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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.