Category Archives: GLBT Historical Society

Sharing Leather History Through a Board Game

Soldiers shipping out of Fort Mason. 1945 photo by PARC, Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

During World War II, an unprecedented number of military personnel were deployed through San Francisco to fight Japan in the Pacific Theater. It was also during World War II that a new military policy was implemented for the first time: the discharging of any personnel who were gay. Sent back to San Francisco, many of those who had been discharged chose to stay in the city rather than return to their hometowns after having been “outed.” Some historians, including Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, Nan Alamilla Boyd, and Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, have suggested this marked a new beginning for San Francisco as a site of gay organizing and activism.

Some of the gay men who settled in San Francisco were drawn to the outlaw image of bikers in popular media, including Marlon Brando’s 1953 film, The Wild One. They founded motorcycle groups such as the Warlocks, the California Motor Club, and the Barbary Coasters. It was partly out of these motorcycle groups that a new breed of urban gay man emerged: the “leatherman.” Many of these men wore black leather gear and denim, regardless of whether or not they rode a motorcycle. In contrast to the theatrical styles of femininity used by drag queens, leathermen developed and eroticized a distinctively masculine appearance and deportment. They sought each other out for heightened sexual experiences that included bondage, role-playing, and fetishes. Having been isolated, stigmatized and criminalized for their sexual desires, they upheld community-building and the pursuit of pleasure as the organizing principles of their lives.

By the 1960s, San Francisco leathermen had begun to create an elaborate all-male social world that came to include hundreds of bars, bathhouses, motorcycle runs, fraternal organizations, and other venues and events. Many of these institutions were centered around Folsom Street in the South of Market. In addition to providing places to build community and to meet potential sexual partners, the bars and bathouses were often the only venues where leathermen could showcase their photography, murals, and other art that portrayed their lives and experiences. This milieu thrived until the 1980s and 1990s when the combined impact of AIDS and neighborhood redevelopment ended Folsom Street’s days as the “Valley of the Kings.”

José Guevara behind the bar at the Powerhouse. 2012 photo by Drew Bourn.

José Guevara tends bar at the Powerhouse, one of the few remaining leather bars on Folsom Street. In 2008, he began to draft an historical map of the neighborhood that he kept at the bar. During his shifts, he solicited patrons’ recollections of the venues and events that had been in the area.

Paul Johnson of Off Ramp Leathers and artist Mike Caffee have been among the many friends and bar patrons who have generously shared their memories and memorabilia with Guevara. He has also conducted research in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society and reviewed the scholarly work on his topic – including the late Eric Rofes’ historical tours of the South of Market, and Gayle Rubin’s publications, such as Sites, Settlements, and Urban Sex: Archaeology and the Study of Gay Leathermen in San Francisco, 1955-1995.

José’s game includes a board, cards, dice and playing pieces such as a replica of a  leather motorcyle cap. 2012 photo by Drew Bourn.

Guevara soon realized that the material he was amassing could more easily be accommodated in the format of a game than a map. With friends’ assistance, he transformed the map into a 16″x 52″ board game with dice, playing pieces, and a stack of trivia cards. The board is lamenated and fits easily on the bar. The outside edge of the board portrays current businesses in the South of Market, along with a timeline and an epigraph from South of the Slot,  Jack London’s 1909 short story about the neighborhood. The center of the board represents leathermen’s venues and events that existed in the South of Market from 1962 until 1984. The project is a work-in-progress, and Guevara continues to develop the game as his research proceeds.

While he is considering other formats – including a publication, an online version, and an app for mobile phones – Guevara has been especially gratified that the game is played in the bar. As he commented to me,

I’m hoping that it’s something that brings them to the bar during my shift. The patrons are engaging each other, and I’m engaging them. You’re getting people to talk about their lives without having to say, “the party is over.” Sometimes people get lost in that. This is a chance to acknowledge them and the time that people spent in creating their community. It’s a chance to ask, “How did this community form? Where is it now? Where is it going?”

The gameboard. ©2009 José Guevara, Michael Moreno and Arturo Cortes.

You can join the game and reminisce at the Powerhouse, 1347 Folsom Street, when José Guevara starts his shift on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. You can also review the recent proposal by the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force to the San Francisco Planning Department to recognize and promote the neighborhood’s leather history.

Leave a comment

Filed under GLBT Historical Society

Chinese/LGBT: Comparing Two Local History Institutions

The Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society (GLBT Historical Society) portray the lives and histories of two overlapping San Francisco communities. The two institutions share a number of interesting similarities.

Chinese Historical Society of America. 2004 photo by Smart Destinations.

