Is San Francisco still a gay mecca?
Yeah, pretty much ... but if someday it wasn't, would that be so terrible?

By Lynn Rapoport

THE WHOLE QUESTION sounds a bit silly, on the eve of the largest pride celebration on the continent, in a city several hundred thousand people will visit this week, filling hotels, motels, bars, restaurants, parks, sidewalks, and dark alleyways, for the sole purpose of celebrating homo-ness (and drunkenness and a sea of available sexual partners and various free-flowing Schedule I-IV substances).

Bizarro world: Will breeders one day make out on these faded rainbow steps in the Castro? Probably only if we ask them very nicely. Guardian photo by Neil Motteram
On Friday night, the second annual Trans March will step off from Dolores Park (which last month also saw the annual Tranny Picnic). The following day an estimated 50,000 dykes and their friends will stroll down 18th Street, baring chests, waving signs, flirting with strangers, and arguing over whether male-identified persons should be (a) allowed to mingle in the march or (b) kicked to the curb posthaste. Shirtless, dancing men will groove to the gay beat in the Castro and the Civic Center.

Meanwhile, 11 days and 267 films of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBT film fest, and a solid month of National Queer Arts Festival, featuring almost 400 artists, have filled seats by the thousands at the Castro, the Victoria, the Roxie, SomArts, Femina Potens, ATA, the LBGT Center, ODC Theater, Galería de la Raza, and elsewhere. In such a city, the city of the hillside pink triangle, the gargantuan rainbow flag billowing at the corner of Castro and 17th Street, what's there to wonder about?

Is San Francisco still a gay mecca? What on earth could possibly be gayer?

Pride aside, we have a small phone book's worth of services directed toward the needs of gay folks. (Shit, we even have our own rainbow, if not exactly exhaustive, yellow pages.) They span the life cycle, in fact – from orgs like Pacific Reproductive Services, a fertility center "for alternative families," to the LBGT-focused New Leaf Outreach to Elders. For the in-between years we have the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC), the Youth Gender Project, and Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE). We have more services from New Leaf, including mental health, HIV/AIDS, and family counseling. A standing army of groups do work here on HIV/AIDS policy, prevention, and treatment. We're home base for the Transgender Law Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. For the electorally minded we have the progressive Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, the centrist (for SF) Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, and possibly even some Log Cabin Republicans. For the business-minded we have the Golden Gate Business Association, gay SF's answer to the Chamber of Commerce, and Bay Area Career Women, a professional development group for lesbians.

Speaking of which, nationally distributed lezzie mags Girlfriends and Curve are based here. The weekly gay papers Bay Area Reporter and San Francisco Bay Times provide local and national coverage, and Larry Bob's Queer Things to Do in the San Francisco Bay Area is an events-listing godsend. The gay and lesbian center in our public library houses vast collections on queer life, lit, and culture. We have a historical society devoted to cataloging our rapidly accruing past, a colossal community center on the main thoroughfare of town testifying to our continued presence.

Then, of course, we have some of the country's best (and oldest) LGBT-related legislation on the books – especially, these days, for transgender folks – which, COLAGE executive director Beth Teper points out, is a powerful lure for LBGT families to move here or stay here. We have beloved gay progressive Tom Ammiano on the Board of Supes. Though it pains me to admit it – especially when I revisit that photo of Gavin at the drum circle on SFist.com, as I find myself compelled to do at least twice a day – we have a mayor who went out on a limb to get same-sexers married, in the face of opposition at the state and national levels. And, representing the east side up in Sacramento, we have Assemblymember (and former supe) Mark Leno, who's spent sizable chunks of his political life championing the rights of LGBT people – and looks at least a little better in leather pants than Gavin does at a drum circle – along with state senator Carole Migden, a former Milk Club president. It seems we have everything.

So it's clear enough why gay people want to come here, and that they do, even when it's not June.

Still, during the time I've lived here, in a flat a few blocks east of the Castro – on a street corner whose character has shifted radically as the boutique businesses drifted in and other folks white-knuckled their rent control and prayed – a few things have become less obvious: whether those who arrive can afford to stay; what effect that has on the character of the city; and whether San Francisco, for worse but also perhaps for better, is losing any of its magnetic pull to other urban centers across the country.

