San Francisco’s queer movement isn’t what it used to be.
Even the Castro District — once the center of perpetual protests and street organizing, not to mention the Tom Ammiano write-in campaign — bears little resemblance to the neighborhood that used to be considered the gayest in the country. A recent Advocate survey didn’t even mention San Francisco in its list of 15 gayest cities.
These days, the Castro has a lot of empty storefronts — 27, according to activist/blogger Michael Petrelis, who counted them last month — and a conservative merchants group that calls the shots on such things as lowering the giant rainbow flag at Castro and Market streets: “yes” to the death of a gay cop, “no” to a slain black gay activist in Uganda (until pressure from activists forced them to fly it half-staff for an hour or so).
Continued gentrification of the Castro by the ever richer, combined with an economic recession whose burdens are shouldered by those with dwindling resources, has taken its toll. With outrageously high rents, the neighborhood is no longer a haven for queers from all over the country seeking refuge from homophobic environments. The new upscale — and more often straight than gay — resident of the ‘hood doesn’t have a clue that those refugees replenished the ranks of activists who, since the early 1970s, made the Castro the “gay mecca” and forged a radical politics that dominated the movement for a long time.
Queer politics these days is a constant tug-of-war between gay moderates who’ve gained a lot of power (not to mention high-paying jobs) in City Hall and progressives who want to change an agenda that pours millions into gay marriage but nothing into finding housing for the 40 percent of homeless youth who are queer, or jobs for the scores of transgender people who are without work or inadequately employed.
The heavily gay moderate group Plan C is pushing for upping the annual condo limit to allow more tenancies in common (TICs) to convert and thereby increase substantially in value. At the same time, queer progressives fight to retain 49 below-market-rate units at the proposed 55 Laguna Street development; keep Parkmerced from tearing down more than 1,500 rent-controlled units; and prevent the city from giving tax breaks to Twitter and other dot-com companies to encourage them to move into a downtown area the city considers blighted without any substantial proof that their free ride will benefit the city. It may well just push out more needy people.
While the conservative merchants group in the Castro endorses a measure that outlaws sitting or lying on sidewalks, progressives work with Dolores Street Community Services and the city’s Human Services Agency to set up an LGBT-friendly shelter for queers who experience homophobia in the city’s shelter system.
Even the city’s two leading queer Democratic clubs reflect the schizophrenic nature of queer politics: the Alice B. Toklas club backs moderate candidates and takes a more conservative stance on everything from tenants’ rights to affordable housing, while the Harvey Milk club supports a progressive agenda.
Meanwhile, the disparity between the haves and have-nots continues to grow. While the Castro may be dying as a gay mecca, the Tenderloin is still home sweet home to countless queers and transgender people who are left out of every bit of progress the community makes. Except for the elimination of don’t ask, don’t tell, which now gives poor and working-class queers the opportunity to better their lives by being fodder for the military’s latest wars for oil.
Universal healthcare or a living wage job would have been a better fit. There’s no equality like economic equality.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a 40-year veteran of the queer movement and a tenant advocate at Housing Rights Committee. He is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights).