As the first city in the USA to legalise gay marriage and elect an openly gay official (Harvey Milk), San Francisco is a true gay icon. The birthplace of the rainbow pride flag and home to one of the world’s largest LGBTQ+ communities and best Pride Parades in the world, San Fran is a trailblazing symbol of LGBTQ+ activism. After decades of standing at the forefront of gay culture, it continues to be globally recognised as one of the most progressive and LGBTQ+ friendly cities in the world. In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, we dive into San Francisco’s incredible LGBTQ+ history…
San Francisco’s LGBTQ history goes all the way back to the Gold Rush era of 1848 to 1855. As the city became heavily populated with young men looking to strike gold out West, homosexuality became more common. With young men making up 95% of the population, men often assumed gender roles that were traditionally assigned to women, and same-sex dancing and cross-gender dressing were common at masquerade balls and parties.
There were also many cases of women wearing traditional men’s clothing in public spaces in a bid for increased safety, social freedom and gender experimentation. By the end of the 19th century, however, attitudes in San Francisco shifted. Anti-vice campaigns emerged to target prostitution along with the criminalization of perceived gender transgressions, including the outlawing of cross-dressing.
RELATED CONTENT: How to celebrate Pride around the world in 2022
As San Francisco’s cross-dressing laws continued into the 20th century, the city’s queer culture was forced to reemerge in bars and nightclubs, away from police control. From the 1890s to 1907, the Barbary Coast on Pacific Avenue became one of the city’s first red-light districts, with same-sex prostitution common. In 1908, The Dash became the first openly gay bar in San Francisco with cross-dressing waiters. Police soon shut it down, along with the Barbary Coast red light area. During World War 1, the US Navy began discharging known homosexual and black soldiers in port cities, known as the “blue discharge” practice. Thus began the evolution of San Francisco’s large community of gay men.
GET INSPIRED BY: Coastal California and Big Sur with San Diego
1920s & 30s
Throughout the 1920s, more bars and venues became open to the LGBTQ+ community. As alcohol was illegal until 1933, bars were already running a risk, and it was no more illegal to allow gay and lesbian patrons to enter. After the end of Prohibition in 1933, bars and clubs popped up around the North Beach area, all catering to the LGBTQ+ community who lived in the area. Mona’s, the first lesbian bar in San Francisco, opened on Union Street in 1934, while nightclubs with drag shows attracted both gay and straight audiences. However, while alcohol had become legal, homosexuality remained illegal.
The US military’s blue discharge practice continued into World War II, with many gay men settling in San Francisco at the end of the war. From 1942 to 1943, military patrols known as the San Francisco Moral Drive targeted and raided the gay bars of San Francisco, claiming to be protecting servicemen from homosexuals. In 1943, the police raided the gay bar Rickshaw in Chinatown, arresting dozens of patrons and setting off a small riot. However, by the end of the 1940s, the gay bar scene was growing and queer bars became not only a safe space for gay and lesbian people, but also a destination for visitors to the city, who watched performances and mingled with the locals.
GET INSPIRED BY: Northern California
Beat culture emerged in San Francisco in the 1950s, with alternative lifestyles and communities rebelling against mainstream, middle-class values. Many beat poets, including those who were openly gay such as Allen Ginsberg, came to San Francisco due to the more permissive environment and aligned themselves with LGBTQ+ groups. This time also saw the establishment of many gay social and political groups in San Francisco. The Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955, was the first lesbian-centred organisation in the USA, while the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the USA, became headquartered in San Francisco in 1956.
RELATED CONTENT: 15 San Francisco facts you probably never knew
The 1960s saw the important legal fight for homosexual rights and protections continue in full force.
In 1961, entertainer and drag queen José Sarria became the first openly gay candidate in the USA to run for public office. He ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and won around 6,000 votes. The outcome shocked political experts, who finally realised the gay vote had real political power. Sarria said, “From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community.”
Gay businesses were thriving on Polk Street and the Tenderloin became the home district of the LGBTQ+ community. When police officers raided the gay bar Tay-Bush Inn and arrested 103 people, the public began to question the harassment of the gay community. By 1962, gay bar owners had founded the Tavern Guild, the first gay business association, in response to the continued police raids and harassment.
In 1964, Life Magazine called San Francisco the “Gay Capital of America”. This was the first time a national publication reported on gay issues. In the same year, the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) was founded in San Francisco. They published the magazine Vector and focused on gay legal and social services and community building. Within two years, SIR had become the largest gay-centred organisation in the USA.
In 1966, the SIR opened the first gay community centre in the US. That same year, the National Planning Conference of Homophile Organizations held the first national convention of gay and lesbian groups in San Francisco.
In August that same year, Compton’s Cafeteria Riot took place in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. It was one of the first recorded transgender riots in US history, with the LGBTQ+ community picketing the cafeteria which would not allow transgender people in. In the aftermath of the riot, a network of transgender support services was established, including the world’s first transgender organization, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit.
In 1967, the Sexual Freedom League became one of the earliest organisations for bisexual people.
GET INSPIRED BY: Journey Along the Civil Rights Trail
San Francisco saw the first Gay Rights March on June 27, 1970. Around 20 to 30 people marched down Polk Street and held a “gay-in” the next day in Golden Gate Park, drawing many more people. By 1972, this annual march had become the Gay Liberation Day Parade, with 2,000 marchers and 15,000 spectators attending. Today, the parade is better known as San Francisco Pride, drawing hundreds of thousands of people every year.
The Castro, as the Polk Street area was now known, continued to grow as a prominent LGBTQ+ neighbourhood. In 1972, the Twin Peaks Tavern removed its blacked-out windows. It was the first openly gay bar with opened windows in San Francisco, flouting the laws that once required gay bars to have blackened windows or no windows at all. Lesbian bars and women’s organisations also continued to grow in the 1970s in the Valencia Street area of the Mission District, including bars, coffeehouses, bookstores and bathhouses.