The CHSA was founded in 1963. Architect Philip Choy curated exhibits as the CHSA grew and migrated from one Chinatown location to another, including Jack Kerouak Alley, Commercial Street, Broadway, and (since 2001) the current location at 965 Clay Street. The present site has over 10,400 square feet of exhibit and public programming space. It features Chinese in America: Toward a More Perfect Union in the main gallery as well as smaller rotating exhibits.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender History Museum. 2011 photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

The GLBT Historical Society was founded in 1985 and changed locations more than once before establishing its current site at 657 Mission Street in 2003. The Mission Street site featured both archival collections for researchers as well as exhibits until 2010, when the GLBT Historical Society tested a temporary exhibition at the corner of 18th and Castro: Passionate Struggle: Dynamics of San Francisco’s GLBT History. Encouraged by the positive response, the GLBT Historical Society formally opened a more permanent GLBT History Museum at 4127 – 18th Street in 2011. The museum has approximately 1,600 square feet of exhibit and public programming space. This includes Our Vast Queer Past in the main gallery and space for smaller rotating exhibits. The Mission Street site continues to operate as an archives for researchers.

Both institutions began partly as a kind of archival rescue mission in response to dramatic transitions taking place in their respective communities. During the 1960s, many California Chinatowns were disappearing as residents moved out or passed away. The CHSA chartered bus trips to vanishing Chinatowns in Weaverville, San Luis Obispo, Hooverville, and elsewhere, gathering donations in the form of documents and artifacts ranging from boats to baskets to business signs. One donation included an entire temple altar from Napa. During the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic ravaged San Francisco’s gay male population. Thousands of local men died estranged from their families and without heirs, and the possessions that documented their lives risked being lost.  The GLBT Historical Society was founded in part to salvage those materials.

The relationship between each institution and academia has been complex. Both institutions’ founders and supporters have included pioneers who established some of the earliest academic programs and scholarship about their respective communities. CHSA board members Him Mark Lai and Philip Choy were not academically trained as historians, but they developed the first Chinese American history courses at San Francisco State University and University of California, Berkeley. Early GLBT Historical Society supporters Alan Berube and Eric Garber were also not academically-trained historians, but their scholarship was instrumental in establishing a place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in academia. Today, both institutions continue to be supported both by independent scholars (such as Charlie Chin at the CHSA and Gerard Koskovich at the GLBT Historical Society) as well as academics who work within the now-established fields of Asian American Studies and Gay and Lesbian Studies. At various times each institution has partnered with other organizations for the purpose of managing selected collections. Whereas the CHSA has sought this support from within academia (working with the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley), the GLBT Historical Society looked outside academia by partnering with the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library. At one point in its history, the CHSA was affiliated with the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Presently, however, neither institution is formally affiliated with a university. This has sometimes presented challenges. For example, the CHSA’s annual publication, History and Perspectives, is not a peer-reviewed academic journal along the lines of Johns Hopkins University’s Journal of Asian American Studies. Consequently, it can be more difficult for the editors to solicit contributions from academics.

Chinese American lesbian artist Lenore Chinn has contributed to the programming of both institutions. Photo by Erik Butler.

The significance of each institution’s location (CHSA in Chinatown, GLBT History Museum in the Castro) is worth considering. Prior to 1965, San Francisco Chinatown residents were predominantly Cantonese-speaking immigrants from the Pearl River Delta and their descendants. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had a major impact on the demographics of San Francisco Chinatown, bringing in both Chinese professionals and refugees from many other parts of Asia.  CHSA exhibits and programs have focused primarily on the history of the Pearl River Delta immigrants and their descendants, but the newer residents of Chinatown don’t always identify with that history. The Castro location has helped to make the GLBT History Museum a destination for tourists from around the world. At the same time, however, Castro residents have been grappling with the question of what it might mean that the neighborhood may be becoming less predominantly gay.

Finally, it is worth noting the role that both institutions have played in fostering activism. The CHSA’s traveling exhibit about the Chinese Exclusion Act, Remembering 1882, has prompted Chinese American activists in Washington, D.C. to advocate for an apology from Congress regarding the 1882 federal law. The public programming at the GLBT History Museum has provided a unique venue in the Castro to address issues such as housing rights, healthcare, aging, and labor organizing. Projects such as these at both institutions are in keeping with the fact that the very practice of documenting and interpreting Chinese American and GLBT history is itself an inherently political act.

For more information about each institution, visit the websites of the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Leave a comment

Filed under Chinese Historical Society of America, GLBT Historical Society

History as Opera: Halloween in the Castro

2006 photo by Justine Wolitzer

San Francisco has been featured on the opera stage as early as Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. That opera, which premiered in 1910, was based on a play by former San Franciscan David Belasco and was set in the California Gold Rush. The Italian libretto includes references to San Francisco and Wells Fargo bank. More recently, Stewart Wallaces’ operas Harvey Milk, which premiered in 1995, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (based on the Amy Tan novel of the same name), which premiered in 2008, were both set in San Francisco. This Friday, October 23 will see the premiere of the Halloween in the Castro,  a new opera with libretto and score by classical and film composer Jack Curtis Dubowsky and performed by the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco.

