Is The Era Of The Gay ‘Adult Theater’ Gone And Forgotten?


Say goodbye to yet another institution: the Tea Room Theater, one of San Francisco’s oldest gay porn theaters, is calling it quits.

Blame goes to the usual suspects: the internet, hookup apps, and a more open culture that no longer forces queer people to hide. These days, porn is practically something you can find out in the open — especially in San Francisco.

There was a time when porn theaters like these were one of the primary ways that men hooked up. You’d spend a few bucks to slip into a grubby theater, or loiter in a hallway, or watch a live dancer. If theaters weren’t your thing, you could also poke your head into certain bathrooms; or hide in the bushes down by the ocean. Half a century ago, for a lot of men, there simply weren’t any good clean wholesome ways to meet each other — and for some people, that was just fine.

Time have changed, though, and the guys still going to porn theaters are the real devotees from a bygone era. You’d have to be intensely devoted to such an establishment to keep coming back, especially at a time when it’s far easier to meet people online. They remain important internationally, though, in countries where oppressive regimes still make it difficult for LGBTs to congregate.

Related: Bathhouses And Beyond: A Brief History Of Gay Cruising

Most of the Tea Room’s clientele is elderly, reflecting the slow waning of interest in going to a store for sexual gratification. It’s tucked away in the Tenderloin, which was once the epicenter of SF’s queer culture but is now mostly the epicenter of crime and poverty — especially as the rest of the city is converted into corporate housing for Silicon Valley.

A few other options remain for naughty gay men: There’s the Nob Hill Theater, which is unfortunately quite a schlep up the hill from Union Square. And there are also a smattering of porn shops and leather establishments sprinkled around SOMA, though their days are probably numbered as well.

So now what’s to become of the Tea Room? A few bits will probably be sold off, and then it’ll likely become home to a fancy coffee shop, or maybe a place to buy sofas that cost more than most people make in a year. Every now and then, someone will find out what it once was, and giggle about it.