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.
According to Gary J. Gates, a Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute in UCLA, that's part of a national trend. Gay men's neighborhoods that sprouted from the margins of society are transforming into wealthy, gentrified retail corridors; meanwhile, lesbian districts are getting diluted by the onslaught of new money.
There are reasons these changes are occurring, and there are reasons they all hew to the same pattern. Civil rights gains of recent decades have ramped up the earning potential of gay men, yet they haven't healed the gender divide. Census data from 2012 revealed that full-time women workers still make 77 percent the median salary of full-time male workers — meaning that, on balance, two-woman couples probably earn less than two-man or man-woman couples. Yet cultural priorities also have a hand: Lesbians, like straight women, may face interruptions in their career if they decide to have kids. And they may feel compelled to settle in areas where child-rearing is more feasible.
Whatever the circumstances, the outcome is clear: Gay men still have iron-clad districts, lesbians do not. Men still flock to the nation's urban centers because they can afford to do so; women get shunted out, or voluntarily move, to suburbs, bedroom communities, or rural, outlying areas. Historically, lesbians in the D.C. area moved out to Takoma Park, while their New York counterparts moved to Park Slope, in Brooklyn. In the Bay Area, they've hunkered down in Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz — and, more recently, in Oakland and Berkeley. “Lesbian enclaves tend to be more suburban, and more child-friendly,” Gates says. Increasingly, he adds, they're not in the center of the city.
And increasingly, they no longer qualify as “enclaves.” After all, it takes people to make a district; when the old residents leave, there's no longer a “district” to attract new ones.
In San Francisco, that trend seems particularly worrisome. This is, after all, a city festooned in pink triangles and platitudes about equality. The city has harbored lesbian organizations dating back to the 1950s; it was the first city to feature Dykes on Bikes in a gay pride parade.
But there are fissures in the LGBT world. And some of them mirror other social disparities that bedevil this city.
It wasn't always this way. During the 1980s and '90s, gay women flocked to San Francisco for its cheap rents and open-minded spirit. The Mission and Noe Valley were checkered with lesbian-themed bookstores, bars, gyms, and discotheques. Groups of single women shacked up together in giant housing collectives, drank coffee companionably at the women-only Artemis Cafe, opened small businesses along the Valencia Street corridor. They formed ad hoc political groups to fight ordinances like the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have prevented gay people from being hired as teachers. Always embattled, they had more reason to stick together and form tight-knit districts than their counterparts today.
And many of them came to San Francisco to ply an industrial trade, which, 30 years ago, was a viable career option for any city resident.
“I came here to visit, and saw a woman driving a forklift,” former Potrero Hill resident Teresa Romaine recalls. “And then I knew I wanted to live here.”
Romaine was a schoolteacher when she left her San Diego home in 1983, but upon resettling in the Mission District, she decided to start painting houses. “That's where my heart was,” she says. “All my life I wanted to do trade's work, and it just wasn't acceptable anywhere.” At that time, the cost of living was still low enough that a single woman could sustain herself, working as a house painter or crane operator or electrician. And Romaine knew many of them.
Her friend Molly Martin, who arrived in 1976 and took a job with the all-female collective Wonder Woman Electric, remembers the area as an Eden for working-class lesbians. There was a women-only gym on upper Market Street, where Cafe du Nord is now (though it's temporarily closed). The venues that now house the Elbo Room and the Cafe were both lesbian bars. The Women's Building on 18th Street provided a community switchboard and incubator for budding activist groups, including the city's first battered women's shelter.
But Bernal Heights was still largely an immigrant neighborhood, so lesbians who moved there during the '80s and '90s were often perceived as perpetrators, rather than victims, of an early gentrification wave. Even so, they still had a strong bohemian presence downtown. Poet Michelle Tea, who now lives a quiet, domestic life near Ocean Beach, says the Mission was enjoying a veritable spoken word explosion when she arrived in 1993. “There were events every night of the week,” she recalls, “and at the same time drag culture and dyke-centric performance were exploding.”
