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5 Snippets of Queer History in San Francisco

San Francisco or the 'gay Mecca' as I like to call it has been my home for the past two years. The sense of community and belonging I feel in this place is undeniable. This city is brimming with queer energy, and it's only because of the deeply meaningful historical events that happened here. Below I've compiled some of the most interesting pieces of queer history I've come across.

1) Pink Triangle at Twin Peaks

The Castro District is San Francisco's queerest district. You'll find pride flags and LGBTQ+ murals galore. If you've driven around the Castro towards the Sunset District, you will notice Twin Peaks, one of the highest points in the city. During Pride Month, there's a bright pink triangle at Twin Peaks you can spot from miles away. Associated Press reports that the pink triangle was significantly larger this year than in past years. It sat at almost an acre wide, the biggest one yet. Volunteers said the uptick in restrictive and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation this year has only fueled the fight for gay rights, and this is one way they were fighting back. The pink canvas sheet has been placed at the top of the hill annually since 1995. It's a reference to the Holocaust when Nazis labeled gay prisoners with a pink triangle. It has since been reclaimed by queer people as a symbol of community and love.

Photo by Jeff Chiu for AP

2) Harvey Milk: First Openly Gay Government Official in California

"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country," said Harvey Milk on a recorded tape prior to his assassination. According to NBC News, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was the first ever publicly gay government official in California. Milk paved the way for queer representation in politics and was a voice for a voiceless demographic. His path there was atypical, as he had moved to San Francisco from New York to start a camera store right on Castro Street. He collaborated with other local shops to set up an LGBTQ+ business group and fought for various issues aside from gay rights. For example, he tried to take on the consequences of gentrification in the Mission District. He saw firsthand how it impacted Latino people in the area.

3) The Birthplace of the Pride Flag

Image by Jeff Raby/CREATIS Group, GLBT Historical Society

GLBT Historical Society reports Gilbert Baker, a well-known creative in San Francisco, and a few friends hand-sewed the first pride flag in1978. He started out making drag outfits and even protest posters. His creations caught the eyes of several activists, including Harvey Milk himself. As part of the Decorations Committee for Gay Freedom Day, Baker was a co-chair. He was specifically tasked with making an emblem that represented the queer community. The pride flag was born. It originally had eight stripes, each holding a deeper meaning such as life and healing. Pink and turquoise, respectively referring to sex and art and magic, were nixed in 1979. A shortage in pink fabric that year coupled with a need to have an even number of stripes for adequate placement on either side of Market Street resulted in the six color flag we still see today.

4) Mona's 440 Club: First Lesbian Bar (opened in 1930s, closed by 1950s)

The first known lesbian bar was not initially created for queer clientele at all, according to KQED. Owners of Mona's 440 Club, Mona and Jimmie Sargeant, had set their target demographic to be creatives in need of a chill locale. This group happened to largely overlap with lesbians, who ended up frequenting the bar. The owners of the bar caught on and went full force with queer programming. They hosted several queer entertainers, like Gladys Bentley and Butch Minton, to sing and dance for their patrons. Even their staff attire and advertisements were queer-coded. Waiters and waitresses dressed as drag kings, and ads for the bar suggested it was "where girls can be boys."

5) Trans People Fought Back Against Police in the Tenderloin District Before Stonewall Riots

Almost every queer person has heard about the Stonewall Riots in New York City. The violent, fiery clash between gay, trans people, drag queens and the police lasted three days. It was a pivotal moment in history when LGBTQ+ people stood up for themselves. NPR reports this is not the first known confrontation between queer people and the police. Three years before Stonewall happened, tension was brewing in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. Policemen would often arrest drag queens and trans women for "female impersonation" or sex work. They were often rowdy, handsy, and unkind to suspected queer people they came across. Gene Compton's was a local restaurant that gay and trans people often ate at in the '60s, even though the management often kicked them out or called the cops on them. One day in 1966, a policeman put his hands on a drag queen in the restaurant. She fought back by flinging coffee in his face, a call to arms for everyone else in Compton's. Silverware and spice shakers were flying through the air, drag queens were pummeling policemen with their purses, and people resisted being forced into cop cars. To the queer people involved in the fight, it was a regular day. They were unaware they were part of a historic event.

People eating at Gene Compton's restaurant
Photo by Henri Leleu, Henri Leleu Papers, GLBT Historical Society



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