In 1946, Ernie DeBaca of Cliff’s Variety Store on Castro Street began organizing Halloween celebrations for the children of the then-predominantly Irish Catholic working-class neighberhood of Eureka Valley – celebrations that came to include costume contests, parades and entertainment. By the time DeBaca discontinued the children’s Halloween celebrations in 1979, the Castro – as that part of Eureka Valley had become known – had transformed into a major residential and commercial center of gay life in San Francisco. Concomitantly, Halloween celebrations on Castro Street had largely turned into a more adult-oriented event for the gay men who then lived in the neighborhood.

Dubowsky has commented to me that his opera looks back as far as the period of time when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had taken over responsibility for organizing and managing the Castro Halloween street party – a period that lasted from 1989 to 1994. As reported in the San Francisco Examiner, safety became a growing concern; and the Sisters collaborated with Community United Against Violence and other community organizations in 1995 in the first of many attempts to re-locate the celebration out of the Castro. Such attempts met with mixed results. Ever-increasing crowds from throughout the Bay Area continued to come to the Castro on succeeding Halloweens as various community organizations and city officials took turns in trying to manage it.  As Dubowsky notes, and as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, 2006 saw the pinnacle of Castro Halloween violence when nine people were shot. Subsequent city policy – including a “Home for Halloween” publicity campaign – effectively shut down Halloween in the Castro.

Dubowsky, who first moved to San Francisco in 1991 and who lived in the Castro from 1994 to 2001, has commented to me that Halloween in the Castro does not include characters representing actual persons, and as such does not attempt to offer an historically accurate account of how the celebration has changed over time. Instead, Dubowsky portrays the opera as dramatizing the competing factions who have had stakes in Halloween in the Castro since the late 1980s / early 1990s. Furthermore, he describes the opera as a form of activism, saying that it “mocks the foibles and hypocrisies of local politics.  It doesn’t give out any solutions.  It doesn’t attempt to solve any problems.  Like Gilbert and Sullivan, it just points out the flaws in the system, and suggests that Castro Halloween is worth caring about, and that there is a viable solution out there. ”

Dubowsky has also commented that his research for the opera consisted of reviewing local and national news reports that he was able to find online – including coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Bay Area Reporter, the Associated Press, Channel 5 (CBS), and Channel 2 (FOX).  Although Dubowsky noted that he has previously donated historical material to the GLBT Historical Society, he also indicated that he did not use the GLBT Historical Society or other Bay Area archival repositories to do his research for the opera. As a professional archivist, this again raises the question for me about what we as archivists can do to make the content of our collections more easily usable to researchers – particularly with regard to content that is not (and may never be) digitized for online presentation.

Halloween in the Castro will be presented on October 23, 24, 29, 30 and 31 at 8:00 p.m. at 150 Eureka Street in the Castro in San Francisco. For more information, please call (415) 295-4469 or visit the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco website.

1 Comment

Filed under GLBT Historical Society

Invoking Harvey Milk during San Francisco Pride 2009

Duboce Park, toward the Recreation Center. 2007 photo by Nathan Yergler

Gay Pride celebrations in the U.S. are an annual commemoration of the Stonewall Riots that took place on June 28, 1969 in New York City. Furthermore, organizers and participants also frequently incorporate references to other historical events as part of Pride. This is true once again for San Francisco Pride 2009, following the ruling on May 26 by the California State Supreme Court to uphold Proposition 8, a ballot measure outlawing same-sex marriages. References to former San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk are especially prominent during the 2009 San Francisco Pride season, in part due to the depiction of Milk’s role in the 1978 defeat of another anti-gay ballot measure, Prop 6 (which would have barred openly gay and lesbian people from serving in California public schools) in the recent film Milk. Inside Pride, the official program guide to the 2009 celebration, includes articles foregrounding the strategies used by Harvey Milk (and depicted in the film) to defeat Prop 6 as pointing to new possibilities for a future overturning of Prop 8. Similarly, other efforts to highlight Milk’s political legacy have figured during the 2009 Pride season around the Castro neighborhood, including an unveiling of Robert Silvers’ new portrait of Milk, the unveiling of Susan Schwartzenberg and Michael Davis’ new installation at the Harvey Milk Arts Center in Duboce Park, and the ongoing exhibit of the GLBT Historical Society, Passionate Struggle, which includes a focus on Milk’s political career and displays the suit he wore when he was assassinated in 1978.

Leave a comment

Filed under GLBT Historical Society