"[But] if there are male prostitutes out there and there are businesses that thrive on that, they're part of the business association too."
THE BOTTOM LINE
The current conflict on Polk Street has been framed as one between profit-hungry business owners and marginalized queers. But on Polk Street, a coveted bloc of city space long zoned as a commercial corridor, the buck has always been the bottom line.
This is not to discount the deeply emotional ties many have to the area, many who reported escaping abusive families and discrimination to find themselves and their first real family in Polk Street. Just the opposite: the history of Polk Street shows that community and commerce were closely linked.
In the early 1960s, gay men bought up failing shops along the street and created posh clothing stores, record shops, and elegant restaurants. Failing bars and taverns cashed in on gay consumer power. The community combined economic and political power to win major gay rights battles.
Most famously, bartenders formed the Tavern Guild in 1962, the nation's first gay business association, which combined economic self-interest with charitable support for the nascent gay community. According to historian Nan Alamilla Boyd, the Guild "represent[ed] a marketplace activity that, in order to protect itself, evolves into a social movement."
The Imperial Court, part of the Guild's fundraising arm, elected Empresses who raised funds for people in the community who needed housing, drug treatment, mental health services, or help with their medical bills. In the '70s and '80s, the Polk Gulch was a magnet for young people around the country escaping abusive homes and discrimination, and who therefore did not have the educational or employment background to make it on their own in the city.
Anthony Cabello came to Polk Street from a working class family in Fresno as a teenager in the late 1960s, dining as the guest of an older lover at the posh P.S. Lounge. As a student at a nearby college, he formed lifelong relationships with men on the street who took him to fancy hotels, plays, and dinners. "I did not mind the monetary help, but that wasn't my primary concern," he said. "I was getting exposed to things that normally, I wouldn't have the ability to do." He toured Europe in a theater troupe, worked a number of jobs on Polk Street, and now manages the neighborhood's Palo Alto Hotel, which continues to house people living with AIDS and people of meager means.
Coy Ellison found a safe haven in Polk Street as a teenager in 1978. He did under-the-table work at gay businesses through an unofficial job pool at the street's bars. That allowed him to avoid being caught by the police and sent back to an abusive home. "There were a lot of people doing that at the time," he said. "Let's say you needed your apartment painted, was there a kid here who knows how to paint and [the bartenders would] send him off." He later climbed the employment ladder through the bars by working as a bouncer, providing support for new young people coming to the area. He now lives a few blocks away with his partner.
Kevin "Kiko" Lobo moved from San Francisco's Mission District to Polk Gulch in the early 1980s and found work on the street as a sex worker in bars like the Q.T. "Nobody lost because the bar made money, I got a few drinks, and I met clients." He pooled money with his "street family," made up of teenagers escaping abusive homes and discrimination. On the street, "everything was family," Lobo said. "We all looked out for each other.
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