R-Rated and Ephemeral: Spinning LGBT History

Esta Noche in sepia tone. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

Esta Noche in sepia tone. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

It was San Francisco’s last Latino-owned gay bar—open from 1981 to 2014, featured on HBO’s Looking, the launching pad of countless drag queens’ careers, a safe haven for many. Nowadays, Esta Noche is being gutted and built out into a brand new bar, with a decidedly less gay identity. But is this the end of Esta Noche’s story? Might a U.S. Park Ranger include this infamous gay hangout on walking tours and describe the bar’s importance in history?

If that sounds impossible, consider this: When the U.S. National Parks Service recently invited historians to Washington, D.C., the topic on the table was a startling departure for the federal bureau: the history of LGBT people. It was a kickoff meeting to launch a new study of LGBT history, with the goal of adding more LGBT-related sites to the nation’s registry of historic places and landmarks. The Stonewall Inn in New York is currently the only LGBT National Historic Landmark.

Nan Alamilla Boyd, a professor at San Francisco State and author of Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 , attended the meeting. And she recalls that one guest nominated the Liberty Hill Victorian once occupied by José Sarria, the country’s first openly gay politician.

Boyd agreed that the location is historically significant. Sarria was not only a pioneering drag queen, he was also a civil rights trailblazer. Yet, she said later, she felt keenly aware of one big omission—Sarria’s building also housed a notorious sex club called the Catacombs.

“It’s this historic fist-fucking place,” Boyd said. “This site had this dual usage, both significant, but that other one isn’t going to get remembered.”

The Sarria/Catacombs dichotomy highlights a key issue facing projects designed to publicly commemorate LGBT history. For many, the vast array of sexual expression and experimentation should be a central part of any telling of queer history. Yet, as local and national efforts try to determine the what and how of LGBT commemoration efforts, they run the risk of over-simplifying, or even putting a PG spin on episodes that are frankly R-rated.

At a time when bars and other queer spaces are struggling to stay open, the approach some groups are taking to mark LGBT history also has the potential to forever alter, and possibly diminish, surviving spaces. The fear is that by marking a place as historic, its current inhabitants may get pushed out to make more room for all the memories.

Street Stories, Commemorative Conflict

In the Castro, there’s a current plan by the Department of Public Works and the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District (CBD), to paint the district’s crosswalks in rainbow colors. It might seem at first glance like a whimsical way to celebrate the neighborhood’s queer history and culture. But for some, being somewhere over these rainbows represents further gentrification and worse, “Disneyfication.”

“How many more rainbows do we need, I mean, jesus,” said Waiyde Palmer, a contributor to the Castro Biscuit and Castro-resident since 1986. “I’m fine with a little bit of fey, but the rainbow crosswalks are the equivalent of a cheap souvenir T-shirt, like, ‘I went to the Castro, and all I got was this rainbow crosswalk.’”

Rainbow crosswalks date back to 2008, when efforts of the Castro CBD (Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District) coalesced with the city’s plans to repave roads and improve sidewalks, in a large effort called the Castro Street Improvement Project. (The Castro CBD, one of many in the city, is a special business district funded by a special tax, made up of merchants organized to improve the neighborhood as they see fit.)

In conjunction with the Planning Department and Department of Public Works, the Castro CBD took on the task of “beautifying” the neighborhood. Through a process of public input and outreach, this means the improvement project will include the following decorative elements: 20 sidewalk etchings featuring highlights of Castro history, as well as decorative LED sidewalk lights, and those rainbow-colored crosswalks.

The 20 sidewalk etchings span the neighborhood history, from the first indigenous people to the Supreme Court’s striking down of Prop 8. (Along with the rainbow crosswalks and LED lights, they’re expected to be installed by October.) About half of the historical facts are LGBT-related.

At the same time, an independent coalition of community members and business leaders raised funds to create a “Rainbow Honor Walk,” a collection of plaques commemorating historic LGBT figures that will be installed in conjunction with the Castro Street Improvement Project.

“The idea was really to have something in the streetscape that would ID the Castro,” said Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro CBD. She added that while the $8.3-million improvement street project was funded through municipal bonds and federal grants, The CBD contributed $121,860 to fund the decorative extras when a contractor’s bid fell short.

Mission Dykes Map

A map of historic queer spaces in the Mission. CLICK TO ENLARGE. Created by Molly Roy.

