A Guide to Pride in San Francisco (All Year-Round)
Equality for all. Respect and tolerance. Those words say a lot about San Francisco. Historically and culturally, the city has been waving the flag (albeit not the rainbow version created here in 1978) for 150 years. Today San Francisco has one of the highest per capita gay populations in the world.
The largest flagpole in the city flies a rainbow banner above Harvey Milk Plaza, which begins above ground at Castro and Market streets and descends a wide curving stairway to the Muni Metro station entrance. A brass plaque describes Milk’s life, work and death, and concludes with a pithy comment from the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco on his role in the gay community: “I am all of us!” Just above the station is the Pink Triangle Memorial Park, a memorial to the LGBT victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Start the day with breakfast at the popular Cafe Flore (2298 Market St.). A block away is where the world-renowned AIDS memorial quilt got its start in 1987. It now has 46,000 panels.
Across the street is Twin Peaks (401 Castro St.), which made a major statement when it opened in 1975, breaking the tradition of dark and secretive bars. It emerged as the country’s first ground-floor gay bar with expansive, clear glass windows. Down the block is Timothy Pflueger’s landmark Castro Theatre (429 Castro St.), primary venue for Frameline, the LGBT film festival each June. Year-round it features imaginative billings of sophisticated, classic films. Evening performances at this Spanish Baroque-style theater include Wurlitzer organ music.
On the same block is A Different Light bookstore (489 Castro St.), which Betty & Pansy’s Severe Queer Review calls “the gay community center of San Francisco,” and Cliff’s Variety (479 Castro St.), home of everything 5 & 10ish. The first Cliff’s opened at 545 Castro St. in the 1930s; this latest incarnation, the fourth, opened in 1972. Cliff’s Halloween inventory is second to none.
Be sure to stop at Harvey’s (500 Castro St.), formerly known as the Elephant Walk. In 1979, in retaliation for riots at City Hall following Dan White’s conviction for manslaughter instead of murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Milk, police went to the Elephant Walk and dragged out patrons and beat them. The bar sued the city and won. (White served five years in prison and after he got out killed himself in 1985.) Today, eclectic wall exhibits at Harvey’s are donated or lent by the community: photos tracing Milk’s rise to political power; a poster signed by the cast of “La Cage Aux Folles”; an oil painting of Liberace; “Play Fair,” the first-ever safe sex pamphlet for gays published by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Harvey Milk’s Camera Shop (575 Castro St.), a Victorian storefront, is among the more historic addresses in the Castro. Milk and his partner Scott Smith opened the store in 1972, and it quickly became a political gathering place. Milk and Smith lived upstairs and ran the store for four years. The store has had several changes in owners; currently, it’s The Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store
Walk back to Market Street and The Cafe (2367 Market St.), a notable bar and dance club for men and women that looks out from the second floor onto the spectacle at the confluence of Market, Castro and 17th streets.
The Eureka Valley-Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library (3555 16th St.) has a solid collection of lesbian and gay literature.
Be sure to stop in at the 40,000-square-foot San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (1800 Market St.). About 20 organizations have offices in the building, offering legal, health, social, educational and cultural workshops, events and counseling. In 2006, the center and Frameline began admission-free screenings of documentaries and features, 7:30 p.m., second Thursday of every month.
For a ”green” break, stroll over to Dolores Park (Dolores between 18th and 22nd streets) in the Mission, a green oasis bordered by well-kept Victorians and a gorgeous view east over the city’s skyline. The southwest corner of the park is known by the locals as Dolores Beach, for all its sunbathers.
The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial is in May, but June is the month of most activity, many tied to the Pride Parade. San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is presented at the Castro Theatre and other venues by Frameline, the nation’s oldest and largest gay and lesbian film-presenter. The festival ends the day of the parade. The Saturday night before the Sunday parade is the Dyke March, a motorcycle contingent of renown, and Pink Saturday, a street party in the heart of the Castro. The five-week Queer Arts Festival of poetry, visual arts, dance and comedy presents at various venues around the city, sponsored by the Queer Cultural Center.
Street fairs, too, celebrate gay and lesbian life: Up Your Alley Fair, typically the last Sunday in July; the Folsom Street Fair, in September; Hairrison Street Fair on Labor Day weekend; and the Castro Street Fair in October. Watch for Our Family Coalition, alternative family events held year-round.
Mostly for Women — The Mission
The facade of the San Francisco Women’s Building (3543 18th St.) is covered with a four-story mural created by seven women artists and scores of volunteers. Of the dozens of murals brightening the Mission, this one most closely matches the masterpieces of Mexico in strength of imagery and quality of execution. The mural depicts prominent women, ethnic goddesses, fabric designs and calligraphy. The building houses community service programs, and the lobby’s information desk and bulletin boards offer tips and flyers about events throughout the city.
Good Vibrations (603 Valencia St.), which Severe Queer Review describes as a “clean, well-lit place” for sex toys, is lesbian-owned, though its wares are for both women and men.
Browse at Modern Times Bookstore (888 Valencia St.). It’s not exclusively for lesbians or gay men, but specializes in avant garde and world literature, hard-to-find fiction (especially by women of color), and Spanish-language books and materials. Modern Times was the first bookstore in San Francisco to have a separate section for lesbian and gay materials.
After dinner, check out 30 Brava! For Women in the Arts (2789 24th St.), which presents world premieres of plays by women of color and lesbians.
Civic Center • Downtown
Start out in the Castro with coffee and a mouth-watering selection of muffins, scones or bagels at Sweet Inspiration (2239 Market St.). Then head toward the Civic Center by hopping on one of the beautifully restored F-Line streetcars. Get off at Market and Eighth streets for the city’s Main Public Library and its third-floor James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center (100 Larkin St.), named for the former U.S. ambassador to Luxemburg. The trompe l’oeil ceiling mural is by local artists Mark Evans and Charley Brown. The center has changing exhibits and samples of the library’s growing collection of lesbian and gay books, magazines, manuscripts, films, videos and memorabilia.
Catch the F-line or walk five blocks east to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society (657 Mission St.), open Mon., Wed. - Sat., 1-5 p.m and Sun., 12 – 5pm., and includes records of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and the personal papers of Elsa Gidlow. You can still see the exterior of the 34 Elsa Gidlow House at 150 Joice, between Stockton and Powell, California and Sacramento streets. When Gidlow came to the city in 1927, she already was a well-known lesbian writer who had hosted salons in Montreal and New York for other lesbian and gay writers and artists.
Continue your historical tour at Macondray Lane. Two blocks long, rising above Taylor and Leavenworth, Union and Green, it was the model for Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
Besides clubs, like The Eagle (398-12th St.) with its mud wrestling and live music, the city also boasts first-rate live performances.
Theatre Rhinoceros’ (2926 16th St.) main stage season September-June is dedicated to gay and lesbian productions; readings and small productions are staged in Rhino’s studio. The S.F. Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band performs several times a year, including its annual Dance Along Nutcracker in early December at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St.). The New Conservatory Theatre (25 Van Ness Ave.) premieres gay and lesbian plays. The 40-voice Golden Gate Men’s Chorus performs mostly classical music three times a year. The S.F. Gay Men’s Chorus, formed the night Moscone and Milk were slain, today has more than 200 singers who perform internationally.
For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit www.sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices.
Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art.