I recently spent four days in San Francisco. It’s changed since I first visited twenty-five years ago when sourdough bread was the must-eat loaf, gays flocked to the bars and the homeless seemed totally at home. On this trip, I opted for spelt scones and currant-laden Irish soda bread and the gay contingent seemed no greater than in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle or Vancouver. As for the homeless, well, they continue to be strong presence.
It’s the gay thing—actually, the lack of it—that I wish to lament. Even when I was a kid in Hamilton, Ontario and, later, East Texas, I knew that The City by the Bay was a gay haven. (As someone who spent too much time in front of the TV, I also knew it was the place for Rice-A-Roni, “the San Francisco treat”, and a city where Michael Douglas solved crimes with the guy with that distracting, bulbous nose (Karl Malden). The gay notoriety generally drew snickers amongst my peers, scorn from holier-than-thou public figures and a guarded curiosity from me. Is this really a place for the freaks and am I one of them? Is San Francisco my destiny?
I’d heard of a gay politician being murdered there. Was it really all that safe? After university, I managed to buy a copy of Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street from a second-hand bookstore in Dallas—no doubt, red-faced with perspiration dotting my shirt as I exited—and I was only more enlightened/confused. I could no longer deny being a depraved member of society for I was indeed a reviled homosexual. (Texas in the ‘80s could really do a number on you.) Perhaps I’d find some semblance of acceptance among the perverts of San Francisco. I left Texas and headed to California, opting for Los Angeles as an extended pit stop on the yellow brick road to Oz.
As luck would have it, L.A. proved to be gay enough. It took a couple of months, but I found my way to West Hollywood and, as much as I begrudged it as a ghetto with too much attitude, I drove in from Malibu as often as I could. After three years, I made my first visit to San Francisco. It proved to be disappointing. The homelessness made a greater impression than anything else and I kept trying to pull my boyfriend away from the bars around the Castro. Maybe I had jealousy issues, but I told myself his drinking problem was the bigger issue.
While gay bars helped me see I wasn’t alone in L.A., I had higher expectations for a city as renowned as San Francisco. I didn’t want to feel confined to bar stools and sweaty dancefloors, no matter how hot the clientele. Hotness never mattered. I had my gay card but studs in clubs viewed me with indifference at best. What I wanted from the city was sidewalk comfort. I wanted to window-shop while walking hand-in-hand with my boyfriend. I wanted to see regular gay folk, not writhing shirtless to Madonna, but scrambling to catch the bus to work or gnawing on a supersized loaf of that sourdough. Always one with faulty gaydar, I noticed only a slightly higher gay quotient. All this time, I’d hoped that this was the place that campy Weather Girls song would prove true.
I’ve probably been back to San Francisco a half dozen more times. They were far from gaycations. I have a college friend who lives in the burbs and she suggested we go to a pumpkin festival while I was there for a weekend. Uh,…okay. Should’ve splurged on a rental car. On another visit, I stayed with a former roommate who was a too-chill California surfer dude. I don’t remember us doing anything. In hindsight, I suspect he was doing acid in his bathroom. No need to leave the apartment for a good trip.
My solo visits weren’t any gayer. I’d hit the Castro during the day, expecting to experience gay immersion in a Starbucks or to exchange knowing glances on the street. I did spot some gays but they seemed to have their own kind of attitude. No nose ring, no nod of recognition. Where, oh where, did the everyday gay geeks go?
Three years ago, I was back for an exciting weekend. I’d flown in to swim from Alcatraz. I biked over the Golden Gate Bridge. I jogged through The Presidio. I was on an exercise kick to fend off a nasty bout of depression and had no time or desire for seeking out the elusive Gay Wonders. It was just a city, albeit a damn pretty one.
There was nothing strikingly gay on this latest occasion. Maybe San Francisco never was all that. Maybe I just have an innate sense of dodging the vibes. I bet I could have walked Haight and Ashbury during the Summer of Love and left frustrated, wondering where I could buy a gallon of skim milk. Maybe it’s my destiny to be forever clueless.
We don’t need a gay mecca now, at least not in the Blue States. Most of us no longer flock to bars that greet us with rainbow flags. We feel safer (and more consumer-savvy) looking at housing beyond the gay ghettos of old. We can go on Twitter and amass a throng of LGBT followers to lessen that sense of isolation that may come from living in a small town or rural area far from any known gay marker. We can bring the gay to us. We don’t need to go to Oz.
But I want to know there still is one. Not out of necessity, but out of a desire to be together or, at the very least, to remember when gay culture thrived and grew in certain centers. It brings comfort knowing there is actually a place at the end of the rainbow. In North America, that place has always been San Francisco. Maybe I’m overreacting but it feels the colors are fading.