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Queer Flight: Does the Success of Gay Rights Mean the End of Gay Culture? 

Wednesday, Jun 4 2014
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When Lary Abramson moved to San Francisco from Detroit in July 1960, police raids on gay bars were commonplace. Nightlife existed at the decree of morals cops who could be bought off, and patrons of gay establishments who didn't play along risked serious personal consequences. "The cops would usually come around midnight, so they'd turn on the lights and say, 'No dancing!'" Abramson says.

One defiant bar was the Tay-Bush, so named because it stood at the corner of Taylor and Bush. "It was raided," Abramson says, "and that was the raid where everybody's name got published in the paper. People lost their jobs. That's what led to the Tavern Guild," an organization of gay bar owners that was instrumental in the political awakening of LGBT San Francisco.

Almost 50 years later, the idea of "No Dancing" has taken on another meaning. The Deco Lounge, Esta Noche, KOK Bar, Marlena's, and others have closed their doors in the last few years. There's even an annotated Lost Gay Bars of San Francisco Google map. But the disappearance of gay bars is a widespread phenomenon. New York has lost several established bars in the past year; at the opposite end of the spectrum, Amarillo has shed two of its three (Whiskers and Sassy's). For every city in between, a cursory glance at Yelp reveals a similar pattern.

The 2009 raid on the Dallas Eagle notwithstanding, these closures aren't stemming from a renewed wave of vice squad crackdowns, but a fundamental shift in gay culture. Greater acceptance of same-sex love, positive representations of LGBT characters in the media, and the ever-increasing number of openly gay people leading an ordinary existence have meant that LGBT Americans now have less reliance on the bars, clubs, and other places that served as hubs for the counterculture. There's no longer the same need for exclusively gay spaces in gay neighborhoods in gay-friendly cities.

What was once clandestine and illegal is now almost mainstream. Pushing this change is same-sex marriage, which came to California twice, but now benefits from majority support: The Public Religion Research Institute published a report in February noting that 59 percent of Californians support marriage equality. If a Prop. 8 redux were to come before the electorate, it likely wouldn't pass.

Beyond California, in May alone, same-sex marriage — or at least court orders to recognize same-sex marriages even if a state isn't yet obliged to perform them — has been visited upon purple states such as Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and even infrared Utah. (The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to rule on that one, but the state must recognize marriages already performed.) There are of course many other thorny issues — employment and housing discrimination, violence, bullying, substance abuse, suicide — but the trends are clear. America is getting more inclusive. Consequently, there is less of an impetus than ever for LGBT people, particularly younger gay men, to flee their conservative hometowns in conservative states and, as Dan Savage once put it, skip toward Gomorrah.

So the gay experience in San Francisco is at a crossroads. Gay people are more "normal" here than arguably anywhere in else in America, but the institutions and spaces they've built in the last half-century or more are in a precarious position.

"It's hard to quantify, but it's there anecdotally," says Supervisor David Campos. "There is something real to the anxiety." The LGBT community faces threats of assimilation, displacement due to the explosive cost of living, and atomization in the face of handheld sex — all of them national trends, to be sure, but felt most acutely here. Gay rights and gay culture exist in tension, with the success of the former foreclosing in no small way upon the need for the latter. A culture premised on outsider status, on the lust for the forbidden, and rooted in peripheral neighborhoods, may not be able to survive fully intact when the forbidden becomes permissible and the periphery becomes the center. San Francisco is experiencing queer flight.

It feels condescending and fatalistic, if not simply rude, to say that Folsom Street is dead and that gay bars are dying. Sure, in absolute numbers, the number of gay bars citywide is a fraction of what it was at its peak. Since memories fade, raids and sudden closures were frequent, and the line between "gay bar" and "straight bar" has always been less than absolute, an accurate count is probably impossible, but 30 years ago, the number was in the dozens. And South of Market's "decline" is relative, as the lack of elbow room at any Sunday afternoon beer bust will tell you. The drag scene at the Stud is bursting with queens, particularly at "Some Thing" on Fridays. Leather Pride flags still adorn Market Street for the entirety of September, and in the Castro, although LGBT bookstore A Different Light shuttered, Trigger became Beaux, and Lime became Hi-Tops. The Eagle's abrupt 2011 closure came undone when it reopened last summer, and people still get as drunk there as ever. The owners didn't even rip out the infamous trough urinal.

Restroom continuity or not, change is happening elsewhere. In 2013, a former old-school leather bar on Folsom called KOK — previously Chaps II, My Place, and Ramrod — became a cocktail bar called Driftwood. It's a kitschily decorated venue whose owner Chris Milstead describes it, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as "straight-friendly." Successful or not, an upscale spot with good lighting and $10 drinks that replaced a dank dungeon is going to ruffle feathers. Driftwood is, you might say, a "post-gay" bar, and it's not the only one.

