a one-bedroom apartment start around $3,000 a month; the block that harbored Harvey Milk's famously funky camera store in the 1970s now bears an oyster bar, a spa, and several clothing boutiques. Certainly, some gays are getting pushed out, but others are coming in to replace them. Even if the Castro becomes a touristy "museum" of gayness (as Peter Kane suggested in a previous story for SF Weekly), it will still be emphatically gay. The same can't be said of the Mission.