There's at least some evidence that it is: San Francisco placed dismally in Girlfriends' November 2003 countdown of the best cities for dykes. It didn't even make the top 10 – trailing, at an unimpressive 18, after Pittsburgh, Penn., and Albany, NY.

It's a tough time to raise this sort of question, given the past year or so of rhetorical and legislative attacks on gays in other states (not to mention our own). Surely San Francisco offers more of a refuge than ever? But a refuge generally implies a roof, support, tempered anxiety, the meeting of basic needs. And some would say San Francisco can no longer supply those things.

Underneath the flag

San Francisco made its reputation, as far back as World War II, on a climate of livability. The weather's not bad, once you get used to the fog and the chill and the lack of insulation or double-glazed windows. But more to the point, there was the social permissiveness, a tolerance toward freaks of all kinds, and later, from Harvey Milk onward, a steady stream of fiercely out, progressive politicians devoted to securing basic rights, freedoms, and necessities for the LGBT community. All of which would totally rule if so many folks likely to find those things useful weren't hanging on by a thread or already gone – to Oakland, maybe, where everyone says all the dykes have ended up, or gone gone, to Portland, Ore., or Chicago, or some scenic (albeit probably jobless) town in Vermont.

Many now argue for a queer San Francisco identity in the broadest sense, enfolding in its jolly arms the eccentric, the iconoclastic, and of course, the kinky. But whether you prefer "queer" as a more sprawling update on "gay," or you simply have two live-in lovers, a regular coffee date/fuckbuddy, and a fetish for trussing up people and turning them into office furniture, you probably favor having a roof over your head. And where housing is concerned, unless you were born into wealth and stayed there, or have otherwise achieved considerable stockpiles, your chances for happiness in San Francisco have markedly slimmed over the past decade, as real estate and rental prices have soared and stubbornly refused to take more than a token dip.

Practically every time I open a local paper, I learn something interesting and new about the fundamental unlivability of life here in queer paradise. There was, for example, an item in the June 10 Examiner titled "In San Francisco, Only 8 Percent Can Afford Home." It had the matter-of-fact kookiness of an Onion headline.

Then, back in rentland, there are charming people like the landlord who, a couple years back, told an apartment-searching friend of mine, "Honey, if you and your friends can't afford to pay $800 a month, you don't belong in San Francisco!" If I ever get Ellis'd, what will keep me in the city is the hope of one day moving in next door to that guy and keeping him awake all night with death metal.

When I talk to local pollster David Binder about it, he cautions, "Housing is an issue for everybody. Especially if you're younger and you want to settle in a community, it's hard to do that in San Francisco unless you have a good-paying job." Of course, that's pretty much the sector of the nation's (and world's) queer population that San Francisco's long been famous for enticing.

"I moved here 21 years ago, and I had an apartment on 19th and Castro, me and a friend shared a sublet for $200," says Robert Haaland, a local activist for housing, transgender, and labor rights who ran for supervisor in District 5 last year and has a gig organizing for Service Employees International Union Local 790. "I was 20, 21, a total idiot, just moved here and had no idea what I was doing. But I was able to land safely, get a house, get a job, and begin the process of what one does when one moves to San Francisco as a young queer. I think that most of the folks that move here now, 18, 19, 20 years old, you sink or swim."

It's an anxiety-inducing image. I think of the homeless kids at Larkin Street's Castro Youth Initiative. I think of kids coming here with few marketable skills, maybe an incomplete education (or hell, a bachelor's degree), trying to pick up café work, make ends meet, make a life, strung along by that old SF story. Kind of like the one Haaland's just told, the same one I heard earlier in the week from Jeff Sheehy, the 48-year-old HIV/AIDS advisor to Newsom and former Milk Club president, who came here in '88. The same one I later heard from Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a local activist in his 50s who's a member of Queers for Peace and Justice and came here in '91. The same one I've heard for years from queer folks just a few years my senior and older.

