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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."