Why is San Francisco So Gay?

Ah, San Francisco—the city that not only rolls out the fog but also the rainbow carpet. It’s a place where the Golden Gate Bridge gleams as brightly as the city’s reputation for being the gayest city in America. But why San Francisco? What makes this foggy metropolis the epitome of fabulous? Let’s embark on a glittering journey through history, geography, and a splash of politics to uncover the secret sauce.

From Gold Rush to Gay Goldmine

San Francisco has always been a beacon for those seeking a new life. During the Gold Rush, fortune seekers flooded the city, bringing with them a sense of adventure and a willingness to break from tradition. This spirit of independence laid the groundwork for a culture that was more accepting of differences.

Then came World War II, which marked a pivotal point. The war saw thousands of servicemen passing through the city on their way to the Pacific Theater. When the military started dismissing soldiers found to be homosexual, many were left at the West Coast’s doorstep, often discharged in San Francisco. These men, branded with an “H” for homosexual on their documents, found a haven in the city’s anonymous embrace. They stayed, creating a community where being openly gay was not just a possibility but a necessity.

From the point of discharge, these men carried the letter “H” like a badge of honor, boldly emblazoned on all their documents. Whether visiting the doctor, the bank, or potential employers, everyone knew these men were homosexuals. And in a city where anonymity was as prevalent as the fog rolling in from the bay, why hide who you were? This necessity to live openly birthed America’s largest gay community, attracting others who sought refuge from a world that demanded conformity.

The Birth of the Castro

Fast forward to the 1970s, and the Castro district was blossoming into the epicenter of gay culture. Harvey Milk, who had moved from New York to the Castro, became a prominent figure. Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. His election wasn’t just a local milestone; it was a beacon of hope that illuminated the possibilities of gay rights across the country. His progressive legislation and untimely assassination cemented his status as a martyr, galvanizing the movement both locally and nationally.

The Unacknowledged Influence of Polk Street

Before the Castro stole the limelight, Polk Street was the heart of San Francisco’s gay nightlife. In the 70s and 80s, it was the wild west of gay culture—parties that made today’s Folsom Street Fair look like a church picnic. BDSM, drag, and everything in between found a home here. Yet, history romanticized the Castro, leaving Polk Street as a glittering but often forgotten gem in the city’s gay history.

Geographic Quirks and Statistics

San Francisco’s geography plays a unique role in its gay density. Unlike sprawling metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco is compact—just 7×7 miles. This small size means that urban, culturally rich areas like the Castro aren’t diluted by suburban sprawl. In 2015, the city proper had about 850,000 residents out of a metro population of 8.7 million. Compare this to New York’s 8.5 million out of 23 million, and it’s clear why San Francisco’s gay culture stands out so vividly.

A Military Legacy

It wasn’t just WWII that brought gay servicemen to San Francisco. The city has a long military history, with bases that discharged countless soldiers who found themselves unwelcome back home due to their sexuality. This created a unique population that was open and visible, contributing significantly to the city’s gay culture. The book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz discusses how these discharges laid the foundation for a gay-friendly culture that would eventually elect politicians like Harvey Milk.

The Feinstein Factor

Harvey Milk’s assassination had ripple effects beyond the gay community. It inadvertently propelled Dianne Feinstein into the national spotlight. As the president of the board of supervisors, she found Milk’s body and announced his and Mayor Moscone’s deaths to the public. This tragic event launched her political career, leading her to become one of California’s most prominent senators. Feinstein’s rise is a stark reminder of how interconnected the city’s political and cultural histories are.

So, why is San Francisco so gay? It’s a mosaic of historical serendipity, geographic uniqueness, and a community that refused to be invisible. The city’s progressive spirit, cemented by figures like Harvey Milk and carried through by vibrant neighborhoods like the Castro and Polk Street, continues to shine. San Francisco isn’t just a place; it’s a symbol of pride, resilience, and the unyielding pursuit of love and acceptance.

For a deeper dive into the history of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ culture, check out the vibrant history of the Castro or explore Polk Street’s wild past.