Updated: Sep 27, 2022
If you have ever been to San Francisco, you probably know that the city is well-known for its large gay community. You have probably heard about the Castro District, the part of the city where every bar, restaurant, club, and store is gay friendly, and where gay people feel the most comfortable. A large rainbow flag hangs over the Castro, and it’s common to see gay men or women holding hands as they walk down the street.
How did the city become such a gay mecca?
Long before it became the gay homeland, San Francisco was a lawless place. It was a port city, where people of different cultures met and mingled. It was a boom town, and during the Gold Rush, there was a population explosion. The city grew from less than 500 residents in 1847, to over 25,000 in 1849, as tens of thousands of miners came to the area to seek their fortune. The lack of strong government and generally lawless environment created opportunity for criminal behavior.
Around 1848, as the Spanish-American War with Mexico came to an end, volunteer soldiers were discharged and settled in San Francisco. Many had come from gangs in New York City, and they set up a kind of mafia called the Regulators, who harassed Hispanics and extorted protection money from businesses. Around this time, ships from Australia, Britain’s penal colony, brought ex-convicts and criminals to the city. These Australian immigrants were known as the Sydney Ducks, and dominated some neighborhoods, opening boarding houses, bars, and brothels. Customers were often beaten and robbed, and sometimes murdered.
A three-block section of the city along Pacific Street became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Miners, sailors, and tourists seeking bawdy entertainment and sex frequented the dance halls, gambling dens, concert saloons, bars, variety shows, and brothels. Crime was rampant, and able-bodied men were often drugged and kidnapped to serve on ships in need of sailors, a process known as “Shanghaiing”. The tolerance for sexual behavior of all kinds also made the area a good place for homosexuals to meet, free from oppression. Some of the brothels catered to men who wanted sex with men.
The earthquake of 1906, and the resultant fires, destroyed the Barbary Coast and much of the rest of the city. The Barbary Coast was rebuilt, with the goal of eliminating the crime and cleaning up the area, and became known as Terrific Street, with its new jazz clubs and upscale dance halls. The golden days of Terrific Street lasted only a few years, before a new mayor, James Rolph, worked with the city government to put an end to the freewheeling, loose-moralled area.
That doesn’t mean that the city suddenly became a bastion of morality. Businesses relocated and reopened throughout the city, and tolerance and flexibility continued to provide a safer environment for sexual expression, including homosexuality. Gay bars and other establishments that catered to gay people started popping up in the 1920s, and by 1940, there was a flourishing gay culture.
The population of gays in the city was increased by the US Navy’s practice of discharging sailors for homosexual behavior. These sailors were discharged in San Francisco, and many of them stayed rather than go back to their hometowns, where they would be stigmatized for being discharged for being gay. A network of gay men helped these sailors to find jobs and homes, and helped to build the community.
In the 1960s, police harassment of gays began to increase, as it did in other cities, like New York. The Tavern Guild, whose membership included the owners of gay businesses, formed to push back against this harassment. The Mattachine Society, one of the first gay organizations, moved its headquarters to San Francisco, and started publishing the “Advocate”, the first gay magazine in the US.
By the time of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, there were 50 gay organizations. The Riots kicked the gay rights movement into high gear, and by 1973 there were 800. The number of gay bars also increased, from 58 in 1969 to 234 in 1980.
The first Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco was held in 1970, in support of the Parade in New York City. San Francisco continued to be a bastion of gay rights and a safe haven for gay people. Important gains in the Gay Rights movement were made in the city.
One of these gains happened in 1977, when Harvey Milk became the first out gay man to win a political office when he became a San Francisco city supervisor. Milk served for 11 months, during which he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation, which was signed into law by Mayor George Moscone. On November 27, 1978, Milk and Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, a former city supervisor. When Dan White was given a slap on the wrist for the murders on May 21, 1979, it kicked off one of the biggest riots in San Francisco history, the White Night Riot, where gay people and their allies, enraged by the sentence, marched on City Hall.
Today, the city is still a bastion for gay rights, and a focal point for the gay community. Tens of thousands of gay people visit the city every year, taking part in Pride events and other festivals, like the Fulsom Street Fair or Dore Alley. The city is home to more than 100,000 LGBTQ+ people, out of a total population of 700,000.
You can read more about San Francisco’s gay history here:
In 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prevent same-sex marriage, Tom and I took advantage of the brief window before Prop 8 took away the freedom to marry. We traveled to San Francisco with 20 of our friends, and got married at the Grand Hyatt in Union Square. Many thousands of others took the opportunity to wed, knowing that we might have our marriages nullified by upcoming legislation. It was, and still is, the happiest day of my life, and is at least part of the reason that San Fran is my favorite city.