Tea rattles off the names of cafes and open mics and black box theaters that have long since gone to dust. There was Luna Sea, a women's performance project housed at the Redstone building at 16th and Capp Streets — now home to a slew of itinerant nonprofits. There was Junk, a gay punk event that happened every week at the Stud Bar, and a roving lesbian dance party called Muffdive. There was a feminist bookstore on Valencia called Old Wives' Tales, which carried the works of obscure or forgotten authors. There was a handful of lesbian bars — now only two remain — and there were barflies who hung out all day discussing anarchist theory. There was Tea's spoken word showcase, Sister Spit, which launched in Blondie's Bar & No Grill on Valencia — then a lesbian dive bar, now a “total bro choad hangout,” she says. And of course, there was the Bearded Lady.
Now, that whole scene is following the path of other outlier communities in San Francisco, and moving over to Oakland.
A couple of weeks ago, the founders of Oakland's Hella Gay dance party held their fifth anniversary celebration at Uptown Nightclub, a rock venue on Telegraph Avenue, with a marquee sign shaped like a guitar. Hundreds of people showed up — mostly women in their 20s and 30s, though the event also drew a lot of men, flannel-shirted hipsters, and other hangers-on.
“When I came to Oakland in 2007, I was told it has the largest concentration of lesbians in the U.S.,” Uptown owner Larry Trujillo says, repeating an often-quoted, though apocryphal, statistic. “And that statistic seems true to me,” he continues. “At least it's been that way since I got here.”
Hella Gay actually had its genesis at the WC Warehouse, a long-defunct dairy creamy in West Oakland that was converted into a bar and art gallery. The promoters borrowed DJ equipment from a downstairs neighbor and enlisted a house guest to make the flyers. It was, according to founding member Hae Yong, “pretty patchwork.” But on the first night, 300 people came.
That alone showed the demand for gay-themed entertainment, in an area not known for being awash in gay infrastructure. Oakland's lesbian demographic was already fairly well-established among business owners and city officials, and various people had already tried to capitalize on it. In 2007, two well-meaning straight guys tried to launch their own lesbian bar in the Laurel District — an area dotted with stucco homes and churches and corner groceries, rumored to be a lesbian neighborhood. After a public fallout with a local lesbian promoter, they rebranded their business, turning it into a conventional lounge with Monday Night Football and rotating DJs.
Others soon entered the fray, creating a hodgepodge of nomadic dance parties, poetry readings, after-hours events, and sex parties that resembled the ones once offered in San Francisco. Lesbians generated a new counterculture that quickly permeated the mainstream, right as Oakland was trying to establish itself as a destination for charcuterie bars and monthly art walks. In 2010, the city resuscitated its annual Pride celebration, which had already enjoyed a short run from 1997 to 2004. This June, butch-identified Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan announced her second mayoral bid for the fall election.
In some ways, Oakland's newfound lesbian identity seemed counterintuitive — given that the city isn't so much a metropolis as a cluster of small towns, and given that gay pride typically thrives in urban centers. In other senses, it was entirely predictable. But it wasn't a direct reconstitution of the scene that had once percolated in San Francisco. Oakland has a loose collection of roving LGBT cultural events, and a lot of lesbian couples tucked away in their affordable homes. What it lacks is a four-block expanse of women's bookstores and nightclubs and cafes, like the one on Valencia Street 30 years ago. And some theorists believe there's no need for one anymore.
As both Gates and Kolko have argued, lesbians have a predilection for moving to the suburbs. That's partly because they tend to earn less than gay or straight men, and might seek housing in cheaper, residential areas. But it's also perhaps because lesbian couples are more likely, and able, to have children than gay men. (In 2013, Gates published a study showing that almost half of LGBT women under 50 are currently raising a child, compared to a fifth of LGBT men.) Thus, they need houses with more square footage, possibly a backyard, and a decent school district nearby. They also might shoulder other economic burdens that often fall to women: having to take care of an elderly parent, for example. And, particularly in light of recent civil rights gains, they might not desire a gay neighborhood the way gay men do, Gates points out. A couple intent on raising a family doesn't need a balkanized district — or a string of bars and nightclubs.