The entire commemorative effort has raised its fair share of eyebrows. During public hearings, several people objected to the inclusion of the name of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk’s assassin, Dan White, in the sidewalk. Others have noted that the 20 highlights skimp on the history of lesbians, people of color and the transgender community of the Castro.

Aiello, arguing that only historical facts were included in the project that were supported by a certain level of historical research, noted that the CBD plans on having a website with more information about “more transgender and people of color.”

The initiative is “well meaning, but dubious,” said Gerard Koskovich, a founding member of the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) Historical Society. The historical society consulted with the Castro CBD on which facts to include, but the final project decisions were made by the Planning Department and the CBD. Not only will there be omissions, said Koskovich speaking on his own behalf, but “when an official institution [like the CBD] is involved, they don’t include content that makes trouble.”

As someone who has dedicated his career to studying queer history and lived through much of it—he first moved to the Bay Area in 1979—Koskovich is quick to tick off such trouble areas. For one, the proposed etchings make no mention of the watershed 1989 “Castro Sweep,” in which nearly half of San Francisco’s police force swept through Castro Street following an ACT UP rally. In one night, 53 people were arrested and 10 injured, and the police locked moviegoers inside the Castro Theater for roughly two hours.

“I don’t think the CBD is eager to antagonize the SFPD,” Koskovich said.

Many worry that the Castro CBD’s chief motivation is promoting its members’ businesses, which can mean creating an environment that brings in tourists. By keeping things “clean, safe and green,” as Aiello describes the group’s mission, the CBD will not only sanitize the neighborhood’s history, it might exclude many residents from sharing in the project’s potential benefits.

“The city is interested in the Castro being a destination, trying to make a kind of tourism that has a mass appeal,” said historian Nan Boyd, who is working on a book about the role tourism plays in gentrification. “Increased tourism will raise property values and contribute to the gentrification of the neighborhood, which will squeeze out community members who do not own property in the neighborhood.”

Aiello says the CBD’s efforts are what’s best for the neighborhood as a whole, not just for tourists or businesses catering to tourists.

“I just don’t see us ever becoming Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square,” Aiello said.

But that’s exactly how Palmer, a neighborhood blogger who recently left the Castro for the East Bay, does see it.

“It’s become a destination only because queers made it a destination, and now they’re not even getting to reap the benefits,” Palmer said. “We’re calling it the ‘gay Fisherman’s Wharf.’”

Queering America’s Landmarks

For historian Donna Graves, commemorating LGBT historic sites shouldn’t be about tourism, it should be about being inclusive.

“When people think queer San Francisco, they think Castro, gay, male and white, but that’s not the whole story,” Graves said.

Currently, the city has three LGBT-related places in its local roster of landmark historic sites: the location of Harvey Milk’s Camera Store, Twin Peaks Bar, and the San Jose Theatre/AIDS Quilt building. Graves hopes that list grows longer, more diverse and includes federally recognized spots as well.

San Francisco’s Historical Preservation Commission granted Graves, along with Shayne Watson, $75,000 to research and write San Francisco’s Citywide LGBT Historical Context Statement. “One of our important tasks is to research the breadth and depth of LGBT history,” she said.

The endeavor runs parallel to the National Parks Service effort. The Historical Context Statement is a planning tool, that can “lay the groundwork” for various educational programs, guide the city in construction decisions and potentially get more of San Francisco’s LGBT-related sites on to the prestigious National Registry of Historic Landmarks.

“We’re also planning to write it in accessible language,” Graves said. “We want this to be used by individuals and community groups to better understand the neighborhoods in which they live.”

But being comprehensive is a challenge. For one thing, many places where LGBT people organized and socialized were ephemeral spaces such as bars in working class neighborhoods that have since been shut down or demolished. At many significant sites, there’s no actual building left to commemorate.

Sex club or historic Victorian home? This site was home to José Sarria and the Catacombs, a private sex club. Photo courtesy of Gerard Koskovich.

Sex club or historic Victorian home? This site was home to José Sarria and the Catacombs, a private sex club. Photo courtesy of Gerard Koskovich.

