In March, I had the chance to visit a friend of mine from college at his new home in San Francisco. I had wanted to take this trip for a while, mostly because I missed my friend, but also because I was incredibly curious about this city, which has been known as a queer mecca for almost 100 years.
Along with exploring the city’s museums and parks, eating great food, and getting a chance to experience the local nightlife, my primary goal of this trip was to discover if San Francisco still offered the sense of belonging to the LGBTQ community that it has long been known for.
A 2015 Gallup poll confirmed San Francisco’s status as the gayest city in America when the highest percentage of LGBTQ people in the U.S. was found to be there—a whopping 6.2 percent of the population.
This is no surprise, considering the city’s rich history of progressive policy on LGBTQ issues. The city is also home to the Castro neighborhood, which has been the heartbeat of gay culture in San Francisco since the 60s. Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay elected official in California, lived there, and the area is now home to multiple historic sites and museums, as well as many LGBTQ-owned businesses.
I couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide than my friend Andrew. He moved to San Francisco right after we graduated from college, and has lived there for three years. In that time, he became deeply entrenched in the local LGBTQ scene, and these days primarily hangs out with a tight-knit group made up entirely of young, gay men. When he and his roommates had to move recently, they found a new apartment in the Castro, and now call this historic area home. Andrew’s life is entrenched in the LGBTQ culture of the city where he lives, and confirms the validity of the area’s continued reputation as an LGBTQ haven.
San Francisco’s notoriety as an LGBTQ city was one aspect of the area that drew Andrew there. However, he was also originally intrigued by the city’s reputation as a different kind of place where people think artistically and outside the box. Once he arrived and settled, this same community of interesting and unusual people, who Andrew came to feel deeply connected to, have kept him there. A great job working for a tech company and the beautiful nature surrounding the city just sweetened the deal.
Life in San Francisco is far from perfect, though. The city, including the Castro neighborhood, is quite expensive, worsening the issues of homelessness that have been rampant there for so long. The wealth is coming straight from Silicon Valley, and many of that region’s professionals choose to make San Francisco their home.
In fact, the Castro has become a particularly popular area for high-income Silicon Valley employees to settle, which has prompted fears about the area losing its LGBTQ identity. A recent survey seems to back up this fear, finding that 77 percent of residents who have lived in the Castro for more than 10 years identify as gay, while the percentage of LGBTQ individuals who had moved there in the past year was only 55 percent.
Still, this doesn’t mean that the city is becoming less queer; it is actually seen by some as an indication of greater acceptance throughout the entire region. Feeling less marginalized, LGBTQ residents of the Bay Area no longer find it necessary to live in enclaves.
“[San Francisco] is the kind of place where you feel like the city accepts you for who you are,” Andrew confirmed. This propensity for acceptance has led to the growth of a dynamic LGBTQ community, with many different sub-communities that represent almost every way to identify.
“One thing I’ve seen other cities do better is integrating the various facets of the LGBT subdivisions together,” Andrew added. “I see that there is a very rich gay male culture, but I don’t see a rich lesbian culture as much.”
He admits that this is in part due to his being part of the gay male community, and that these other aspects of LGBTQ culture do exist, but the communities segregate themselves. Still, though, he thinks it would be positive for the entire community if they could integrate more easily.
When it comes to his own friends, Andrew has found a group of like-minded young, professional gay men. He is also part of San Francisco’s queer Burning Man scene, which holds secret parties throughout the year and gets a large group together to go to the festival. These parties are a great way to experience a real local culture, but they can be difficult to find out about for those not in the know.
He also shared some suggestions for where visitors to San Francisco should go to get a taste of both the history and modern LGBTQ culture of the city. A visit to the Castro unsurprisingly tops his list, especially for those who want to want to learn more about the past. The GLBT History Museum is located there. It is also possible to do a walking tour of the area’s past by following a series of sidewalk panels that detail important LGBTQ figures from San Francisco. These tours can be done on one’s own or as a meet-up with a tour guide. Lastly, watching a movie at the Castro Theater, which was built in 1922, is another fun way to explore the neighborhood’s antiquity.
For a fun night on the town, Andrew suggest the Cinch Saloon, an LGBTQ bar located on Polk Street, another one of San Francisco’s historically LGBTQ neighborhoods. At the Cinch, he says, “There is always a very interesting person sitting at the bar who will tell you some very interesting, and often tragic, stories of their experience of living in San Francisco.”
The Eagle, located in the SOMA district, is another fun and unique spot. This neighborhood, and the bars therein, is known for being the home of the leather community in the city. On Mondays, Andrew suggests the Edge, which features Musical Mondays. Expect a crowded bar filled with people singing along to popular show tunes. For this same atmosphere during the rest of the week, check out the piano bar Martuni’s, where the drinks are also quite affordable and the atmosphere is friendly. Finally, to get a taste of San Francisco’s drag culture, Andrew suggests going to the Lookout on Sundays.
Visitors interested in timing their visits around important local events should plan their trips at the end of June, when San Francisco Pride takes place. The Castro Street Fair is also worth checking out. Slated for October 1 this year, this festival was started in 1974 by Harvey Milk as a celebration of LGBTQ life in the city. Those coming to San Francisco at the end of September instead should go to the Folsom Street Fair, which is an annual celebration of BDSM and leather.