Brass Tacks, which replaced the inimitable Marlena's in Hayes Valley, and Virgil's Sea Room (which took over straight dive Nap's III) are similar, in that they're either gay-owned, plurality-gay, or cater to a mixed crowd looking for a curated jukebox, campy décor, and non-exclusivity as the prevailing vibe. In this, they're following the lead of Wild Side West, the lesbian aerie in Bernal Heights that is one of only two watering holes for women-loving-women left in San Francisco, but that has welcomed all types for years. (The Lexington Club is unambiguously a lesbian bar.) Do post-gay bars arise because the business model of a gay bar is increasingly infeasible, or because the idea of a "gay bar for everyone" is now possible like never before?

Tom Temprano, aka DJ Carnita, is part-owner of Virgil's (as well as co-president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club) and leans toward the latter. "We set out to be first and foremost a neighborhood bar that reflected what is happening in that part of the Mission: a lovely coexistence between the queer community and different facets of the straight community," he says.

Of course, this isn't because the world has grown more altruistic; it's because gay people are something of a coveted marketing demographic.

"If it wasn't for Madison Avenue smelling potential in our pink dollars, we wouldn't be so accepted by the mainstream," says DJ Bus Station John, who semi-jokingly refers to himself as San Francisco's "Godfather of Bathhouse Disco." Reluctant to divulge his real name, he's been a nightlife fixture for years at bars such as Aunt Charlie's and the Eagle, spinning deep cuts from before many of his fans were born. "Obviously something good's come of that, even though it's gross and cynical, but I really don't think that making life better for gay people was the goal in the beginning," he says. "They just saw lots of single men with supposedly disposable dollars to exploit, and it inadvertently turned into something better."

It does come at a cost, though. Young LGBT Americans are losing that connection to an outsider history backed by disco and hi-NRG. This is where Bus Station John sees his purpose: spinning records to keep the demimonde vital, thrilling, and slightly lurid. "My mission is a combination of two things: taking the survivors who made it through a plague on a trip down memory lane where we can enjoy the soundtrack of our youth, and then turning younger guys onto this great music who might otherwise never have known about it — whether or not they have the wherewithal to know that they even have a gay heritage, given how mainstream gay people are becoming," he says.

The ever-straighter, ever-wealthier, ever-whiter Mission is a good place to see this shift from the fringes to the mainstream. As artist, lesbian, and longtime Missionite Erin O'Neill remembers, there used to be "a number of seven-day-a-week clubs that were dyke-only. In 1984, the place to be was Valencia Street — just like now. 'Lesbianville,' it was sometimes referred to. As a young dyke I could spot the lesbians, dykes, and bi-girls, and there were a lot! I could still go to the fancy Clementina's or the raunchy Amelia's. ... Plus the pop-up clubs were super-fun: Klubstitute, Faster Pussycat, Female Trouble, Club Uranus, the Box. Now we're in this barren cultural zone. ... I feel like one of the last dykes standing."

Going further back, one hits upon the Bad Old Days, the bottommost layer of sediment beneath the foundation of every existing LGBT institution. This was gay life at the fringes. Lifelong San Franciscan and still-active drag queen Herman Nieves, 78, remembers getting arrested four times before the SFPD abandoned raids for good. (That happened in the wake of the 1979 White Night riots, when the gay community responded destructively to the lenient sentence given to former Supervisor Dan White for the assassinations of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.)

"They thought I was hustling because I was wearing tight pants, on Third and Market," Nieves says. "When we weren't legal, it was more fun. You were out doing something you weren't supposed to be doing, and you had to carry a sign on you saying, 'I'm a boy, I'm a man.' You had to have one piece of men's clothing on, so we used to roll socks and put them in our breasts. With rice."

For Nieves in the mid-1960s, the epicenter of gay nightlife was neither the Castro nor the Polk, it was the Tenderloin — and to some extent, even the Embarcadero, when the elevated freeway was still new. "Jack's Waterfront was the first gay bar I ever went to. It wasn't sailors, it was just fun. Edith Piaf was big in there, and a friend of mine painted all these can-can girls." As Betty White is to television, there since the very dawn of it, Nieves — who performed under the name "Herman" — is to San Francisco drag culture.

"The first Pride was in South of Market, and I was in it. We got eggs, stuff like that, thrown at us. I was sitting in the back of a Cadillac convertible in drag." Does he like Pride better these days, in all its egg-lessness? "No, it [is now] all of a sudden political. ... Put it back into a Mardi Gras-type thing. More fun, less politics. Young people are there to dance and have a good time."

