Ideas vary for LGBT
by Matthew S. Bajko
What constitutes LGBT history in San Francisco?
The question was poised to roughly 50 people who attended a recent workshop launching a new project aimed at developing a comprehensive survey of LGBT historical sites in the city.
The answers, unsurprisingly, varied based on the participants' personal connections and remembrances. Suggestions ran the gamut from the streets of the Tenderloin and the location of an early LGBT community center to places of worship welcoming to LGBT people of faith and athletic fields where LGBT sports teams played.
Crystal Jang, 67, a fourth generation San Francisco resident, attended the November 14 public meeting to ensure that the places of importance to LGBT people of color are included in the survey.
"Sometimes, our perspective as the API LGBT community is often not heard," said Jang, using the acronym for Asian Pacific Islander. "I came to give feedback to make sure it is all included."
A former public schoolteacher and the San Francisco Unified School District's first LGBTQ middle school coordinator who worked with gay-straight alliances, Jang is now retired. Taking part in the workshop "also jogs my memory," she joked.
"I want to make sure this part of my history is heard," said Jang.
Bill Lipsky, 67, a gay man who moved to San Francisco in 1981 and wrote the 2006 book Gay and Lesbian San Francisco , attended the workshop as he has worked for years to preserve the city's LGBT past.
"I've always been concerned about that. A lot has been lost; a lot of historic places have disappeared," said Lipsky, a former GLBT Historical Society board member who is now helping with the Rainbow Honor Walk LGBT history project set for the Castro. "Younger people are unaware of the travails the people before them went through."
As the Bay Area Reporter noted in a story last month, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Fund Committee awarded local historians, Shayne Watson and Donna Graves, a $76,000 grant to create what is known as a historic context statement for the city's LGBT community. The document is considered the first step toward preserving places and structures of import to LGBT history and is often referred to by government agencies when determining requests for historic preservation designations.
"Overall, very little has been done to preserve and communicate this community's history," said Watson, 36, an out lesbian who lives in San Francisco. "Things are moving very slowly but they are moving."
The GLBT Historical Society is serving as the project's fiscal sponsor, while a community advisory panel is providing guidance. The city's planning department will review the work before it is presented to the Historic Preservation Commission for adoption.
Watson and Graves, a straight ally who lives in Berkeley, plan to complete the historic context statement in early 2015. They are particularly focused on the early roots of the city's LGBT community in the 19th century through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
"We are looking at the places important for the stories being told," explained Graves. "No one in this room needs to be reminded that LGBT history is overlooked and ignored."
To kick off the workshop, five people with ties to the local LGBT community were invited to briefly speak about what areas of town they felt correspond to LGBT history.
Among them was transgender community leader and LGBT activist Tamara Ching, herself a San Francisco native, who recalled that during the 1960s and 1970s trans women often worked the streets of the Tenderloin to make a living.
"We were queens or 'the girls.' We were targeted by the police and harassed; we were the lowest of the low," said Ching.
But along Mason Street and O'Farrell, Jones and Larkin, where many drag clubs and gay bars could be found, transgender people felt welcome, recalled Ching.
"The streets we worked need to be recognized," she said.
Blackberri, a gay black musician who uses one name and who has performed at various venues around town, noted that "Mission Street in the 1970s was very cruisey" from 24th to 16th streets.
Oral historian Glenne McElhinney recounted the history of 330 Grove Street, the site of an LGBT community center during the 1970s where the first gay "circuit party" was held in 1978. The late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk kicked off his third bid for supervisor there on June 24, 1977 with a speech that was the first to include his now famous line "You've got to give them hope."
"It's one of those few buildings that contribute in a very unique way to the hopes and aspirations of a particular group of people," said Milk, according to a version of the speech included in the book An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk's Speeches and Writings (University of California Press, 2013). "It's not as architecturally beautiful as the B of A or even the TransAmerica. But unlike those buildings, it has a 'heart and soul.'"
Milk chose the location because one of his main campaign promises that year was fighting the city's plan to demolish the building in order to build a parking structure. (The site is now the Performing Arts parking garage.)
"For months this building has served as a focal point for the gay community. It's where we meet. It's our own little section of the city's turf," said Milk.
Without the building young gay people would still find places to congregate and access services, Milk acknowledged, "but they won't find much hope."
Although "it is too late for 330 Grove," McElhinney said, "there is still much work to do" to preserve its history and protect other buildings with ties to the LGBT community from the same fate.
For more information about the LGBT history project, visit http://www.sf-planning.org/index.aspx?page=3673.