Our Queer Institutions Must Survive the Pandemic

Gay bars and drag clubs are far more than an endearing, San Francisco quirk — they are essential to the fabric of our city.

Some time ago, I got into an argument with the editor of a local magazine about the meaning of the term “safe space.” The editor, who described his newsroom as “depressingly straight,” had taken a coffee meeting with me in an effort to gay things up a bit. If you’ve ever met me, I believe you’ll agree, he was on the right track.

Anyhow, he was getting tripped up on the word “safe” — wondering why queer people would feel physically endangered in a bar outside of the Castro. This isn’t exactly what I meant, but the answer to his question is plain to anyone familiar with LGBTQ+ history: Our community has long been bullied, beaten, and peppered with homophobic slurs, and this is something I still experience in San Francisco today.

Safe space — to me — is a place we go to talk about douching and dick, to hold hands and kiss, and to otherwise feel comfort and support in a world that’s still often taken aback by how we express ourselves. For years, I’ve heard that Grindr and Scruff would destroy gay bars, that young people today no longer feel like going out, because they can arrange a hookup with just a few swipes. I think the pandemic has proven how wrong this theory was. Not only do we miss our bars — we need them.

“These bars and clubs are anchors for our community,” local LGBTQ rights activist Cleve Jones told me in a phone call. “They’re not just watering holes, they’re not just places for people to hang out and share beverages. They’re so much more than that.”

He agreed with me that gayborhoods like Castro and others around the country represent sacred spots where we can be ourselves.

“[But] if you believe that sentiment — that we can live anywhere or fit in anywhere — then I want some of what you’re smoking,” he says with a laugh. “Try acting that way when you’re out and about in the Marina.”

Jones’ overall outlook was more pessimistic than mine, but he says he was “heartened” to see the outpouring of support for recent venues. 

Those bars include Aunt Charlie’s (133 Turk St.), SF Oasis (298 11th St.), and Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.), which are all safe spaces. While some other LGBTQ+ haunts have sadly shuttered over the course of this year, I believe these three survived because of their cultural significance.

Aunt Charlie’s is the last queer bar in the Tenderloin. Opened in 1987, it is a windowless dive with a no cell phone policy, which as one description put it, recreates “a time when gay clubs were underground, seedy, sleazy, and something very special.” SF Oasis has only been with us since 2015. However, in that time, it has quickly established itself as a SoMa stronghold for the city’s queer community and drag scene. And Twin Peaks Tavern, which opened in 1972, is famously believed to be the first LGBTQ bar in the country to have windows that let the public see inside. Through separate efforts, these bars have raised more than $550,000 to stave off closures they each faced over the course of the past year.

With St. Patrick’s Day fresh in the rear view mirror, I have been thinking about the Irish coffees Twin Peaks Tavern serves. The cocktail has its own significance to San Francisco: Travel writer Stanton Delaplane claimed that he introduced it to America for the first time. The story goes that after encountering the libation at the Shannon Airport in Ireland in 1952, he asked for one at the Buena Vista Cafe (2765 Hyde St.)

Twin Peaks Tavern was founded as an Irish pub in the Castro neighborhood in 1935. It became an LGBTQ+ space in 1972 after lesbians Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster bought the place. It was then that the shutters came off the windows. “The girls,” as they were called, continued to serve the boozy coffee concoction as an homage to the neighborhood’s Irish-Catholic roots.

Ownership changed again in 2003, with Jeff Green and George Roehm — longtime bartenders and friends of the girls — taking the reins. The Irish coffee remained. I’ve tried it many times since moving to San Francisco in 2010. It is occasionally sweet and often strong— an apt descriptor for my many experiences in the neighborhood, and my general demeanor lately.

I caught up briefly this week with Twin Peaks Tavern bar lead Speros Mykons about some of these tidbits and others. He says the bar might have been in less danger of closing than reported, but it’s still been a struggle to stay afloat — Twin Peaks had to pay rent even in its closed months — and the money went a long way to keeping things running.

Mykons and Twin Peaks Tavern created two GoFundMe campaigns in April 2020 to raise money for bar staff and operating costs, respectively. One was hosted by Mykons, and it raised nearly $19,000 through 107 donations to gaps in wages and tips. The other campaign by Twin Peaks Tavern received considerable fanfare and news coverage this winter. It drew in 1,300 backers who pledged more than $110,000 to save the bar.  

“We’re very limited,” Mykonos says, even with the infusion of cash. “The owners are barely taking a profit.” He adds that staff is at about half of what it usually is and notes that Twin Peaks Tavern can’t build out a parklet — the street space surrounding it is not accessible for one — which has limited their operation hours to one shift in the daytime, from the afternoon to early evening.

Mykons says the communal support has improved since the beginning of the pandemic last year.

“At first, all I heard about was restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. Well, what the fuck? We don’t hear about bars? I was really upset with it, and it takes a lot to get me pissed off,” he says. “Part of it was that everybody was for themselves. Everyone was so scared of losing their businesses, and all that. I was just blown away.”

During our conversation, Mykons touched on historical moments of crisis in the community — including the AIDS epidemic and the fight for marriage equality — as examples of how we helped each other. Eventually, we got there during coronavirus, he notes.

“There was a divide. But then once we started reopening, I started feeling everyone come together,” he says, adopting a tone of optimism I’ve begun noticing recently. “Let’s just say next Christmas, when we’ll be way back inside, it’s going to be gangbusters. I predict that for at least a couple years  …it’s going to be a shitshow, in the best way.”

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