The reputation of San Francisco as a gay Mecca goes back to the Gold Rush days of 1849, when there were an estimated 40,000 men and 700 women. All those men… alone… together… what to do? Often, sex with another man was the only outlet available. World War II saw another influx of men, away from home for the first time, and discovering sex with other men in the process. Many decided to settle in the Bay Area after the war, and the roots of what would become the now powerful LGBT community were planted.
While many assume that New York was the epicenter of the LGBT rights movement because of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, San Francisco can arguably lay claim to locations and events that led to the worldwide Pride celebrations. With this coming weekend’s Pride festival and parade (June 28-29), it’s the ideal time to learn San Francisco has history around every corner, and that many locations that played a part in LGBT history are hidden in plain sight.
Compton’s Cafeteria (Corner of Taylor and Turk Streets)
While many assume that the modern LGBT rights movement began at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, San Franciscans know that the first time LGBT people fought back was in August of 1966 (no one agrees on the exact date), when the Compton Cafeteria tried to ban trans-people from the establishment. A picket line turned into a full-fledged riot when the cafeteria’s window was smashed. Look for the commemorative plaque in the sidewalk.
The Black Cat (710 Montgomery St.)
Jose Sarria was a popular drag performer here and founded the International Imperial Court System as its first Empress: Jose I, The Widow Norton. He was also the first openly gay person to run for public office when his 1963 run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors garnered over 3,000 votes. When gay men were arrested in the bars, he would lead a group to the nearby Hall of Justice and sing “God Bless Us Nelly Queens.”
The Bix (56 Gold St.)
This now-swanky restaurant was the home of the legendary drag performer Charles Pierce.
Finocchio’s (506 Broadway)
This club featured the best drag queens in the world and was very popular with gays and straights alike. It ran from 1929-1999 and was the RuPaul’s Drag Race of its era.
Union Square (Corners of Powell, Post, Stockton, and Geary Streets)
With the influx of soldiers during World War II, Union Square became a popular cruising destination—the plethora of nearby hotels probably helped, too.
Hotel St. Francis Oak Room (335 Powell St.)
With Union Square nearby, gay men would congregate in the hotel’s Oak Room. It had always been a men’s-only bar; whose ads read that it has “an atmosphere designed for masculine comfort.” In the late 1950s, the hotel decided to clean up the Oak Room, and handed gay patrons a card reading, “The management of the Hotel St. Francis no longer desires your patronage.”
Twin Peaks Tavern (401 Castro St.)
In 1972, two lesbians purchased this long-time Castro Street establishment, uncovered the picture windows, and made it the first gay bar where people could see in. Nicknamed “The Glass Coffin” because of its older clientele, it’s still a friendly place to grab a drink.
Harvey Milk’s Castro Camera (575 Castro St.)
Now a Human Rights Campaign store and headquarters for The Trevor Project, this is where Harvey Milk opened his camera store in 1972 and ran his political campaigns. Look up to see Harvey smiling down for a mural on the second floor, look down and see the plaques commemorating his life. They may also contain some of his ashes and a lock of his hair.
The GLBT History Museum (4127 18th St.)
This new Castro institution contains many artifacts from the City’s GLBT history, including Harvey Milk’s kitchen table and megaphone, as well as the dresses Daughters of Bilitis founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin wore to their historic 2008 wedding in San Francisco City Hall.
Joseph Amster is a historian and tour guide, and owns Time Machine Tours with his partner Rick Shelton. They offer Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine, a romp through San Francisco history led by Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico; Drag Me Along Tours, a look at the seedier side of San Francisco history, and the world’s only drag tour, led by the Countess Lola Montez of Landsfeld; and San Francisco Food Safari, gastronomic tours of North Beach and the Mission District. For more information, go to SFTimeMachine.com.