‘Out in the Castro’ — Eureka!

The old guard of San Francisco’s gay liberation movement reunite in Winston Leyland’s Out in the Castro, 2002.

 

out_in_the_castroSAN FRANCISCO: A charming reunion, fit for the history books, took place in early December, 2001, at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. An assemblage of mostly old-guard GLBT writers, politicos, activists, photographers, preachers, journalists, editors, and artists cozied up to the lectern to proudly unveil their new work, Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism (Leyland Publications, 2002; $24.95, paper). Editor Winston Leyland, the local publishing legend, was present in the flesh, presiding over his book’s contributors like a literary hen clucking over her brood.

The place was packed with spectators, old and young and in-between, all greeting one another like family. In the newly refurbished, nicely re-arranged bookstore, it felt homey – perfect for deep immersion into the rich cultural and historical life of that part of town we call Gay Central, the nexus of queer life in San Francisco, despite its increased commercialization and tourist-centered businesses, and the squeeze put on low-income residents.

For those of us who’ve lived in gay San Francisco a while, and those just joining us who want to get a sense of where we’re all coming from, Leyland has performed a great civic service. In inviting essays and art from the likes of Anne Kronenberg, Jewelle Gomez, Frank M. Robinson, Harry Britt, Susan Stryker, Jim Mitulski, Sister Dana van Iquity (aka Dennis McMillan), N.A. Diaman, Rink Foto, and many other stalwarts of the local queer scene, Leyland has rounded up a priceless bunch of colorful, inspiring characters for our boundless enjoyment. Not everything they have to say is profound or poetic – but much of it is. Not in every case were the contributors lead players in local politics and culture – but very often they have been and still are. These are the very people who have recorded and shaped our core culture for decades – not just in the Castro, but city-wide. They have been our friends and neighbors, co-workers, teachers and leaders on many fronts. To bask in their glory at a reading or through their printed words and images is to be warmly welcomed into the bosom of gay San Francisco.

In the book, when poet/essayist Justin Chin grumpily declares he’s outgrown the Castro (in “Death of the Castro”), he reflects a sentiment common to many who’ve lived to experience the neighborhood’s changes, and disapprove. Yet despite his ho-hum assessment – “The Castro has become a few blocks of expensive T-shirt and clothing shops, juice bars, yuppie eatery chains, and trendy neighborhood shopping and dining. Thrilling, huh?” – clearly the Castro has ingrained itself in his poetic psyche: he longs for the place to be the way it was in March 1990, when he alleges it still had the power to dazzle.

Since Chin is relatively young-guard, and his tattooed style at odds with the prevailing sweater/Gap esthetic in the ‘hood – and since he didn’t appear at the reading – it was left to older, not necessarily wiser heads to more generously tout the Castro’s virtues.

Former Supervisor Harry Britt, looking every bit the statesman, started off by apologizing for a less-than-stellar essay, a piece about Harvey Milk that had been written for another publication. That’s okay, Harry: you made up for it by noting that San Francisco has become (to use a phrase by writer Hakim Bey) a Temporary Autonomous Zone – a secure place where queers can enjoy a fair amount of freedom to be themselves. Some might say that’s just another term for gay ghetto, and they might be right. But as Britt noted, it was in the Castro ghetto that Harvey Milk rose to prominence, becoming a symbol of freedom for lesbians and gay men world-wide.

Solid settings for Milk’s saga are provided by historians Susan Stryker (“How the Castro Became San Francisco’s Gay Neighborhood”), and Jim Duggins (“Out in the Castro: Creating a Gay Subculture, 1947 – 1969”). They do an admirable job of tracking the evolution of Eureka Valley (aka The Castro), from its working-class Irish Catholic roots to its becoming the focal-point for a revolutionary gay-rights movement. Leyland opens the books with their pieces, giving readers ample preparation for the more personal perspectives to come.

Harvey Milk is central to Anne Kronenberg‘s recollections (“Everybody Needed Milk”), since she personally experienced the stresses, strains, triumphs and tragedy of working alongside the “Mayor of Castro Street.” So, too, was Frank M. Robinson (“Castro Street, That Great Street”) up front and center to the spectacle – and his account, among all of the contributors, is one of the richest in detail, colorfully capturing the hippy-ish flavor of the Castro in the 1970s, during the heyday of gay lib. It is from him that we learn of the large role played by hippies in the development of the Castro – that Harvey Milk was, in fact, a hippie from New York City. Robinson, who’d worked as a reporter for the underground press in the Haight Ashbury, got caught up in Milk’s campaign and the subsequent euphoria – and tragedy. His personal perspective puts us vividly up close and center in those heady, extraordinary times.

Things get even more personal in the reminiscences of Blackberri (“Andy’s – Center of the Universe”), who moved to the city from Nebraska in 1971, at age 21, and ended up working at and eventually owning Andy’s Donughts in the Castro, before going on to buy a leather bar, The Bootcamp, on Folsom Street. He was friends with Cosmic Lady (aka Janet Planet), and personally experienced the cosmic presences of the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Divine, Sylvester and a host of other queer notables. [see correction]

Also on the scene from the late 1960s on was writer/artist N.A. Diaman (“Living in the Castro: A Gay Writer Reminisces”), who tellingly remarks that when he first moved into the Castro, the total rent for his flat was $140 per month. It’s a time long gone, but his descriptions of establishing a gay household during those days is not all that far different from today’s ordeal.

Among the young-guard contributing to the book is Katie [Zak] Szymanski, assistant news editor for the Bay Area Reporter, who profiles a member of the old-guard: her boss, Publisher Bob Ross, noting that he “anchored for good in San Francisco” in 1956, fresh out of the Navy, and joined with the throngs of gay men who would cruise his corner at 20th and Castro. The concise story of his creating this newspaper, and its 30-year history at the center of gay politics and culture, is one you won’t find anywhere else.

Photography holds a prominent place in Leyland’s Out in the Castro – with spectacular results. The images balance and illuminate the text, making the book a joy to browse or read straight through. If you’ve been here very long at all, you’ll recognize the faces, places, and events. The photographers include Rick Gerharter, Rink Foto, Freddie Niem, Greg Day, Crawford Wayne Barton, and Marc Geller, all of them first-rate and well known for being in the thick of things, capturing images that by now have become legend. Even the surprising absence of images by Daniel Nicoletta – undoubtedly the most acclaimed queer “scene” photographer in San Francisco – and Jane Philomen Cleland does not diminish this book’s powerful impact. It’s a reunion in print well worth attending.

 

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.