Domestic proclivities, compounded by the gender wage gap, are undermining the notion of a lesbian district. Younger, artsy people are descending on Oakland, but they don't have the density, or the urgency, to create their own township. And there aren't enough left in San Francisco to maintain a cultural critical mass.
Fritz, a gravelly voiced woman in a hooded sweatshirt, considers herself the “ambassador” of the Wild Side West, a historic lesbian bar in Bernal Heights. She offers tours to all variety of interlopers: ogling tourists, straights form the neighborhood, correspondents from local newspapers. Many are first-time patrons; some aren't sure whether to treat the place as a neighborhood watering hole, or a shrine to Bernal's past.
In fact, it's a little of both.
The Wild Side West seems frozen in time, even as the city transforms all around it. And, on a balmy Thursday afternoon in May, it's still packed with regulars: old men hunched over frothy beers, coarse-haired women unfolding crinkled newspapers, a large dog who lies, panting, in the corner. Fritz is unloading a bag of hot dog buns for anyone who wants to stick around later and watch the Giants game; she's also taken it upon herself to lead another tour.
Sure, the neighborhood is changing, she acknowledges, strutting through the bar's ample backyard and pausing to point out various amenities — the wood swing, the barbecue grill, the mannequin with a bottle-cap bikini. Fritz sits down at a picnic table and bunches her mouth studiously, taking mental stock of the new elements.
“When they got rid of the pay phones, that's when the property values went up,” she says. Bernal used to be a working-class area with a small but noticeable population of drug dealers; now it's dotted with organic tea houses and Pilates studios. In January, the online real estate brokerage Redfin crowned it the hottest neighborhood in the US, based on property listings searches; the median home price is just shy of a million dollars.
Fritz and her partner, June (not her real name), want to partake in the boom, too — they're eyeing a $1.3 million house with two bedrooms upstairs and a studio on the ground floor. They think that by pulling together their savings, and June's salary as a lawyer, they'll be able to scrounge up the money.
Looking toward the future, she has few reservations about joining a new class of well-heeled startup workers and “couples pushing strollers” — even if she becomes the old-timer who doesn't quite fit in anymore. A Long Island native, Fritz works at the Inlandboatmen's Union and considers herself staunchly blue collar — making her part of an ever-dwindling population.
“I've seen younger gay women move in, but they're mostly in the tech field,” Fritz says. The lesbians who came to drive forklifts or paint houses can't afford their rent anymore.
That's a sentiment echoed by Eileen Hansen, a long-time Castro resident who's weathered two evictions and run for office twice — losing to Mark Leno in 2000 and Bevan Dufty in 2002. A dyed-in-the-wool progressive, she bemoans the proliferation of “formula” chain stores — Gap outlets and CVS pharmacies that stamp out neighborhood character — and maintains that the Castro's political culture now mirrors its swelling rent prices. Current Supervisor Scott Wiener has launched a fervent legislative crusade against aesthetic warts, such as wide boulevards and AT&T utility boxes. He's also imposed rules of conduct for dog walkers, plus bans on public camping and nudity, and new square footage laws to create swank “micro-apartments” for techie singles.
To Hansen, Wiener enshrines the values of a new, monied demographic.
Some political observers take that impression a step further: Wiener's election was a matter of demographics and identity in a city that, for all its pretensions of intellectualism, has an almost tribal approach to politics. There are more men than women, and more gay men than straight men in the Castro. And because people are getting wealthier, a candidate who embraced quality-of-life issues, pro-business moves, and the construction of new condos, will have broader appeal. Thus, the seat will always go to a gay male moderate.