In 1974, San Francisco became home to the Community Softball League, the world’s first gay softball league. Gay bars usually sponsored the teams and the teams often held competitions with each other along with the San Francisco Police softball team.
In 1976, Harriet Levi and Maggi Rubenstein founded The San Francisco Bisexual Center.
In 1977, San Francisco’s gay university, Lavender U, hosted the world’s first gay film festival. In the same year, the Mariposa Film Group released the trailblazing documentary, “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” at the Castro Theatre. It was the first feature-length documentary on gay identity and coming out by LGBTQ+ filmmakers.
In November 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay elected official in California. Harvey Milk was sworn into the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on January 9, 1978.
On June 25, 1978, Gilbert Baker designed and raised the first rainbow-striped LGBTQ+ Pride flag at San Francisco Pride. The flag became an iconic symbol of the movement.
On November 27, 1978, Dan White assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone at San Francisco City Hall. Dan White was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison on May 21, 1979. The sentence sparked the White Night Riots, with more than 5,000 people protesting and clashing with police outside City Hall. Harvey Milk’s activism, election and assassination continue to inspire action towards the realisation and protection of LGBTQ rights today.
RELATED CONTENT: The 12 most inspiring black history sites to visit around the world
The HIV/AIDS virus was discovered in 1981. The virus went on to devastate the San Francisco gay community until the mid-1990s when antiretroviral treatments became available. Around 20,000 people died within the 15 years following the start of the AIDS crisis. The 2011 documentary, “We Were Here”, made by David Weissman, covers the 1980s-1990s AIDS crisis in San Francisco. It was first screened at the Castro Theatre.
In 1982, San Francisco held the first Gay Games, drawing more than 1,350 athletes from ten countries. The athletes competed in 17 sports at Kezar Stadium. Meanwhile, the term LGB (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual) first appeared in the mid-to-late 1980s, to become more inclusive of bisexuals.
In 1990, BiNet USA held its first meeting at the first National Bisexual Conference in the USA in San Francisco. Over 450 people attended from across five countries. In the same year, they declared June 23 as Bisexual Pride Day.
The first Eagle Creek Saloon opened on Market Street in 1990. It was the first black-owned gay bar in San Francisco.
On December 1 1994, the first World AIDS Day was observed in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. A year later, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first of the most powerful anti-HIV drugs ever developed, giving hope to the fight against the AIDS epidemic.
The new millennium heralded new awareness and significant legal events in the LGBTQ+ rights movements. In 2004, the first same-sex marriage licenses were issued to San Franciscans Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis. They became the first same-sex couple to legally marry in the USA. However, all same-sex marriages were later annulled in California in 2008. Same-sex marriages were banned again until 2015, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to legalise same-sex marriage across the United States in a historic victory for LGBTQ+ rights.
The city held the first San Francisco Trans March in 2004. It has since become one of the largest trans events in the world. In 2007, Theresa Sparks became the first openly transgender person elected president of a San Francisco commission. She was also the highest-ranking openly transgender official when she was elected president of the San Francisco Police Commission. A decade later in 2017, Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin became the first legally recognised transgender district in the USA.
In 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a law making it illegal for the city to do business with companies based in US states that forbid civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ people. And in 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a unanimous ordinance to create the Castro LGBTQ+ Cultural District, a group that aims to protect and promote the queer history and culture of the Castro.
Today, San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history has inspired countless cities, communities and movements across the world. The resilient people of San Francisco continue to promote, protect and fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the years to come.
Where to experience San Francisco’s LGBTQ history
San Francisco LGBT Center
The San Francisco LGBT Center is the bright purple building at 1800 Market Street. It’s the main non-profit organisation for LGBTQ+ people in San Francisco who need support, resources, or a safe place to gather. From career counselling and computer labs to meals, daycare, workshops and mentorship, this centre is the heart of the San Francisco LGBTQ+ community.
GLBT Historical Society Museum
If you want to explore San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history in the famous Castro district, start at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. You can explore the “Queer Past Becomes Present” exhibition and see incredible memorabilia like Harvey Milk’s bullhorn and activist literature.
National AIDS Memorial Grove
You can find the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park. You’ll also find the Artists Portal here, which pays tribute to the artists and musicians who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic. There’s also an eight-foot-tall Emperor Chime which visitors can ring in memory of loved ones lost.
Harvey Milk Installation
Head to San Francisco International Airport to see the permanent Harvey Milk installation, which opened March 24 2020. There are 53 photos from Harvey Milk’s life and groundbreaking political career, located in the South Harvey Milk Terminal 1.
Human Rights Campaign Store (Harvey Milk’s Residence)
Originally opened in 1972, this building was Harvey Milk’s office and residence. It became the headquarters during his political campaign and a centre for the growing gay community. Today it’s one of the most important historical buildings in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. It became the Human Rights Campaign Store in 2011 where you can buy clothes and learn about San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history. Even better, 100% of proceeds go directly to supporting the LGBTQ+ equality movement.
Built in the 1920s, Castro Theatre is an icon of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history. Today it hosts Frameline, San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival along with special screenings, festivals, premieres, drag queen performances and karaoke all year round.
Twin Peaks Tavern
As the first openly gay bar in San Francisco, Twin Peaks Tavern in the Castro district is a historical icon. It has bright neon rainbow lights, vintage furniture, and huge windows which display all the fun inside, a tribute to being the first gay bar to not have blackout windows in San Francisco. Customers are encouraged to show off their pride and enjoy a drink from the huge menu… And it’s a staple for any San Francisco trip.
Where are your favourite places to learn about San Francisco’s LGBTQ history?