Marketing a Queer San Francisco

adapted from Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 by Nan Alamilla Boyd


Each year at the end of June, San Francisco fills with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) tourists. The Castro Theater in San Francisco’s gay neighborhood screens a week-long lesbian-gay-themed film festival, the city flies multicolored gay pride flags from poles stretching the length of Market Street, and crowds of up to half a million gather for the annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade on the last Sunday in June.

June is a lucrative month for gay-owned businesses. Gay bars, restaurants, and hotels fill to capacity, and stores catering to gay tourists do a brisk trade in pride rings, necklaces, and T-shirts. While gay tourism is good for gay businesses, the revenue generated from gay tourism reaches beyond the GLBT community. Of the 4.2 million hotel guests who made San Francisco a destination in 1999, 4.6 percent dined in the Castro district at least once, bringing almost $10 million in revenue to the city in restaurant business alone.

As was the case in the postwar years, the ability of the GLBT community to draw tourist dollars to the city affects its strength in relation to city politics. In the 1940s and 1950s, San Francisco’s tourist economy gave gay bars a foothold in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Currently, as gay tourism draws millions of dollars to San Francisco each year, gay, lesbian, and transgender community representatives from San Francisco serve both elected and appointed positions within municipal, state, and federal government offices.

Today, large corporations with familiar brand names are eager to capitalize on gay dollars and gay spending power. While this phenomenon— niche marketing to gay and lesbian shoppers—promises to open up new modes of visibility (and presumed social acceptance), the large-scale and corporate commercialization of queer culture threatens to transfer the control of representations of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from the hands of activists and community members to large corporations.

Along with homophile movement activism, the culture of gay, lesbian, and transgender bars and nightclubs contributed significantly to the form and function of a resistant queer social movement. In fact, in its prideful assertion of difference, bar culture transmitted the progressive idea of minority rights (or rights based in the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause) to the larger lesbian and gay movement for social change. Initially, gay and lesbian bar owners resisted prohibitions against serving a homosexual clientele simply to protect their livelihood— the quintessentially American “right to make a buck.”

However, as the harassment of gay and lesbian bars continued, bar owners shifted their strategy. Leaning on the Bill of Rights, lawyers representing the interests of bar owners, bartenders, and patrons argued that homosexuals should not be denied access to public accommodation. In this way, bar-based communities asserted their fundamental right to association and assembly. Because these arguments resonated with other minority-based civil rights campaigns, most notably the African American Civil Rights Movement, legal challenges to the harassment of gay and lesbian bars were successful in securing limited civil rights for queers.

In its fundamental differences from mainstream society, gay and lesbian culture was strong. It was the strength of difference and the historic projection of a unique sexual culture that enabled— and continues to enable—queer life in San Francisco to forcefully assert gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights.


Nan Alamilla Boyd is Professor of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 and co-editor of Bodies of Evidence, the Practice of Queer Oral History (Oxford, 2012).


What’s Left of Pride?

By Emily K. Hobson, author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left

Commemorations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer resistance have not always held up the banner of “Pride.” Before the early 1990s, anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots were typically marked as rallies for “liberation” or as “Lesbian and Gay FreedomDay.” These earlier events were both celebrations and acts of protest — “marches” rather than “parades,” with advertisements nowhere to be seen.

When gay liberation emerged in the late 1960s, it sought to redefine sexuality through revolution, and vice versa. Gay liberationists and lesbian feminists claimed common cause with the anti-war movement and Black Power, and they insisted that straight radicals recognize sexual freedom as central to a just society. Across the 1970s and 1980s, a vibrant gay and lesbian left forged anti-capitalist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist sexual politics, demanding self-determination and organizing solidarity. Gay and lesbian leftists defended the radical underground, mobilized against the New Right, advanced anti-racism in queer communities, and helped build the Central America movement, among many other causes.

The gay and lesbian left holds strong echoes in current queer radicalism. Yet this politics met a downturn in the early 1990s, when many longtime activists died of AIDS and neoliberal agendas cohered. The language of “Pride” ascended, reflecting broader shifts in LGBTQ politics away from radical transformation and towards inclusion in the existing economy and state.

“Pride” aligned with these shifts because it expresses satisfaction with the present, rather than demands for change. Its closest analogues are patriotism and family — pride in one’s country, pride in one’s children. Like those analogues, LGBTQ “Pride” too often makes sameness and respectability the conditions for acceptance. It risks sending the message: be proud of who you are, as long as you make us proud. The language of Pride helps obscure the complexity of LGBTQ history by privileging heroism over critique. It celebrates gay military veterans but ignores queer opposition to militarism; reclaims figures such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson but brushes aside opposition to the presence of police. Small wonder that some queer radicals today mobilize Gay Shame, a network that calls out corporate sponsorship of Pride events and that seeks to prevent gentrification from hiding behind “inclusive values.”

We need joy, pleasure, and humor; we need rage, solidarity, and resistance. Do we need pride? The history of the gay and lesbian left calls on us to reconsider the sentiments we attach to our queer pasts and futures as well as our present. What happens after liberation? How will we live when we get free? This June, let’s use queer radical history to reimagine a future in which we don’t have to settle for less.


Emily K. Hobson is the author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left. She serves as Assistant Professor of History and of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno.

 


The Artist Behind the Iconic Silence = Death Image

This fall, UC Press will publish After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, written by acclaimed artist and activist Avram Finkelstein, who was one of the creators of the major protest posters and graphics deployed during the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s.

Finkelstein was a part of every major radical queer activist group, including Gran Fury, ACT UP, and the Silence = Death collective, which produced one of the most iconic and lasting images that would come to symbolize the AIDS activist movement: a protest poster of a pink triangle with those same words “Silence=Death.”

