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History Lesson

A Little Bit of Gay History

Everybody knows that San Francisco is the international gay mecca, but where did it all start? Long before the Castro District was the designated touchstone of the LGBT community, the essence of “gay” goes all the way back to San Francisco’s origins.

San Francisco was named shortly after California declared statehood in 1847. In 1848 gold was discovered in Coloma during the building of Sutter’s Mill. The frenzy that ensued over the next decade was a mass movement of men from all over the world converging on San Francisco soil, then making the trek up to the Sierra Foothills (above Sacramento) to find their fortunes in the rivers, streams, caves and caverns of the Gold Country.

“All those men arriving on ships,” chuckles local historian Bill Lipsky, “…and we know that the sailors had a reputation!” Although there is not one scrap of proof that homosexuality was rampant, it is likely that because it was so common, it wasn’t a focus. There simply weren’t any women to go around. Women were a rare delicacy that men could only afford to purchase a taste of when they had cashed in their nuggets.

After the Gold Rush, there were the World Wars. By World War II, while most of the men were off fighting in the war, it is estimated that one third of the workers in the Bay Area were women. Many of these women were, for the first time in their lives, away from home and in the company of others, like themselves, just discovering how enthralling life was in the Bay Area. This era is rife with stories about men bursting through the bedroom door finding their sweethearts in the arms of another gal.

The most amusing thing about the World War II era is that it was the military that wrote the first “Damron Guide”. It wasn’t intentional, nor was it named Damron. It was a list of all the places -- bars, clubs and public spots -- that the enlisted men were told to stay away from, as they were known to be hotbeds of homosexual activity.

From the Barbary Coast (which ran along the base of Telegraph Hill winding from Jackson Square to Maiden Lane), which was home to the first gay bar, The Dash, to the Embarcadero where the first YMCA was located, the gay activity of the past thrived at the other end of Market Street from the Castro.

The next era of gay bars were located in North Beach: Mona’s, The Black Cat and Finocchio’s. A lot of the cruising at that time (the 1920s and 1930s) was taking place in and around Union Square, eventually making its way into the Tenderloin and then up Polk Street.

Although we commonly think of World War II as being chiefly fought in Europe, the end of the war brought deployment of troops into the Pacific. San Francisco was a stop on the way out to the Medway and the Hawaiian Islands for the Navy. Many of those who were later brought up on Sexual Misconduct for a Dishonorable Discharge, had most likely already visited our lively city and were perhaps familiar with The List.

“When they were formally charged, they were taken to a holding facility in Pleasanton for processing,” says Lipsky. “The facilities consisted of two massive Quonset Huts, old airplane hangers, but they had no restroom facilities. Marine Guards had to be assigned to escort the men to the toilets and showers in a separate facility.” It is said that the Marines fought over this assignment.

When released, in shame and dishonor, many opted just to stay in the area. After World War II, a movement for acceptance, a literary explosion, the Beat Generation, and many more establishments catering to gays and lesbians sprung upon San Francisco.

The Summer of Love puts San Francisco’s Haight District in the forefront of the Sexual Revolution, and the Eureka Valley, a once mild, working-class neighborhood, became home to the first housing project and clinic for substance abuse in the fall-out of Haight-Ashbury. As the housing value fell, the gays start to buy and rent in the district. With the remodel of the campy Castro Theatre, The Castro became the heart of the Equal Rights Movement, and the home for political rallies, The rest, as they say, is history.