"San Francisco is still seen as the place to go, especially for queer young folks," says Kar Yin Tham, executive director of LYRIC, which works with between 1,000 and 1,500 youths through local services and another 10,000 to 15,000 via a national talkline. "They come with quite a bit of expectation and hopes of this place being very supportive and welcoming." And yet, she concedes, when it comes to San Francisco's already settled gay folks recognizing those expectations and responding in a way that's useful, "there's more from the community we'd love to see."

That's not good news for San Francisco's yearly influx of queer youth. The larger picture is equally unsettling. "I do worry," Sheehy tells me, "because of the affordability issue, that we're losing the regeneration of the more dynamic elements of the queer community: the young, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, for which San Francisco was always a beacon." What does this look like? A bunch of kids turning tail and heading back to Kansas, to one unbearable situation or another? Maybe. And maybe it also means that the ones who manage to stay become different sorts of people than they might have, had they been given the breathing time and space to work on becoming an artist, or a journalist, or an activist with a law degree like Haaland.

The economy, Sheehy adds, "is not diverse enough to support people just showing up here to try and make a go of it. There's not a lot of lower-middle-income jobs in San Francisco. Housing – off the charts. So the economics have robbed the city of that."

Sheehy points, as Binder did, to a diaspora of older gay people to places like Palm Springs, where, until recently, property was relatively affordable. "At the top end," he says, "there's been a movement out, and at the younger end it's been harder to move in." The biggest challenge he sees in all this for San Francisco's queer community is one he links to affluence and security: "As we become a group of people who have already made it, and we're living in a city where most of the political needs have already been met, we're not struggling together as a community of people from different economic, racial, and gender identities.... So the kind of brew of all these different parts that ferments that's so creative and dynamic is slipping away from us."

Since the dot-com boom, Mecca says, he's known a lot of people who've had to leave the Castro, where he has managed to hang on via rent control. He claims that the first wave to hit was the boom, and the second one, what we're living through now, is TICs, or tenancies in common – presented as a boon to San Francisco's middle class, yes, but look at what's being advertised in the windows of the real estate offices. In what reality is an $800,000 TIC (that's per unit) even affordable to the middle class?

"I think every two-unit building in my neighborhood has been TIC'd," Mecca tells me. "A lesbian couple two doors down, with two kids, working class, they were forced to leave – they're in San Jose. They were born in San Francisco, and they had to leave. They couldn't afford to relocate [in San Francisco] with two kids. A gay man, disabled, his apartment was TIC'd, he's somewhere in the East Bay. I also know a senior lesbian in the Castro, her building was being sold.... She's now in Seattle. She was born in the Bay Area and left very disillusioned about what was happening in the Castro. A lesbian nurse, same situation, a three-unit building TIC'd. Last I heard she was heading up north."

Out there

On what I choose, ever the optimist, to call a happier note, I also wonder what this gay diaspora has done for other communities – whether "up north" or in Palm Springs or in any of the cities, say, that made it into that Girlfriends list of dyke habitations.

"There are more gay hot spots now than there were before, more communities vying for gay dollars," Binder points out. "There are city-sponsored campaigns to lure gays and lesbians, not just as tourists ... and that is a more recent development."

Back in the '70s and '80s, he says, San Francisco was the only point on the US map that felt welcoming. Now, "gays growing up in Alabama and Louisiana can go to New Orleans and find a vibrant and welcoming community. They can go to Nashville and Memphis.... It's easier for young gays in urban areas to stay closer to home."

COLAGE's Teper would probably want to point out here, as she did to me, that only one attorney in the state of Louisiana has proved willing to work with same-sex parents on the issue of second-parent adoption. On the other hand, a new COLAGE chapter there has grown from 6 to 70 families during its first year of existence.

Sheehy swears there were always such locales and names a few in Texas, of all places: Austin, where he once lived, Houston's Montrose district, Oaklawn in Dallas. "When I was coming out, there were emerging gay centers in many cities," he says. "I think AIDS negatively impacted [their] growth and development. Not that they aren't strong, but they were becoming mini Christopher Streets. Instead the gay communities that held on now attract people locally."

