A Gay History of San Francisco

gay San Francisco

San Francisco has long been synonymous with the gay community and the LGBT movement at large. But what makes a city partisan to such social and political progressiveness?

It’s fair to say that while San Francisco was becoming a beacon of hope for gay men and women around the world – the policy of the United States government and its treatment of LGBT citizens (particularly the stigma surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis) was everything but supportive and welcoming to the community.

Its openness and inclusiveness are thought to date back to the 19th Century and the period of the Gold Rush. The large influx of young men and the anything goes attitude that accompanied the era provided the perfect platform for the city’s alternative seeds to be sown.

Both World Wars played a significant role in the creation of a safe, community space which exists today. During the First World War, it became common practice for the US Navy to discharge known homosexuals – many of whom decided to stay in San Francisco and begin to negate a life where they were finally accepted, rather than return home to the closet and a life of torrid repression.

Several raids of the newly established bars and establishments continued over the coming years as the gay community attempted to cement itself over the period spanning the end of WW1 and the onset of WW2.

The 1950s were a revolutionary period. Many of the Beat poets, including openly gay Alan Ginsberg, came to San Francisco to subvert the mainstream and live in an environment which encouraged diversity and creativity with a hearty dose of hedonism. Ginsberg himself had to fight charges of obscenity charges 1957. The Beat poets flourished with their love of the counter-culture movement that looked to subvert the suburban idealism which became prolific in 1950s America. The LGBT community and the poets were easy bedfellows.

The emergence of the Castro district is much more modern than most people assume it to be. In fact, until the 1960s the area was predominantly populated with white, working-class, Irish immigrants. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, while geographically distant, invoked a surge in organisations for the gay community. In the subsequent year’s – bars, galleries, cultural establishments and social and cultural bonds were cemented to make San Franciso one of the homosexual epicentres of the world.

San Francisco is synonymous with the life of politician Harvey Milk. As the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the state of California – his robust, hands-on campaigning lead to him being, despite an initially frosty reception, widely accepted by the public. An extract from the New York Times details the fact the San Francisco’s changing face becoming normalised across America.

“The nongay community has mostly accepted it. What San Francisco is today, and what it is becoming, reflects both the energy and organisation of the gay community and its developing effort toward integration in the political processes of the American city best known for innovation in lifestyles.” New York Times, 6th November 1977.

The AIDS crisis in the 1980s disproportionally rocked the city of San Francisco. The city struggled to locate and administer suitable resources for huge swathes of the gay community who were suffering from this new disease which was sweeping the globe with catastrophic results. It’s hard to calculate the regressive impact of the AIDS crisis but it’s widely understood that the setback was significant and took decades to recover from.

Libertine attitudes prevail in San Francisco today and it is widely considered to be one of the most vibrant, accepting and diverse cities in the world. The gay history of San Francisco is embedded into its history still present both physically and atmospherically and enjoyed by its LGBT residents and all those who choose to visit.

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