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The Evolution of Gay San Francisco

San Francisco's gay community has been a part of the city since its earliest days. As a port city and a major hub during the 19th-century gold rush, San Francisco became known for its sexual openness along with all its other liberalities. But a major catalyst for the rise of a gay community was World War II.

During the war, hundreds of thousands of servicemen cycled through "Sodom by the Sea," and for most, San Francisco's permissive atmosphere was an eye-opening experience. The army's "off-limits" lists of forbidden establishments unintentionally (but effectively) pointed the way to the city's gay bars. When soldiers were dishonorably discharged for homosexual activity, many stayed on.

Scores of these newcomers found homes in what was then called Eureka Valley. When the war ended, the predominantly Irish-Catholic families in that neighborhood began to move out, heading for the 'burbs. The new arrivals snapped up the Victorians on the main drag, Castro Street.

The establishment pushed back. In the 1950s San Francisco's police chief vowed to crack down on "perverts," and the city's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents lived in fear of getting caught in police raids. (Arrest meant being outed in the morning paper.) But harassment helped galvanize the community. The Daughters of Bilitis lesbian organization was founded in the city in 1955; the gay male Mattachine Society, started in Los Angeles in 1950, followed suit with an SF branch.

By the mid-1960s these clashing interests gave the growing gay population a national profile. The police upped their policy of harassment, but overplayed their hand. In 1965 they dramatically raided a New Year's benefit event, and the tide of public opinion began to turn. The police were forced to appoint the first-ever liaison to the gay community. Local gay organizations began to lobby openly. As one gay participant noted, "We didn't go back into the woodwork."

The 1970s—thumping disco, raucous street parties, and gay bashing—were a tumultuous time for the gay community. Thousands from across the country flocked to San Francisco's gay scene. Eureka Valley had more than 60 gay bars, the bathhouse scene in SoMa (where the leather crowd held court) was thriving, and graffiti around town read "Save San Francisco—Kill a Fag." When the Eureka Valley Merchants Association refused to admit gay-owned businesses in 1974, camera shop owner Harvey Milk founded the Castro Valley Association, and the neighborhood's new moniker was born. Milk was elected to the city's Board of Supervisors in 1977, its first openly gay official (and the inspirational figure for the Oscar-winning film Milk).

San Francisco's gay community was getting serious about politics, civil rights, and self-preservation, but it still loved a party: 350,000 people attended the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade, where the rainbow flag debuted. But on November 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in City Hall by enraged former city council member Dan White. Thousands marched in silent tribute out of the Castro down to City Hall.

When the killer got a relatively light conviction of manslaughter, the next march was not silent. Another crowd of thousands converged on City Hall, this time smashing windows, burning 12 police cars, and fighting with police in what became known as the White Night Riot. The police retaliated by storming the Castro.

The gay community recovered, even thrived—especially economically—but in 1981 the first medical and journalistic reports of a dangerous new disease surfaced. A notice appeared in a Castro pharmacy's window warning people about "the gay cancer," later named AIDS. By 1983 the populations most vulnerable to the burgeoning epidemic were publicly identified as gay men in San Francisco and New York City.

San Francisco gay activists were quick to mobilize, starting foundations as early as 1982 to care for the sick, along with public memorials to raise awareness nationwide. By 1990 the disease had killed 10,000 San Franciscans. Local organizations lobbied hard to speed up drug development and FDA approvals. Since then, the city's network of volunteer organizations and public outreach has been recognized as one of the best global models for combating the disease.

Today the Castro is still the heart of San Francisco's gay life—though many young hetero families have also moved in. As the gay mecca becomes diluted, debate about the neighborhood's character and future continues. But the legacy remains, as was evident when a Harvey Milk bust was unveiled in City Hall on May 22, 2008, Milk's birthday.

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