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San Francisco’s long history of ‘gayborhoods’

San Francisco’s long history of ‘gayborhoods’

San Francisco has long been known as a safe haven for LGBTI people.

The history

In 19th century, during California’s Gold Rush, San Francisco was a place heavily populated by men who hoped to become successful out West.

‘The transition to San Francisco as a major port city through the end of the 19th century solidified it as a place that was flexible and tolerant, which allowed for same-sex desire to be displayed in certain spaces and in nuanced ways,’ writes Elliot Owen for Outword Magazine.

The 1920s saw the first venues in San Francisco that were accommodating to gays and lesbians. When alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, the city saw an influx of progressive artists, many of whom were queer, becoming regulars at such venues.

Then, after World War II, even more gay men settled in the area and LGBTI entrepreneurs began creating businesses in the city.

By the 1960s, LGBTI-owned businesses were thriving in San Francisco. This is still true to this day, with the city’s Castro district being a hub of LGBTI activity including shops, restaurants, and nightlife.

Posters advertising gay nightlife in the Castro district

The Castro district is home to the GLBT Museum, one of only two museums in the world (with the other located in Berlin) to focus exclusively on LGBTI history.

San Francisco’s GLBT Museum began in the 1980s with the belongings of men who died of AIDS.

At the GLBT Museum, you can look up obituaries of those who perished from AIDS in a special database

‘The history of the Castro district is special,’ Charlie Wagner, a volunteer at the GLBT Museum and a San Francisco resident since 1979, tells GSN. ‘I’ve come to appreciate the history even more since volunteering at the museum.’

‘There’s a lot more known LGBTQ history than most people assume,’ Wagner says. ‘Our current situation is a result of a lot of sacrifices people have made over many years.’

One example of such sacrifices would be that of Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay politician in California’s history. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He served 11 months on the Board before being assassinated, alongside San Francisco’s then-Mayor, George Moscone.

Though serving on the Board for less than a year, Milk became an icon in San Francisco and a martyr to the city’s gay community.

Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro district

LGBTI San Francisco today

Mitchell, a young man who works at the shop Rock Hard in the Castro district, has learned a lot about LGBTI history since moving to San Francisco three years ago.

‘I learned details of Harvey Milk’s election, I learned about drag history in the community,’ Mitchell tells GSN.

‘Even before Stonewall, we’ve made communities our own. Even before the Castro, there was Polk Street and Sodom by the Sea,’ Mitchell explains, referring to San Francisco’s first gay neighborhood and what San Francisco was often called during World War II, respectively.

For Mitchell, the Castro district is home. ‘There is such a community here. Even when it comes to businesses, they give neighborhood discounts to the people who live here. It’s such a connected community.’

However, Mitchell believes people often don’t give gay neighborhoods the credit they deserve.

‘People don’t think they’re important, but they are,’ Mitchell says. ‘They’re a place to organize, a place where there are people like you around.’

Large Pride flag flying high over Harvey Milk Plaza