Nieves thinks that the good times ended with AIDS. Bus Station John seconds that, considering the years between Stonewall and AIDS — 1969-1981 — to be the Golden Age. Indeed, those good/bad old days burn with an intense allure (particularly with the comforting hindsight that not every last gay person was condemned to die of AIDS or be shot by some right-wing paramilitary group): When William Friedkin's film Cruising came out in 1980, LGBT activists protested it en masse as a lurid faux-exposé that threatened to undo a decade of social progress. Now, the film is a cult hit.

Lary Abramson was a founding member of the Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights (BAPHR), the organization that in the early 1980s laid out the initial list of prevention methods for HIV and was instrumental in getting the federal government to recognize the epidemic. He sees the present era as a "denouement of gay people" in contrast to the lost paradise of the immediate pre-AIDS years: "In the late '70s, all hell broke loose. Sex was everywhere, Jesus! The big thing was after-hours parties. That all went away with AIDS."

Abramson fought the scourge from the very beginning, but believes that without the disease, the advances in gay rights simply would never have happened.

"In my belief, it was AIDS that made the problems for gays in general appear in the national and international news. We all said, 'If gays all had a "G" on their forehead and everybody realized who they were, there would be acceptance,'" he says. "You couldn't hide getting AIDS. And everybody discovered Uncle So-and-So and realized they were being discriminated against, and gradually the acceptance happened all over the country, in a period of about 10 years. People discovered that it wasn't just your hairdresser that was gay; it was your doctor, your lawyer, the contractor, the guys working on the streets."

With this acceptance began the slow mainstreaming of gay culture, a process now evident in film, professional sports, and television. Paradoxically, mainstream acceptance seems to have heightened interest in more deviant subcultures among some gays, especially men. The resurgence of San Francisco's drag culture and the city's BDSM/leather scene suggests that marginal communities can flourish even as gay culture is incorporated into mainstream American life. So while some queers lead lives increasingly indistinguishable from their straight neighbors, others grow queerer still.

Erik Will, chairman of the San Francisco Leatherman's Discussion Group, an educational nonprofit for the BDSM/leather community, believes this resurgence to be undeniable. Forums for "kinkier modes of play are huge now. The scene is much bigger than it was before. You can argue whether or not the Internet has been good or bad, but it's definitely made it more accessible," he says. As recently as three years ago, the group was "on life support. Most of the people in the room were on the steering committee. Now, even heavy-duty piercing stuff gets a huge turnout." This has prompted the group to seek larger venues as, on one occasion, an over-capacity crowd caught the attention of fire marshal.

Meeting like-minded sexual partners this way, or through fetish-oriented sites such as Recon, might not be quite as sexy and dangerous as memorizing the hanky code, but it sure is easier. In a sense, "decline" means only that what was once rare is now more common. It's the sense of living apart, of being different, that is fading, and that upsets people who saw beautiful things grow out of it.

Of course, the most salient issue in the survival of S.F. queer culture today isn't the rise and fall of kinks. It's the cost of living. More ink has been spilled on the subject of gentrification and its predilection for fancy toast than just about any other topic in 2010s San Francisco, but the facts do contradict the stereotype of the affluent gay.

Genrification "has impacted the LGBT community disproportionately," says Campos. "There are more evictions in the Castro than anywhere else, and it's second in the number of Ellis Act evictions after the Mission." (The 94114 ZIP code, according to the Board of Supervisors' legislative report, has a higher-than-average number of rent-controlled units, and also has seen a higher-than-average increase in property values.) "What I keep hearing from LGBT people that I speak to is that many of them, and their friends, have been pushed out. What I find is that there's a sentiment that 'We are losing this community that took so long for us to build.' A lot of the older gay men who came to the Castro in the '70s are one eviction away from being pushed out of San Francisco. There are gay men who survived the AIDS crisis, but who are not able to survive this affordability crisis."

Temprano believes that neighborhoods and institutions are being devitalized as well: "It's not like people haven't moved to New York and L.A. before. But it's the exodus of people who are doing amazing things in San Francisco but feel that they have to leave," he says. "Imagine if [drag performers] Heklina, Juanita More, and Peaches Christ felt that S.F. wasn't the place for them. ... Not coming in the first place is a different, almost sadder question. Oakland's a BART ride away, but damn, doesn't it suck to have those people not living with us here and having to commute in to create culture? San Francisco shouldn't give up hope on being San Francisco."

While it's subject to the same macroeconomic forces, the East Bay is luring away many queers. Artist Mike Ojeda jumped across the bay because "so much maneuvering was required in order to enjoy the simple things. The magic of walking in a neighborhood, or going to a park to explore, seemed to always be overshadowed by an influx of douchebaggery. San Francisco became super-straight, and the weirdoes I was so excited to see when I first moved there were gone. I made the decision to land in East Oakland, and often wonder why I hadn't done it sooner." There is also an exodus to Los Angeles and Chicago — a huge, cosmopolitan city that is cheap compared to San Francisco. (It's 28 percent cheaper, according to The New York Times, which is partly why Ojeda has since moved there.)

