Is this the end of gay bars in San Francisco?
A few years ago, San Francisco Travel ran a tourism campaign with the tagline “San Francisco’s gay district is called ‘San Francisco.'”
The campaign was a result of research conducted by SA-5, a branding agency now known as Teak. Their research concluded that San Francisco was consistently identified as a top gay-friendly destination for LGBT travelers (no surprise). But SA-5 also learned in their research that LGBT visitors were interested in seeing more of San Francisco than just the Castro (again, no surprise). The ad ran from 2012 to 2013 in both digital and print format in San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Phoenix.
“The campaign [was] built around attracting new LGBT visitors and giving those visitors that have been to San Francisco a reason to come back,” writes Lynn Bruni, vice president of marketing relations at San Francisco Travel. The idea, in other words, was to show a welcoming version of the city that extended beyond any one neighborhood to encompass the whole 7X7 grid.
So far as travel advertising goes, I like it. Granted, I’m biased since I live in the Bay. But I like the overall spirit of this campaign, especially since the rest of the nation has gradually become more welcoming to queer folk. Along with that, the city, and the Castro, have become a bit more dilute.
Only one lesbian bar remains open in San Francisco with the closing of The Lex in 2015. The Stud was nearly threatened with closure in 2016, though a devoted clientele rallied and now keeps it open as a co-op. Twin Peaks Tavern and Lookout both remain strong, the former thanks to city designation as a historic landmark, the latter for its location and amazing balcony views. But the majority of expressly gay-related bars and businesses are still focused around the Castro, and the Castro is changing.
The demographics of the Castro skew older, with a median age of 40 compared to 38 for the city as a whole. And with a median rent that’s 21% higher than other parts of San Francisco, the neighborhood can be a financially forbidding place for younger people to move. Of course, folks still do move to the Castro, and many expressly come to San Francisco for that reason, but the proportion of gay to straight residents has changed drastically in recent years. While 73% of the Castro still identifies as LGBT, only slightly more than half—55%—of all newcomers would identify themselves likewise.
Sexual orientation is a notoriously hard thing to poll for, however. So there is the possibility that the figures are incorrect simply because many people are unwilling to provide that information. It’s also worth noting that younger LGBT people are reluctant to engage in single issue identity. It’s more common, according to Esther D. Rothblum, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, for younger LGBT people to “express and accept fluid gender and sexual identities.” And in my experience, gay millennials aren’t as interested in going to places that have been made expressly for gays as they are interested in going to the same places as everyone else.
Personally, I like that I can meet for a date anywhere in the city without feeling uncomfortable. It’s an inconvenience to travel the hour it takes to get to the Castro when all I want is to sit for a beer and a chat. I know plenty of places around the city, and in the East Bay too, that are easier to get to and just as welcoming without being expressly for gay customers. And the reverse is also true, as Castro venues like Churchill and Blackbird have done well by appealing to a more mixed crowd.
And both those developments—straight bars welcoming gays and vice-versa—are positive, because it’s just not likely we’re going to see very many new gay venues open up. (Though even as the Stud Bar was threatened with closure in SF, Oakland got itself a shiny new watering hole.)
Of course, something is being lost, and not everyone views this as a positive. Cleve Jones had mentioned a contrary opinion in an article in The Guardian:
“The tech bros had taken over The Mix. They commanded the pool table and the patio. These big, loud, butch guys. It was scary,” he said. “I’m not heterophobic, but I don’t want to go to a gay bar and buy some guy a drink and have him smirk and tell me he’s straight. They can go anywhere. We can’t.”
For my part, I can semi-sympathize. It’s always a little disorienting when a familiar watering hole changes without one’s consent. And I’m pretty terrified of big, loud, butch guys myself. But my positions are almost entirely the reverse of Jones (and as a side note Jones presumes those ‘tech bros’ were straight, and by extension that tech bros as a whole can’t be gay, and if that were true then just how the hell would we have gotten Grindr?).
I have to disagree with Jones because he can go anywhere, and so can I, and not just because either of us could pass for straight. Society has just become more accepting. And to argue from the other side of the coin, if as gays we want equality and acceptance for ourselves, then part of that equality includes allowing others into our spaces without either judgment or disapproval for their own lifestyles.
California and San Francisco both pride themselves on the diversity of the people who make up this state and city. While we have sometimes failed to be a place of welcome for all people, inclusion has always been our ideal, even when we have not met it. It might be comfortable to be in a room or a neighborhood built around an identity, where everyone thinks and acts exactly as we do, but it doesn’t do much to promote equality for ourselves or anyone else to set up gatekeepers to say who gets to go where.
For myself, I go to all the neighborhoods, and all the bars. And all the bars I go to are just the regular kind. I wouldn’t call any of them straight exactly, they just give precisely zero f*cks about what kind of person I like to f*ck. And that’s a lot more comforting to me as a patron, knowing that I don’t have to flash my gay card just to get service. I would call that a safe space. The gay bar I go to is called ‘a bar.’
Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here.
Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer, fine art model, bike messenger and, occasionally, adult film actor. His writing has appeared in the Bold Italic, California Magazine, UC Berkeley alumni journal and other publications.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of BETA or of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. BETA serves as a resource on new developments in HIV prevention and treatment, strategies for living well with HIV, and gay men’s health issues. Our goal is to inform, empower, and inspire conversation.