Another issue is the multi-faceted nature of the public spaces in which LGBT people congregated. Now the Elbo Room on Valencia Street, the bar Amelia’s was not only a site of fundraisers for queer nonprofits and political organizations but also the starting point of countless lesbian hookups. What’s a commemoration effort to do with this duality? How do sites of violence and civil unrest, like the Castro Sweep or the Compton’s Cafeteria riot fit into this picture? Will a private sex club like the Catacombs—which you can find referenced in many academic essays, including Gayle Rubin’s “Temple of the Butthole”—make it onto the list of landmarks?

“It will be fascinating to see how the Parks Service deals with the challenges of putting up these landmarks in a palatable form,” said Koskovich, who expressed optimism about Graves’ and Watson’s local efforts. “Hopefully, it will retain some of the grit of LGBT history.”

Drag Queens or Disneyland

The renovation of Esta Noche’s former home in the Mission is just the latest example of a site LGBT historians and preservationist must reckon with.

Eduardo Morales, executive director of Aguilas, an organization dedicated to serving gay Latinos, noted it was the last in a long line of vanishing queer spaces popular in his community. He remembers when there were three bars side by side on 16th Street that catered to LGBT Latinos.

Morales would like to see a plaque at this former locus of queer life, and countless others around the city. As a professor of psychology at Alliant International University, Morales believes that commemorative efforts will fill in a part of history that’s too often forgotten by his students.

“A lot of gay kids come into my class and they don’t know their history,” he said. Morales would welcome ways to fight against collective memory loss but adds “it would need to include diversity…the first gay history book written didn’t have the words ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ anywhere in it.”

One interesting model of commemoration could be a recent event part of author Michelle Tea’s RADAR reading series. One night in June, scholars, including Nan Boyd, and performers led a guided walking tour of North Beach’s historic queer sites.

“I was there doing very straightforward, very academic history of North Beach,” said Boyd, who led one part of the tour. “But then you also had all these drag queens doing crazy and creative interpretations of these famous queer spaces in businesses that are no longer queer. I really like that pairing.”

Perhaps for a community as diverse as the queer one, no single effort can fully capture the complexity of a history that has long been on the margins. Plaques and texts will inevitably fall short. When New York City drafted language for the historic marker at the Stonewall Inn, the country’s only LGBT National Landmark, controversy erupted. Critics perceived the marker as not fully inclusive of the range of people who rioted at Stonewall. In fact, participants from the original 1969 riots protested again—this time not to make history, but to shape the telling of it.

For Esta Noche, set to open as a new bar later this year, and the many erstwhile San Francisco queer sites, its history isn’t a thing of the past, but something being drafted right now at this very moment.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount contributed by the Castro CBD to the Castro Street Improvement Project. It has been corrected.

7 Comments

  1. Sam

    Personally I do not find it interesting when people identify too perniciously and preciously with some self-styled classification and the self-serving baggage around that. And thereby divorce themselves from those around them who otherwise share a common history.

    There’s a trend not to have a museum for this and a parade for that and a day for some other thing. But to my mind that merely provides a distraction from the much more important celebration – that of being an American.

    I don’t know when we come to realize that identity politics has gone too far but I suspect this is evidence that we’re close. Am I the only person who can truly transgress these petty fiefdoms? And why do some need to adopt the “divide and conquer” ethos in such a shallow way?

  2. mission resident

    I am very thankful for all the trailblazing gays that helped pave the way to where we are today. The next step is to go mainstream so that we can truly be accepted and those gays that aren’t so feminine will have an easier time coming out.The only way to do this is by removing all porn shops within a block or 2 of 18th and Castro. Can you imagine a straight area with 8 porn shops in a one-block radius? I can, they call it the shady part of town where seedy people go. I hate historical areas as I am opposed to the disneylandification of the area, but I think in this instance, it may help the overall gay community. This is one gay man’s opinion based on my own personal experiences. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel.

    • Jon

      I understand your need and want for an easier transition. What queer and gay wouldn’t want to soften the blow? However, your suggestion of removing something as trivial as porn shops and implying it’s a direct correlation to the gay life, is a little problematic. As the author points out, “sexual expression and experimentation should be a central part of any telling of queer history,” does perhaps lend to the overly sexualized image of the gay man. But your solution to help the gay community only promotes assimilation and not acceptance/coexistence. This would admit the “straight-way” is right, and ours as being flawed.
      However, I feel for you. Queer-identity is layered and difficult to understand one’s own place. The challenge with the Castro is similar, how can this neighborhood stay true but still find its way to be a part of a holistic city.

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