Wiener, moreover, belongs in a lineage of middle-of-the-road Castro politicians (starting in 1978, with Harvey Milk's campaign against dog poop). Hansen, despite being gay, is a political outlier in the city's most established gay neighborhood.
She thinks this should change. “There's this assumption that because it was Harvey Milk's District, it needs to be held by a gay man,” Hansen says. “That's a cultural and historical thing that we have to grapple with.”
San Francisco hasn't always suffered from a dearth of lesbian representation. The so-called “Lavender Wave” of the 1990s made stars out of former Supervisors Carole Migden and Roberta Achtenberg, who both advanced to higher office.
“I don't think there's a loss of representation per se,” Migden, who currently lives in SOMA and serves on the Democratic County Central Committee. San Francisco doesn't have any particular animus against lesbian candidates, Migden adds — it just doesn't see too many of them.
Chalk that up to the unsavory side of politics, as Migden does, noting that few people want to stick their necks out and get pilloried in the press. But it could also be another sign of unfavorable demographic shifts. In 2000, San Francisco switched from citywide to district supervisorial races, which allowed small, concentrated groups to wield disproportionate power (say, unions with a lot of volunteers). It also helped bolster candidates with a strong ethnic or ideological constituency: District 7, for example, is moderate, home-owning, and development-friendly — but heavily Asian — so it went to Supervisor Norman Yee. Lesbians, who no longer have a dense voter bloc in any one neighborhood of the city, saw their voting power diminished.
So, as Migden points out, being a lesbian candidate in San Francisco isn't a disadvantage, but it carries few advantages. WIthout a tipping-point constituency, there's no added boost like being a gay man in the Castro or an Asian in the Sunset.
It would, however, be conceivable that a lesbian candidate could run for citywide office, again — perhaps a hip tech worker or younger renter, Migden suggests; maybe someone akin to Rebecca Kaplan, in Oakland, or Lori Droste, the lesbian mother of two who is running for city council in Berkeley.
The question is whether they could afford to live here.
San Francisco's golden era of lesbianism persisted through the '80s, with same-sex female couples occupying the city's smaller, suburban pockets while gay men moved closer to the downtown center. Then came a succession of tech booms, and a surge in real estate prices, and a tectonic shift in the city's culture. Chic startups and high-priced salad bars supplanted the greasy diners downtown; mega-mansions sprang up on the blocks lining Dolores Park; the Castro, Mission, and Noe Valley neighborhoods were suddenly among the most affluent — and unaffordable — in California.
Teresa Romaine moved to Santa Rosa earlier this year, after realizing she could no longer handle the rent for her apartment in Potrero Hill. Around that time, the houses she was painting in Bernal were adding stories and undergoing full-on remodels, mushrooming to 10 or 20 times their value in previous decades. Hansen, on the other hand, purchased a house in the Castro with her partner and another friend in 2008; others, like Molly Martin, were equally prescient. The hills of Bernal Heights still teem with older or well-heeled lesbian homeowners. The problem is that fewer young ones are moving in.
And then, of course, there's a population of stalwart, working-or-middle-class lesbians who are staying in San Francisco by the skin of their teeth. Some won the rent control lottery; others are shacking up with multiple roommates or converting their apartments into Airbnb vacation squats. Lexington Club bartender Iris Triska says she's content to live with two roommates in the Mission and pay $850 a month. That's the price of keeping a venerable gay scene alive, even if it is a small scene.
Sitting at a favorite cafe in Duboce Triangle, where the flowerbeds are overgrown, pigeons waddle across the floor, and the locals still show their progressive stripes, Hansen says that no dot-com boom is strong enough to shut off the spigot altogether.
“San Francisco still has this allure if you're 18 or 25,” she says. “We take care of people. We're accepting of people. I do think they're still coming.”
She pauses a beat, furrowing her brow. “And then they get here and think, 'How am I going to survive?'”