But gentrification is not a Bay Area-specific problem. Cities with historically large LGBT populations are increasingly the most sought after. Places like Seattle, Austin, Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have seen dramatic population growth since 2000, in most cases after 50 years of stagnation or decline. More Americans want to live in cool cities than ever, but gay people would seem to need those cities and their gay ghettoes less and less.

While the bursting of the tech bubble and any subsequent real estate collapse would neither instantly undo everything nor transpire without creating major problems of its own, it might propel San Francisco in unforeseeable directions. Since the city's future seems to be one of ever-escalating wealth — the U.S. population increases by three million people a year, and there are still only so many pretty Victorians to compete over — it's possible that LGBT San Francisco may ossify into a heritage tourist destination first, and a place to live in second. That is, unless one is extremely wealthy.

Christopher Kingery, technology program manager at Airbnb — and a regular Airbnb host — sees the risk, and strives for stability in a neighborhood in flux. While short-term rentals have been associated with displacements and housing scarcity, Kingery remains in his home while hosting guests, and shepherds them around. "If you look on almost every corner, there's a high-rise that's going up," he says. "And they're not cheap. They're creating all this inventory, and it's creating an influx of people. I don't know who those people are going to be — but more than likely: straight, techy-y guys and gals. I think that'll change the face of the Castro a little bit, but they'll live here.

Still, Kingery is concerned about what the future might look like. "I don't want the culture to be consumed by this gentrification of the neighborhood, and I think that's what's happening," he says. "Folsom Street Fair used to be wild, and now people are pushing kids in strollers."

As the Haight is something of a museum of past Haight-ness, so too might the Castro and SoMa become places where LGBT people BART in for the Frameline film festival or Pink Saturday, or fly in for the Folsom Street Fair, before returning to wherever they make their homes, much like Catholics who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.

Abramson, the early AIDS doctor and a 50-year Castro resident, feels the parallel acutely: "It already started," he says. The rainbow crosswalk stripes, sidewalk widening, and Gay Walk of Fame are "to attract tourists. They're making it a draw. It's always been a draw for gay people, but they want all of the tourists to come in here."

But while Abramson is no fan of condos per se, he doesn't see the immediate neighborhood's gay character under assault. In his experience, the Castro "has always been about 50 percent gay. I know all my neighbors. They know I'm gay. There's lots of straights on my particular block. It's cute." San Francisco might become a giant B&B, a Palm Springs or Provincetown writ large. Or maybe even that's too optimistic. As Bus Station John laments, "Go to Polk Street now, on a weekend night. It's one of the cradles of gay San Francisco and it's as if it never existed."

Yet every large-scale cultural trend contains at least a nugget of its opposite. Same-sex marriage might turn out to be something of a boomlet, as the rush of seeing couples who've been together for 50 years marry wears off, and gay Millennials (and whatever generation comes after them) fall back into phase with the wider discontent with traditional institutions. Heterosexual marriage rates, except among the highly affluent, are falling, and once it becomes commonplace, gay marriage may follow.

As political homophobia falls away — and with more than 80 percent of Americans under 30 supporting marriage equality and gay adoption, there is evidence it will — new generations of gays might not be so inclined to follow the marriage script. And not everyone who lived through the bad old days is rushing to wed, either.

Abramson is somewhat dismissive of same-sex nuptials. "The only reason I can think of for gays to get married is tax purposes," he says. Monogamy is hardly the only path, either. Will is openly polyamorous — openly as in "out and proud," as well as "in an open poly relationship" — and Kingery has hosted "throuples" through Airbnb. Same-sex marriage might become normal without becoming the only norm.

Nearer-term, housing displacements might be approaching a high-water mark. Supervisor Campos' bill requiring landlords who evict tenants under the Ellis Act to pay the equivalent of two years of comparable rent became law on June 1, and State Sen. Mark Leno is pushing a bill that prohibits new landlords from Ellis Act-ing tenants until they've owned a building for five years.

For his part, Campos is optimistic. "I think there's a silver lining to how bad things have gotten, that it has pushed people to get involved in the issue of housing and affordability," he says. "It's not the typical activists — it's actually regular people. And that's when change happens."

For all the talk about the revolutionary potential of the late 1970s, it's easy to forget that Harvey Milk launched his political career on perhaps the most middlebrow issue of all: dog poop. Forty years on, the energy of LGBT activism is now shifting from gay marriage to trans rights. On housing rights and combating violence, there is still much work to do — but less and less need for windowless bars in which to get it done.

The political victories of gay culture have led to the decline of the institutions built to win the battles. To be equal does not mean you have to be the same, but having become equal, there is less need to be different. The Good/Bad Old Days are gone, but the Castro, like San Francisco, is still alive — and after all this time, it's still full of dog poop.

About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Bio:
Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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