“Artists, artisans, plumbers, cops, dancers, mule drivers, lawyers, city planners, bureaucrats, and eccentrics, all with a queer sensibility, nurtured and grew a culture. And what a culture it is, displayed in its full glory throughout Gay and Lesbian San Francisco.” (Tom Ammiano, foreword)



In consequence of the California Gold Rush from 1848 onwards, San Francisco grew from a tiny community to a major metropolis of the United States. 100.000 people from all over the world – mostly men – passed through the city on their way to the mines, with the result that San Francisco became a city of men, who formed 90 percent of the city’s population. Back then, sexuality was understood differently than it is today – especially the people of the gold rush believed in encouraged affectionate friendships between two people of the same gender. Intense and intimate same-gender relationships “did not make anyone into ‘a certain kind’ of individual” (11). With only a tiny number of women in the city, a lot of men turned to each other in terms of physical and sexual needs. For some of them it can probably be considered as a kind of matter of convenience only, but others certainly “seized upon the opportunity to live exactly as they pleased” (11), away from home, free of traditions and social expectations. Crowded boardinghouses, public baths and the like made it quite easy to live out homoerotic desires with like-minded people. “Gold rush San Francisco exhibited all the elements that encourage same-sex intimacy.” (11)

At that time the terms homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual did not exist, which is why people did not classify individuals like that. Nevertheless, there were men preferring other men and women who sought after women. Because people carried out their homosexual relationships very discretely and well hidden from public view it did not cause any arousal with the police – “they simply did not exist” (23). A popular meeting place for homoerotic men was the theatre. Although cross-dressing was forbidden female and male impersonators were highly popular in the theatres and widely accepted in San Francisco. Impersonations though went beyond the realm of theatres, as Lotta Carbtree for example, an actress who enjoyed wearing men’s clothes and smoking cigars in everyday life as well.

Apart from theatres, 1890s Turkish baths formed famous meeting points for men. But over and above, men could identify themselves to each other everywhere in the city through appearance, gestures, coded messages – means of communication that became part of an emerging culture. During most of the 1920s, the police paid only minimal attention to the city’s gay men. The unstated policy at that time was to ignore them unless someone complained. By the turn of the next decade this condition changed dramatically. Plain-clothed officers were positioned in parks and squares “to keep the ‘fruiters’ in check” (48). Homosexuality by then was widely understood as an abnormality. “[…] the relatively new field of psychiatry, which viewed same-sex relationships as abnormal, had become a popular fashion.” (49) By the end of World War II though, life of the homosexuals in San Francisco changed extremely. Private gatherings were no longer the only way for women or men to socialize but they had clubs, bars (most famous: The Black Cat), restaurants, and, for men at least, bathhouses.

The political and social climate of opinion in the US became conservative and conformist after World War II, singling out communists and homosexuals. “In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association declared it [homosexuality] to be a sociopathic personality disturbance” (61) In 1949 the Penal Code was changed: The state “approves and recognizes only one method of sexual intercourse. That method is the relationship between the sex organ of a man and the sex organ of a woman. […] Other practices are here classified as ‘unnatural’ in the sense that they are proscribed by law” (61). In response, homosexuals concealed themselves in most parts of the US, except in San Francisco, where people opposed the repression and fought for their rights. The leather community became more and more organized and public from 1966 onwards, and in the 1970s it became a world-famous leather community. In 1968, the first attempt to change the legal restrictions against gays in California came up, when assemblyman Willie Brown tried to make sex between consenting adults legal. The legislation passed in 1975.

In 1969 10 percent of the city’s population (90.000) was homosexual. Most of the large number of homosexual bars, shops and baths were for men – but by the end of the decade, women, too, would have their own downtown. According to the Institute for Sex Research, in the 1970s San Francisco is considered the best city for homosexuals in the US. Reasons are the tradition of tolerance, the city’s size and geography and that local ownership of lesbian and gay bars etc. had a serious interest in the community. Within the 1960 the Eureka Valley became known as the Castro because of its numerous gay bars and clubs – “a place where it was possible to live, work, shop, and socialize without ever interacting with straight people” (84). A very famous spectacle was the Castro Street Fair in 1974, which included community organizations sharing information, artisans selling merchandise, and participants simply spending time there – “the most popular attractions have always been people watching the unusual” (90).

Then, “the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable happened. The community became victim to the most devastating human plague since the Middle Ages” (107). In 1981 rumors of a gay cancer began circulating in the community; then the name GRID (Gay-related Immunodeficiency Disease) emerged for the immune-deviancy, until in 1982 the term AIDS was generally accepted. The number of AIDS deaths by the end of 2005 was greater than 530.000, including more than 18.000 San Franciscans. Homosexuals from all backgrounds began to create the services victims needed when no private organizations or public agencies helped. Bobbi Campbell was the first San Franciscan who declared that he had AIDS – he became the AIDS Poster Boy.

The San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society was founded in 1985 in order to preserve local LGBT history. Today it is called ‘Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society of Northern California’ and integrates a museum, an archive and a research center for everyone who is interested in the city’s queer past. The James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center opened in the city’s main library and the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center opened in March 2002, which provides a broad range of cultural programs and services to benefit LGBT people throughout their lives. In 2004, same-sex marriages in San Francisco were authorized.


“Whatever the future, lesbian and gay San Franciscans rightfully are proud of the communities they have built, the successes they have achieved, and the contributions they have made to the culture, politics, and progress of the city, all intrinsically and integrally woven into the fabric of place and people that is San Francisco.” (127)



Lipsky, Dr. William (2006): Gay and Lesbian San Francisco, San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing.


Alle Abbildungen aus diesem Buch.