It's a startling thought, but after a few days lazing around on the living room couch flipping through Gary J. Gates and Jason Ost's The Gay and Lesbian Atlas in search of red and tan blotches – slightly less so. Using data on same-sex households culled from the 2000 Census, the book's hundreds of national, state, county, and city maps lay out gay demographic patterns that practically offer an aerial view and a chance to pick out your future street (well, choice zip codes, anyway). Red stands for gay central, or, in the authors' more measured words, "very high concentration," brownish tan for suburbs of gay central, or "high concentration." I became fascinated with the idea that I could pick my next neighborhood based on 200-plus pages of shiny bar graphs, maps, and pie charts.

As you might guess, the queer folk seem to congregate along the West Coast and the northeastern corner of the country, with an intriguingly high concentration in New Mexico. The latter's red-stateness notwithstanding, for some reason I decided to check out Minneapolis – maybe because of Prince, maybe because my ex-sister-in-law just moved there, maybe because Girlfriends placed it at number 4 out of 100 and alluded to an annual gay prom for adults. Minneapolis also ranked quite high for lesbian and gay presence in the atlas, and Minnesota didn't do too badly in the LG-supportive-laws index. So maybe I just wanted a pleasant surprise.

I hit the Twin Cities GLBT Life Web site. And there I found, among many other organizations and services, ACT UP-Gay Liberation Front, Bisexuality Organizing Project, a chapter of the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Street Patrol (do we have a queer street patrol?), and a group for LGBT ex-Jehovah's Witnesses called A Common Bond. Also, the City of Lakes Crossgender Community, the North Country Bears, the North Star Gay Rodeo Association, Gay and Lesbian Elders Active in Minnesota, and the Digital Queers. Also, the Rainbow Cloggers, in neighboring suburb Edina, and the Prairie Open and Affirming Sexual Orientation Support, providing resources to rural folks in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Moreover, when I called the Twin Cities' Roommate Referrals, business manager-owner Steve Von Hagen rattled off some average rental prices that, quite frankly, brought tears to my eyes: Studio, $375 to $600. One-bedroom, $450 to $800. Two-bedroom, $575 to $1,200. Not to mention lease-signing incentives like a free month's rent or – hey, why not? – a free cruise.

In the bubble

Not that I plan on moving there. Ever. I hope. What's happened in San Francisco has been a blueprint for (some) other places, but I love the blueprint. I don't want other cities' film festivals, queer community centers, historical societies, tranny picnics. I don't even want their legislation on domestic partnerships, though I want them to have it.

Of course, I may be giving in to a San Francisco tendency to adore our singularity. It's part of the bubble syndrome, which, taken to an extreme, can involve symptoms like rainbow-bedecked bears sold at gift kiosks in the airport. More to the point, while it's nice to feel special, it doesn't exactly serve our goal of changing the world – and the world, let me be clear, has a long ways to go.

For instance, when I ask Haaland for examples of San Francisco's ultimate mecca status, he mulls it over for a second, then offers, "I generally feel like I can walk down the street and not get killed." I laugh nervously, but he points out that it's not that funny to an out transgender man. He also e-mailed me later to emphasize the hope he sees in the Badlands boycott, which is the first time he's seen a sustained confrontation of racism in the LGBT community here. "And for what it is worth," he wrote, "the Trans March has some of the spirit of the first Pride marches in the early '70s. Some would say that originally trans people were bound up in the initial struggle, meaning that at Stonewall, the drag queens fought back. Somehow that was lost, and now here we are again, moving forward."

And as Sheehy points out, for the transgender community "this city is a major mecca and one of the few places in the country where there's some movement toward equality."

Meanwhile, Binder tells me, "San Francisco is still viewed as a welcoming opportunity for young gays and lesbians to get started with their careers and just have fun with their lives." With gay folks coming and gay folks leaving, he guesses San Francisco is probably experiencing a net even. And I believe it. I believe that it continues to be a place people long for, threading it into their dreams. It's a heartbreaker of a city – though fewer folks might have said so 20 years ago.

And yet, whatever San Francisco's fate, it would actually be great to think that, 20 years further on, the country's queers might need this city a whole lot less than we can imagine now. We won't need one, or two, or three gay meccas, because we'll have many. Even if San Francisco is always, well, the queerest of the lot.