Rainbow flag in the Castro, San Francisco

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September 18, 2014

GLBT Heritage in San Francisco

Pride and freedom.

Those words seem to define why San Francisco has one of the highest per capita gay populations in the world. It was not, however, a raised fist that signaled the opening of the closet door, it was a rainbow flag.

"It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant like a bolt of lightning — that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us," said Gilbert Baker, the designer of the first rainbow flag, Baker, a self-described "geeky kid from Kansas" had not only fallen under the spell of San Francisco but also a man named Harvey Milk.

In 1974, Baker’s life changed forever when he met local businessman and activist Harvey Milk, who showed him "how action could create change." Three years after they met, Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — making him the first openly gay person to hold a high public office in a major U.S. city. Milk, known as the Mayor of Castro Street, had campaigned on a positive message for young gay people, saying, "The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope."

The city has honored Harvey Milk in many ways including Harvey Milk Plaza, where a 20- by 30-foot-long rainbow flag flies at the corner of Market and Castro, and three large plaques with 11 photos of Milk by Daniel Nicoletta. Nicoletta, who worked with Milk for many years before he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, feels that their deaths "galvanized the potency of the GLBT movement."

Other notable GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) landmarks include the Pink Triangle Park, Castro and Market; the National AIDS Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park; The GLBT Historical Society; LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market St.; and the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the Main Library, 100 Larkin St.

Historians can pinpoint to the emergence of a gay population in San Francisco as far back as the Gold Rush and the days of the Barbary Coast. The community became even stronger post-WWII when discharged military personnel settled here and, in particular, the Castro district, where Victorian homes were coming on the market at bargain prices.

San Francisco is the home of the first lesbian organization in the U.S., The Daughters of Bilitis founded in 1955; in 1961 the first openly gay political candidate, Jose Sarria, who recently had a stretch of the 3500 block of 16th street named for him; the first Gay Games; the first openly gay men’s chorus, mixed gay chorus, marching band and community theater; the first LGBT chamber of commerce, the Golden Gate Business Association, and the first U.S. city to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

A bit more ephemeral but just as potent are the hundreds of events that add to the GLBT experience in San Francisco. Pride Month is June when the annual parade and celebration on the final weekend and a renowned film festival draw 500,000 or more, making it one of the largest events in the state of California and the largest pride parade in the world today.

In 2006 the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau honored the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Celebration Committee with the Silver Cable Car award. The prestigious award has been given annually since 1965 to recognize an organization or individual who has made a noteworthy contribution to the success of San Francisco’s hospitality industry or enhanced the City’s reputation and attraction as a visitor destination. 

In June 2014, the National Park Service began the process of identifying historical sites for the GLBT community’s struggle for civil rights. Up until now, Stonewall Inn in New York City is the only LGBT site listed as a National Historic Landmark. Some popular San Francisco candidates for designation could include Harvey Milk’s camera store at 575 Castro St, U.N. Plaza where people held vigils against AIDS for 10 years, and Mona’s 440 Club on Broadway, one of California’s first Lesbian bars.

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