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What we lose when an LGBTQ+ bar closes
Shortly after the new year, I was stunned after learning another neighborhood business was closing. I was surprised by the abrupt message handwritten on a sign outside – and perhaps ironically revealed on Instagram–Harvey’s, an LGBTQ+ bar in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro district announced its last day before closing for good. Once ground zero of the national gay liberation movement, as it was called in the 1970-90s, it is located at the southwest corner of Castro and 18th streets, once known as the gayest intersection in the world.
If you’ve ever been to the neighborhood, you would have passed the bar named in memory of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California and who served for 11 months in 1978 on the San Francisco board of supervisors until he was assassinated by a disgruntled former colleague. You probably stopped in for a drink, looked in the plate glass windows passing by, were taken there by locals, or it was pointed out by the guide of the neighborhood history walking tour. An iconic bar of gay pride and liberation for a founding generation of LGBTQ+ residents, it was quietly and abruptly closed for business Jan. 22 amid an outpouring of wistful reminiscences and resignation on social media–perhaps, a sign of the times. Some of the staff organized a closing party Jan. 28.
What do LGBTQ+ people lose when a “gay” bar closes (or the later iterations lesbian bar, queer bar, leather bar, or drag bar)? To understand what we lose when a “gay” bar closes, we have to look at our own history.
It’s no accident that the contemporary LGBTQ+ movement was purportedly born in 1969 at a gay bar, New York’s Stonewall Inn, where drag queens and others led a spontaneous rebellion that fought back against police harassment. It was a clarion call for all LGBTQ+ people to come out of the closet and live openly, and fight back against shame, discrimination, violence and hatred.
Up until that time for most of the 20th century, as LGBTQ+ people became aware that we were not alone, we mostly socialized in private homes or private clubs or speakeasies before moving into more public spaces. After World War I and especially after World War II, many LGBTQ+ people left their small towns and found each other while serving in the military or moving to urban centers. Bars catering to LGBTQ+ people were usually dark and dingy dives that poured expensive watered down drinks, were run by the mafia and prone to raids and shakedowns by the police. In the drive to find community, many risked a night out that could end in a police raid, being charged for breaking indecency laws, spending time in jail, having one’s name, address and crime published in the morning newspapers, and ultimately losing one’s job, home and family.
On Nov. 27, 1974, two gay men–Fred Rogers and David Manducca–opened the Elephant Walk at 500 Castro, the former site of Anderson’s Pharmacy. Named after the film starring gay icon Elizabeth Taylor, it sported an upscale tropical theme, posters from the movie, elephant motifs and automated waving palm fans on the walls. Following the lead of another bar up the block, large plate glass windows were installed–a statement that patrons no longer needed to feel ashamed being seen in a gay bar. Gay men and lesbians were both welcome–a break from the usual segregated bars. Sylvester, legendary disco superstar and singer of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was a regular performer Sunday afternoons with backup singers, Two Tons of Fun (later the Weather Girls). The gay bar became a symbol of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurship, neighborhood institution, community, safety, pride and liberation.
By the mid-1970s, San Francisco was the gay mecca of the universe and LGBTQ+ people migrated to the Castro, transforming a largely Italian and Irish American neighborhood into the gayest ZIP code in the country. In a historic election in November 1977, an initial glass ceiling of LGBTQ+ political power was finally shattered when Milk was elected to the board of supervisors for the district that included the Castro. The next year he served for only 11 months before being assassinated in his City Hall office by former supervisor and former police officer Dan White, who also assassinated the mayor, George Moscone that same day Nov. 27, 1978. Later that night, stunned, grieving citizens of San Francisco marched from the Elephant Walk in a silent candlelight memorial that ended at City Hall.
Six months later, May 21, 1979, White’s murder trial resulted in a conviction on lesser charges: two counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison–although he could be freed in five years with time off for good behavior. Gays erupted in outrage and a protest at City Hall turned violent by nightfall. In what became known as the White Night Riots, City Hall was pelted with stones and stormed, and numerous police cars at the scene were set ablaze.
