TRAVEL: San Francisco is Queertopia

The City by the Bay is a must visit for all gay Texans — World Series titles notwithstanding

NICK VIVION  | Special Contributor
lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

San Francisco is regularly recognized as one of the world’s most visited cities, and equally as often is dubbed the most European city in America. The Bay Area boasts a live-and-let-live ethos that has attracted a population with equal parts creativity and quirk (it’s the fictional homes of Marvel’s X-Men and Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets).

It’s also just about the gayest city in the world, a veritable Capital of the Queers — some estimates put 30 percent of the population as LGBT-identified. And despite their baseball team trouncing the Rangers in last year’s World Series, it’s still a desirable travel destination for gay Texans.

The city has welcomed the weary, the weird and the wacky for more than a century. The first wave was during the Gold Rush of the 1800s. The prospectors had no prospects — and no women. So they made do, and are said to be the ones who invented the Hanky Code to organize their newfound homo desires.

Post-World War II, soldiers of both sexes began to carve a niche for themselves amidst the already-thriving gay scene. A spread in Life magazine in 1964 maliciously declared San Francisco the gay capital of the nation, but while the tone was accusatory, it had one unintended effect: Publicity.

OPEN UP THAT GOLDEN GATE | The famed bridge, opposite page, is the best-known image of San Francisco, but for gay travelers the Castro District is a must-see destination.

“Thousands of gay people poured into California now that they knew where to go,” says Kathy Amendola, owner of Cruisin’ the Castro, about the meteoric rise of gay San Francisco in the 1960s. “In 1967, the Summer of Love exploded in the Haight. There were so many tens of thousands of people in one place at one time on such a high level of consciousness [from LSD] that it shifted energy. San Francisco could not stop people from pouring in, from the gays to the hippies. It was supposed to be the utopia: free drugs, free food and free love. Who wouldn’t come here?”

But San Francisco is more than just a cliché of drugged-out hippies and handkerchiefed homos cruising the streets. It has an energy that you can savor, a magical serenity that makes molecules vibrate more vigorously. It’s exhilarating. San Francisco is freedom from judgment, a place where people are living their lives mindfully, yet without much regard to what people think.

“We recycle 77 percent of our garbage and food. We still have that sense of utopia,” says Amendola without the slightest hint of new-age pretense. She, like most San Franciscans, is serious about her community’s shared values.

Harvey Milk was known as the “Mayor of the Castro,” and is widely credited with bringing the gays to the district. He saw the Castro’s cheaper rent and better climate when he was living over the hill in Haight-Ashbury, and jumped at the chance to open a camera store right on Castro Street.

Today, the camera store sits empty awaiting the embattled move of the HRC Store. In its window is an image of a group of people outside the Castro Theatre waving a flag that says “Gay Revolution.” Above, from the second floor where Milk used to live, is a mural of Harvey looking down on the street. On his chest is painted one of his most potent phrases: “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

Visiting the Castro is a must for every gay visitor. It’s unlike any other remaining gayborhood in contemporary society — our Mecca, and not just because there are a lot of gay people there; it also breathes history.

Milk first spoke out at the corner of Market and Castro right underneath where the Pride flag now billows. Murals abound depicting the decimation of the AIDS crisis, and how the city’s gay population rallied, protested and fought incessantly to stem the tide of deaths.

The recent opening of the GLBT Historical Museum on 18th Street is a much-needed fulcrum of our collective queer identity. The handsome museum facilitates an understanding of our history as a group, and shows those younger folks like myself the oft-unbelievable realities of gay life in decades pat.

As I stood in front of the picture of Leonard Matlovich on the cover of Time in September 1978, I nearly cried. I had never heard of him, nor had I ever noticed the large plaque commemorating him on the corner of 18th and Castro. He was discharged from the military for being gay, saying: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

My visit to the museum was the day before DADT was repealed; I had no idea we had been fighting for this long.
The queer experience is central to the San Francisco experience, as it is the city’s acceptance — not just tolerance — of queer people of all kinds that really makes it unique. This is not the “diversity” of New York, rather a whole-hearted commitment to queering the world.

Standing outside Hotel Abri near Union Square, hearing the buzz of four languages, it strikes me that there are so many microcosms in this city, neighborhoods so distinct they could be in separate cities or states. San Francisco, at its geographical core, is queer.

San Francisco gets under your skin, into your blood and hooks you for life. It will electrify you, and like your first true love, you will never be able to shake it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 21, 2011.

—  John Wright