Dirty, wet and steep-sloping streets. A large domed City Hall with the most beautiful staircase inside. Taut men wearing tight flannelettes and sporting months-old moustaches and well-rounded, white policemen chasing them and bashing them up just for fun.
This was how I imagined the city of San Francisco to be. Or rather, how I imagined 1970s San Francisco to have been.
As a high school student (which really was only a few months ago), I studied the story of gay politics of this city and its most well-known character, Harvey Milk. The works of Gus van Sant, Rob Epstein and Randy Shilts – among others – had etched into my mind an image of how this city was. I had, since having had studied this topic, been very keen to visit the city which has been called the “gay capital of the world.”
And visit it I did on a recent family trip around the USA. I longed to visit the famous landmarks of the city: City Hall, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street. But most importantly, I wanted to visit the Castro – San Francisco’s version of our Oxford Street and the place where much of the gay political action of the 1970s occurred.
Some things have stayed the same from the San Francisco that I “knew.” The massive marble and gold dome of San Francisco City Hall still stood tall in the middle of the city, striking awe upon all who see. The staircase in its interior – a staircase featured by van Sant greatly in his biopic Milk as a place where the great Harvey Milk would make an “entrance” – was grander than any I’ve seen. I imagined how this place was way-back-when, and was enthralled in the magic and history of the place that was the birthplace of gay politics in the United States.
However, there were other things that have changed from the San Francisco that I “knew” from the films and books I saw. For one, the fashion sense of the gays has evolved (perhaps for the better). The somewhat chilly winter deterred many from bearing all in a city where nudity is “apparently” generally acceptable, though a few bear chests could occasionally be seen, especially in the Castro. The streets didn’t seem as crowded or dirty and the hippies didn’t seem to have as strong a hold on the Haight district as they did in the ‘70s.
But perhaps the most notable change to the city since then was the air of open acceptance that was present throughout the city – a feeling that, as a gay man, I could fit in here more than most places back home. I saw (presumably) LGBT people everywhere, from the chowder shop my family ate at on Fisherman’s Wharf to the gift shop in St Mary’s Cathedral. The city really did feel like a place where homosexuals could be themselves, and not just in the “gay section” either.
Today, rainbow flags fly all over the city, from shop fronts to hotel balconies, to represent the city’s attitudes towards us. But perhaps the most significant of these stands on the corner of Market and Castro Streets. It stands at the crossroads of where much of the movement took place. And it stood as a symbol, for me personally, of just how far we’ve come from a time when gay men lived in fear of public bashings a mere forty years ago.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in San Francisco, not just for the campness it exuded but also for the history behind it. It was great visit a place that I thought I knew so well.
Perhaps I might come back in a few years time and experience it all again, only this time to enjoy the other, wilder things in San Fran – the things an eighteen year old boy can’t do in America with his parents around.