Hours later at 1 a.m. in an unauthorized raid, two-dozen police officers massed in the Castro, beat people who happened to be on the street, trashed the Elephant Walk, and shattered its windows and pummeled its patrons. A police captain reportedly told a journalist, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We’re not going to lose the battle here.”
In December 1988, a fire nearly destroyed the building, but in 1996, the landlord reopened the bar as Harvey’s, in memory of the slain supervisor. It was filled with historical LGBTQ+ memorabilia and photographs like a Milk campaign poster, one of Sylvester’s gold records, and a pair of Greg Louganis’ Speedos–and was campily called the gay Hard Rock Cafe.
With the HIV/AIDS epidemic at its height, the gay bar had transformed from a sanctuary of liberation and pleasure into a gathering space that accommodated community support, fundraising and memorials. In our bars, drag queens performed to raise funds, community groups came together to support each other and the cause, and we gathered to mourn the dead.
Oct. 6, 1989, was AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) National Day of Action. The ACT UP/San Francisco chapter held a rally and march that stopped for speeches at the Burton Federal Building, City Hall, and the U.S. Mint. The overwhelming police presence forcefully harassed marchers along the way, strictly enforcing traffic codes against marchers who strayed into the street or crossed streets illegally by jaywalking or against red lights. When the march, involving almost 500 people, ended in a die-in and sit-down protest closing Castro Street, nearly 200 police officers in riot gear converged on the Castro and in formation mowed down and beat anyone along the block and again stormed the bar at the corner of Castro and 18th streets. The brutal police response was known as “The Castro Sweep.”
For every LGBTQ+ person who comes out, gay bars are a rite of passage–it’s a personal transformation from innocence to experience, from shame to pride, from despair to joy, from isolation to community. Everyone remembers their first time: the hesitation and pacing outside, and the moment when you could summon the courage to dart in without anyone seeing you, and you entered a fantasy land with vivid colors and people, and music that transported you to find love in the dark corners and dance away the cares of the world until the late hours.
But sadly–and perhaps again a sign of our times and a reminder of our struggle–gay bars and clubs are now a potential site of murder and a target of irrational hatred. Any gathering place for LGBTQ+ people today can become another Pulse Nightclub or Club Q as the right-wing supremacist backlash continues to grow in vitriol and action.
Harvey’s suffered from chronic problems in the neighborhood exacerbated by the COVID shutdown, the resulting drop in foot traffic and attendance, individuals on the street suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse, changing demographics of the neighborhood, different socializing options for LGBTQ+ people, as well as rising rents and the economic challenges of living in San Francisco. But despite these pressures, there’s nothing as devastating as when we don’t support our own community institutions to keep them alive. If we don’t, who’s to blame? Ourselves or the state of our culture?
What do we lose when a “gay” bar closes? The same can be asked when the last lesbian bar in San Francisco, the Lexington Club, closed in April 2015. Women only spaces have always struggled to survive and rarely do. Could this point to the future of the gay bar? Perhaps not if we value what we could lose. It’s hard to prove a negative but we know what we’ve lost when we reflect on our rich history and commit to not forgetting.
Cleve Jones, the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt (now the AIDS Memorial Quilt), who as a young gay man worked on Milk’s campaign and served as an aide, said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter when he heard of Harvey’s closing, “Last night was a pretty sad night for me. I went down to Harvey’s, which still in my mind is Elephant Walk, and I can still hear Sylvester’s voice echoing in there, and it makes me very sad. Then I went for a little walk. I walked past the Castro Theatre, which appears to be shuttered. I saw Cafe Flore was still empty. So those were three places that were so hugely important to me and to everyone during the time this neighborhood was so important. There’s going to be more to come.”
“I have been trying to sound the alarm about the death of the gayborhoods for a few years now, and I don’t see anything productive in blame games but people have to realize this isn’t just a phenomena in San Francisco,” Jones said. “The gayborhoods are going away and with that we risk losing political power, cultural vitality and the ability to provide specialized social services for the most vulnerable.”
Perhaps when a gay bar closes, we may lose more than we realize until after it is gone.
Michael Yamashita is the publisher of Bay Area Reporter.