EILE’s Founder and Editor-at-Large, Scott De Buitléir, writes from San Francisco, where a trip to the popular Castro District revealed a deep-rooted and valuable history lesson worth cherishing.
The Californian Sun shone brightly upon the colourful streets of Castro as my partner and I walked along Market Street towards the famous gay neighbourhood.
Truth be told, I knew little about San Francisco before I arrived there as part of our annual two-week ‘big holiday’, where we’d usually spend a week each in two different locations. The previous week was spent in British Columbia; exploring beautiful Vancouver and spending Canadian Thanksgiving with my father’s cousins in Victoria, the province’s capital on Vancouver Island. For San Francisco, I knew little more than about Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, and Castro; the world-renowned gay village that was once home to Harvey Milk.
Growing up in Dublin, my gay village was more of a gay mile. My first experience of the gay community was joining BeLonG To, when they were still based in Outhouse on Capel Street. Afterwards, we teenagers would be allowed into the now-gone gay bars, Yello or GUBU (now Pantibar) to enjoy a soft drink and play pool downstairs, or sometimes we’d go to a café to socialise after the group ended. Eventually, we became old enough to enjoy nights out at the George, the Dragon, and Glitz at Break For The Border. I have many good memories of enjoying the Dublin gay scene with friends, but I’m grateful that my first experience was in the more community-based Outhouse when I came out at 15.
In comparison to Dublin’s gay mile, Castro is colossal. Beside Harvey Milk Plaza, where the city’s street cars and light rail stops, is a massive and iconic rainbow flag, flying proudly over the district. In many ways, the rainbow flag has almost as much meaning – if not more – than the American flags flying atop so many other buildings in San Francisco. Here, it not only symbolises pride and diversity, but also a refuge for the generations of LGBTQ people who have come from across California, the United States, and the world. Almost every building, shop, grocery store, bar, bank, office, and restaurant has a large rainbow flag on display somewhere; a statement that this region of the city is unified in its own diversity, and most of all, proud. Even the zebra crossings are painted in the rainbow style; a motif not unique to Castro (as I noticed it in Vancouver’s Davey Street gay village also) but powerful nonetheless.
After exploring the area a little, we discovered something that we both wanted to explore; the GLBT Historical Society Museum. For only $5, we were shown just how important and deep-rooted LGBT history was within the neighbourhood, the city, and to American society overall; from discovered photos of same-sex couples from the 19th Century, to how native American society regarded two-spirited and gay people as just another part of their culture (while early settlers introduced homophobia as part of their supposedly-civilised colonisation to the Americas). For more modern history, the museum also hosted an exhibition on the campaign against the so-called Briggs intitiative, a proposed ballot measure that would’ve put LGBT teachers (or those suspected of being LGBT) out of their jobs. The atmosphere and varying levels of homophobia present during that era resonate strongly with the present day, when many within the LGBT community are concerned with the new right movement, from America to Russia and elsewhere. If anything, it shows that history has a tendency to repeat itself, and a battle won doesn’t always signal an everlasting peace.
In between the history of lesbian journals, the local leather scene, gay-friendly ‘bohemian’ restaurants, and the reaction to the AIDS epidemic, what hit me the hardest was the tribute to Harvey Milk. He recorded an audio last will, where he said that in the event of his assassination:
“I ask for the [gay rights] movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power – it’s about giving those young people out there in Altoona, Pennsylvania, hope. You gotta give them hope.”
Hearing Harvey Milk’s recording brought me to tears, and unexpectedly so. While I had no connection with San Francisco, I felt thankful for the efforts Milk and his contemporaries made to bring a visible equality to the streets of Castro and San Francisco, because they inspired so many others around the world to do the same in their hometowns and countries. Almost forty years on from his death, I wonder what Milk would have thought of not only Castro today, but also of the quality of LGBTQ lives across North America and further afield. I wondered how proud he’d be to know that in places as relatively small as Ireland, there are LGBTQ children who live comparatively easy lives, thanks to countless activists, campaigners, legislators, charities, organisations, and their supporters.
Harvey Milk was killed over ten years before I was born, and yet I walked out of the GLBT Historical Society Museum with my partner, feeling deeply grateful and humbled for the passion he had to bring an end to the prejudice and hate experienced by so many in San Francisco and elsewhere. Today, we still do not live in an idyllic world, but it is worthwhile to take stock of the progress made in many parts; to enjoy the freedom to marry, to have a family of one’s own, to lead the career one wishes, or to live a full life without fear of AIDS, regardless of HIV status. All these rights and more are built on the hard work and campaigning done by not only past activists, but current ones.
We have so much to be grateful for, and we have come so far, but equality is not permanent. It must be fought for, and when achieved, it must be guarded and protected, so that future generations may hold on to that hope.