I left my heart in san francisco.
While there are a lot of cities that are involved in the history of LGBTQ+ folks, there is one city that stood out during the sexual liberation of queer people. Imagine a red bridge, cable cars, and loooots of hills – you guessed it: San Francisco!
When you think of San Francisco, what comes to mind…walking across the Golden Gate Bridge? The world famous prison, Alcatraz? The infamous fortune cookie factory in Chinatown? Something else that has made its mark on this incredibly diverse and energetic city is the history of sexual liberation. From Harvey Milk, an SF resident, elected as the first openly gay politician in California to having a neighborhood comprised largely of LGBTQ+ citizens, San Francisco has always displayed pride (pun very much intended) for its rainbow flag community. What’s the story behind it?
Although San Francisco has had a long history of supporting same-sex relationships, it really began to blossom in the years after World War II. Upon returning from war, many soldiers who had been discharged from the army for being gay moved to the Castro, a local SF neighborhood. An area that used to be known as “Eureka Valley,” the Castro experienced a great exodus of white families into the suburbs after the war and attracted groups of gay men and women thereafter. San Francisco had the reputation of being progressive, and queer people therefore became attracted to it. As more gay people moved to the Castro, a movement began to form. The Castro was not just a neighborhood where a lot of gay people lived – the social, political and economic climate of the area began to change. Gay Rights associations formed, Harvey Milk was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, and gay bars, restaurants, clubs were established. In 1969, there were 50 gay organizations and by 1973 there were over 800 of them. The Gay Rights movement was in full effect. Although people like Harvey Milk paved the way for gay representation in California, his assassination in 1978 caused an uproar in the city.
Milk’s murderer, Dan White, had previously served on the Board of Supervisors with Milk. White had previously stepped down from the Board, and after his attempt to re-join was denied, he sought revenge and saw the Gay Rights movement as a target. He murdered not only Milk but also the mayor at the time, George Moscone. After White was convicted with a charge of voluntary manslaughter, his defense claimed that he was under severe mental distress and was sentenced to less than eight years in prison. They claimed that, due to his job loss, he began eating junk-food which negatively affected his mental health – or more formally known as the “Twinkie Defense”. This caused both a celebration from the police force as well as an outrage in the San Francisco community, leading to the “White Night Riots” in which over 120 people were injured in a violent outcry for justice. SFPD responded by destroying gay bars and beating up the protestors. Although catastrophic, this event did lead to the election of Mayor Dianne Feinsten, who appointed a pro-gay rights Chief of Police and encouraged recruitment of police from the LGBTQ+ community.
Along with his murder, the AIDS epidemic was a big hit to the Golden City and its gay communities. While the heartbreak of Milk’s death was a temporary setback for the Gay Rights movement, the devastation of the epidemic tragically removed a generation of gay men from it. It tooks years of work to build the Gay Rights movement into what it is today.
In the decades that came after, Harvey Milk had schools, buildings, and organizations named in his honor, anti-discrimination laws for the LGBTQ+ community were passed, and San Franciscans continued to stand proudly for queer acceptance. This city has made strides in Gay Rights, but it’s only the beginning in a worldwide fight for inclusivity.
As a Bay Area native and someone who has been putting the B in LGBT since 1995, I find the history of sexual liberation in San Francisco to be fascinating. There are few cities around the world that literally pride themselves on sexual liberation, and San Francisco is certainly one of them. With the Castro as a safe haven for all queer folks and monumental wins for the LBGTQ+ community having taken place in San Francisco, it’s safe to say that this city has evolved into a sexually open and accepting sanctuary.
Check out resources from organizations that support LGBTQ+ communities: