Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Authors submit SF LGBT history document for review


A new report details the role North Beach, seen from the Coit Tower observation deck looking toward Russian Hill, played in the birth of San Francisco's LGBT community. Photo: Rick Gerharter 
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San Francisco planning and historic preservation officials are currently reviewing a draft version of a wide-ranging survey of the city's LGBT past.

It spans the centuries and features various groups of LGBT residents who called the city home, from Native American two-spirit tribe members and gender nonconforming Chinese immigrants to various artists and service members.

Officially titled the "Citywide Historic Context Statement for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer History in San Francisco," the Bay Area Reporter obtained a copy of the 355-page draft document through a public records request.

Funded several years ago by a $76,000 grant from the San Francisco Historic Preservation Fund Committee, overseen by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the historic context statement is a preservation planning tool that federal, state, and local governments can refer to when determining what places and structures hold importance to telling a historical theme.

Once adopted as an official city document, it will assist with efforts to landmark, either by the city or national programs, properties of historical significance to the LGBT community.

Authors Donna Graves, a public historian based in Berkeley who is straight, and Shayne Watson, an architectural historian based in San Francisco who is lesbian, declined to be interviewed about the document while city officials review the preliminary draft.

But in an emailed statement to the B.A.R. , Watson wrote that the project "has been a labor of love for both Donna and me since we wrote the first draft grant application in 2012."

Their report begins in the late 15th century when European settlers first encountered the berdache, meaning "kept boys," members of local Native American tribes who adopted the roles of the opposite sex and faced eradication under Spanish missionaries who arrived later.

The document then traces the introduction of laws in the mid-19th century that targeted people for "nonnormative sexual or social behavior or acts" and the "homosocial activity among men" that existed during the Gold Rush days to the birth in 1910 of "an active gay network" of servicemen and civilians in the city "that gathered at private residences and bathhouses."

Cross-dressing by both men and women in the 19th and 20th centuries is covered, as are several of the more noteworthy Barbary Coast female impersonators, like Bothwell Browne, Julian Eltinge, and Ah Ming, whose 1892 obituary declared that "As a female impersonator ... Ming led all of his countrymen."

It delves into the role of bohemians, such as poets and lovers Charles Warren Stoddard and Yone Noguchi, and lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow in helping turn Jackson Square and North Beach into a haven for homosexuals from around the world.

Later arrivals, such as poet Robert Duncan and his partner, visual artist Jess Collins, are included among the Beat generation who played a hand in attracting other LGBTQ artists to the city in the 1950s. The art gallery the couple helped co-found was where gay poet Allen Ginsberg recited his coming-out poem "Howl" in October 1955.

The birth and migration of the city's gay and lesbian bar scene is documented from its early incarnation in North Beach, at places like Finocchio's, Mona's 440 Club, and the Black Cat Cafe between the 1930s to the mid-1960s, to its eventual spread south into the Tenderloin, Polk Street, Haight-Ashbury, South of Market, the Mission and Valencia Corridor, and the Castro, where it remains centered to this day.


Bathhouse culture

Bathhouse culture and the various establishments catering to a gay clientele are covered, as is the sole women-focused bathhouse Osento that was housed in a Victorian on Valencia Street. Public cruising spots for sex are also documented, from the northern blocks of Market Street in the 1920s and the Tenderloin in the 1940s to various parks and open spaces in later decades.

Other sections delve into police harassment faced by LGBTQ communities; homophile movements in the 1950s and 1960s; the growth of Pride celebrations and a gay press; queer arts groups; the emergence of an LGBT political presence; and the launch of organizations with specific racial and gender focuses.

It ends with the advent of AIDS in the 1980s and the city's response to the deadly disease over the ensuing decades.

"The LGBTQ Historic Context Statement is not intended to be inclusive of all aspects of LGBTQ history or associated sites, but instead aims to provide a broad overview of the many and complex patterns, events, influences, individuals, and groups that shaped this history," Graves and Watson explain in the introduction.

The women credit Damon Scott and Friends of 1800, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization that fought to protect from demolition the Victorian that is now incorporated into the LGBT Community Center at 1800 Market Street, for laying the groundwork for their historic context statement.

Their jumping off point was the 2004 document "Sexing the City: The Development of Sexual Identity Based Subcultures in San Francisco, 1933-1979," written by the Friends group and Scott as the country's first LGBTQ historic context statement.

Graves and Watson began the research for their project in October 2013 and last October delivered the first rendition of their work to an advisory committee comprised of local historians and preservationists. After receiving feedback from the group, the women did additional research, revised the document, and submitted it in March to the city's planning department and the Historic Preservation Fund Committee for feedback.

Both entities are now reviewing the preliminary draft and will submit any comments or suggested revisions to Graves and Watson. A second draft will then be submitted to planning officials before a final version is sent to the city's Historic Preservation Commission to be voted on at a public hearing.

So far the women have received "super positive comments" about their initial version of the document, wrote Watson.

"We have dedicated thousands of hours (many pro bono) to making the HCS as comprehensive and inclusive as possible," she wrote, referring to the historic context statement. "This is by far the most meaningful and personally rewarding project of my career, and I know Donna feels the same. We couldn't be more excited that we are this close to having it adopted by the city."

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