Springtime in the City: Sites of San Francisco’

Published in: March-April 2024 issue.


WHAT’S SURPRISING is that we haven’t done a “San Francisco” issue before this in light of the city’s centrality to LGBT history and culture. I believe the only other “city” theme we’ve done was an issue on New York (July-Aug. 2015), which I always intended to balance with one on San Francisco. I say “balance” because there has always been a lively rivalry between NYC and the West Coast over the origins of the LGBT movement, with San Francisco making a legitimate claim to harboring a vibrant gay culture and an incipient political movement long before Stonewall.

            Some pieces in this issue underscore this point, presenting moments in San Francisco’s past going back to the 19th century. I think “moments” is the right word, as the best we can do here is to zero in on a few episodes in the city’s genuinely long and storied past as an LGBT mecca, art colony, sex paradise, gay rights cauldron, and possibly even the “epicenter” of LGBT life in America, as one source claimed.

            In any case, San Francisco was a hotbed of gay activity soon after the Gold Rush as all those ’49ers piled into the area, and its rapid rise as a seaport made it a bazaar for commerce of all kinds. In his spotlight history of the city, Jim Van Buskirk reports that there was already a Tenderloin District in 1869, and the city’s first gay bar, The Dash—featuring cross-dressing waiters performing sex acts in booths—opened in 1908. By then, San Francisco was an international port of call for people on the move in search of adventure or opportunity. That would describe one Yone Noguchi, who arrived from Japan in 1893 and, as told here by William Benemann, went on to become a significant poet in his own right and an inspiration for writer Charles Warren Stoddard, with whom he carried on a torrid long-distance affair for many years. (It was eventually consummated.)

            Our next stop is the art scene in the postwar era, when San Francisco was a hotbed of alternative artists and movements—alternatives, that is, to the Abstract Expressionism that ruled New York. Ignacio Darnaude presents two artists who spearheaded the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, whose paintings of recognizable human figures included many male nudes. San Francisco itself is a constant presence in their work, which is full of watery backdrops. Decades later, the women of San Francisco were the target of photographer Chloe Sherman’s lens. In an interview, she tells of “the queer cultural renaissance” of the 1980s and ’90s.

            Finally, there’s a History Memo by Emily L. Quint Freeman titled “The Agony and the Irony.” The agony refers to the heart-wrenching assassination of Harvey Milk in late November 1978. The irony is that earlier that month the state of California had roundly defeated the infamous Briggs Amendment, which would have barred LGBT teachers from public schools. Milk had joined in the euphoria, and now this.