Pack it up

Moving to gay San Francisco, 20 years ago

Our publisher, passed out at his first real Pride parade, 1995

QUEER ISSUE It's Pride month, so it's time for me to come out of the closet. I'm one of those people. It used to be if I told certain folks that I was a queer, I'd fear getting shot. Now it's this: 20 years ago this week, I moved to San Francisco with nothing but a backpack, a haircut, and a copy of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover — and within a few months I was comfortably situated in a grand, rent-controlled, shared three-bedroom apartment in Hayes Valley for $250 a month. It was awesome. I survived on a part-time bookstore job and spent the rest of my time either writing abstract poetry or partying my brains out. Don't shoot!

That's a situation so different from the one young queer people encounter today that every time I mention it I feel like I'm either lying, bragging, ancient, or crazy. I often have to refer to old pictures just to assure myself it was true.

Despite the to-die-for living arrangement, not everything was hippie-hunky-dory, of course. I was a Detroit kid with a bright punk streak who'd put himself though college by throwing raves in abandoned buildings. SF was really the last place I would have thought to move — I despised the Beats, never heard a Grateful Dead song, thought nature was flashy and embarrassing, and was mortified to hear that people here started their own raves with a prayer circle. Hoo boy.

Then there was the gay thing. Ever since I was an eighth-grade Boy George impersonator, assholes had told me to move my faggot self to San Francisco. Did actually moving here mean I was the butt of some cosmic joke? And then there was the gay gay thing. Everything about mainstream homosexual culture grossed me out, from the pink spandex-clad gym scene that seemed to be exploding everywhere to the horrid racism and misogyny — not to mention awful jock jams — of the typical Castro bars. (To be fair, the gay scene had absolutely no idea what to do with me, either.)

Oh yeah, and I moved here at the height of AIDS, when meth was taking off and even ACT-UP was admitting defeat. Good times.

But I'd found myself basically homeless back in Detroit, not to mention incredibly lonely, so when my bestie announced he'd bought us $44 train tickets to SF I jumped. Finally, more than three people to date! Maybe I would get published! Perhaps some dreamy queercore hip-hop Viking would swoop down on a Honda Hawk and carry me into the Pacific sunset! Who the hell knew what would happen, and wasn't that the point. I'd fling myself west, into the arms of this strange, beautiful city and see what was up.

I arrived here on the blindingly sunny Solstice day after Pride, and the first thing I thought was, "Man, this joint is trashed." The city looked like a drag queen apocalypse. False lashes, mismatched heels, wadded up denim booty shorts, and broken Zima bottles everywhere. We didn't really have a Pride parade back in Detroit — instead, we celebrated venerable gay African American holiday Hotter Than July with a big picnic — so all this was tantalizingly new.

But I remember two Pride-related things immediately grabbed my self-obsessed attention, and made the world seem incredibly large. One was a huge picture of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on the front page of the Chronicle, illustrating a recap of the festivities. I'd never seen the word "gay" written so big, not to mention fabulously charitable quasi-drag queens featured so prominently, in print, in pure celebration. (This was in weird contrast to the super-specific, fetish-heavy personal ads in the back of the Bay Area Reporter, which both excited me and scared me to death.)

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