The graphic and the slogan still resonate widely today and are often used — and misused — to brand the entire movement, appearing in a variety of ubiquitous manifestations. Finkelstein previously addressed the issue of authorship and ownership on the New York Public Library’s blog, saying that once a political poster reaches the public sphere, “it belongs to those who respond to its call. So while I had a hand in producing Silence=Death, I would argue that it was the AIDS activist community that actually created it, a community in search of its voice, one that went on to find it through the activation of its own social spaces.”

In the following video, Finkelstein also discusses the design decisions that were made to create the famous image, and the weight of the meaning of “silence,” eloquently stating that: “Institutionally, silence is about control. Personally, silence is about complicity.”

 

With After Silence, Finkelstein exposes us to a different side of the traditional HIV/AIDS history through his writing about art and AIDS activism, the formation of collectives, and the political process while also providing a toolkit for how art and activism can save lives.

After Silence is available this November. Pre-order your copy today.


For Liberation and in Solidarity: Recommended Reading for LGBT Pride 2016

From the earliest marches in 1970 to this month’s events around the Bay Area and worldwide, Pride has celebrated and commemorated the LGBT community’s culture and heritage for over 40 years.

We at UC Press are honored to have published titles that recognize the past accomplishments and document the ongoing struggles of the community. As SF Pride, the largest gathering of the community in the nation, approaches, we’ve prepared a selection of books (including a few exciting upcoming titles!) to shed light on the unique experiences of LGBT individuals across just some of the many varied and diverse queer spaces.

Happy Pride, and happy reading!

Gay L.A.:
A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians

by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons

The exhortation to “Go West!” has always sparked the American imagination. But for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, the City of Angels provided a special home and gave rise to one of the most influential gay cultures in the world. Drawing on rare archives and photographs as well as more than three hundred interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism set off by the 1950s blacklist; and from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s.

 

Lavender and Red:
Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left

by Emily K. Hobson | Available October 2016

LGBT activism is often imagined as a self-contained struggle, inspired by but set apart from other social movements. Lavender and Red recounts a far different story: a history of queer radicals who understood their sexual liberation as intertwined with solidarity against imperialism, war, and racism. This politics was born in the late 1960s but survived well past Stonewall, forming a gay and lesbian left that flourished through the end of the Cold War. The gay and lesbian left found its center in the San Francisco Bay area, a place where sexual self-determination and revolutionary internationalism converged. Across the 1970s, its activists embraced socialist and women of color feminism and crafted queer opposition to militarism and the New Right. In the Reagan years, they challenged U.S. intervention in Central America, collaborated with their peers in Nicaragua, and mentored the first direct action against AIDS. Bringing together archival research, oral histories, and vibrant images, Emily K. Hobson rediscovers the radical queer past for a generation of activists today.

 

Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art
by Tirza True Latimer | Available December 2016

“What if we ascribe significance to aesthetic and social divergences rather than waving them aside as anomalous? What if we look closely at what does not appear central, or appears peripherally, or does not appear at all, viewing ellipses, outliers, absences, and outtakes as significant?” Eccentric Modernisms places queer demands on art history, tracing the relational networks connecting cosmopolitan eccentrics who cultivated discrepant strains of modernism in America during the 1930s and 1940s. Building on the author’s earlier studies of Gertrude Stein and other lesbians who participated in transatlantic cultural exchanges between the world wars, this book moves in a different direction, focusing primarily on the gay men who formed Stein’s support network and whose careers, in turn, she helped to launch, including the neo-romantic painters Pavel Tchelitchew and writer/editor Charles Henri Ford. Eccentric Modernisms shows how these “eccentric modernists” bucked trends by working collectively, reveling in disciplinary promiscuity, and sustaining creative affiliations across national and cultural boundaries.

 

Trans*:
A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability

by Jack Halberstam

(This title is part of the American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present series and will be available in E-book format in November 2016 and in paperback in February 2017.)

In the last decade, public discussions of transgender issues have increased exponentially. However, with this increased visibility has comes not just power, but regulation, both in favor of and against trans people. What was once regarded as an unusual or even unfortunate disorder has become an accepted articulation of gendered embodiment as well as a new site for political activism. What happened in the last few decades to prompt such an extensive rethinking of our understanding of gendered embodiment? How did a stigmatized identity become so central to US and European articulations of self? And how have people responded to the new definitions and understanding of sex and the gendered body? In Trans, Jack Halberstam explores these recent shifts in the meaning of the gendered body and representation, and explores the possibilities of a non-gendered, gender optional, or gender-hacked future.

 

School’s Out:
Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom

by Catherine Connell

How do gay and lesbian teachers negotiate their professional and sexual identities at work, given that these identities are constructed as mutually exclusive, even as mutually opposed? Using interviews and other ethnographic materials from Texas and California, School’s Out explores how teachers struggle to create a classroom persona that balances who they are and what’s expected of them in a climate of pervasive homophobia. Catherine Connell’s examination of the tension between the rhetoric of gay pride and the professional ethic of discretion insightfully connects and considers complicating factors, from local law and politics to gender privilege. She also describes how racialized discourses of homophobia thwart challenges to sexual injustices in schools. Written with ethnographic verve, School’s Out is essential reading for specialists and students of queer studies, gender studies, and educational politics.

 

Plane Queer:
Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants

by Phil Tiemeyer

In this vibrant new history, Phil Tiemeyer details the history of men working as flight attendants. Beginning with the founding of the profession in the late 1920s and continuing into the post-September 11 era, Plane Queer examines the history of men who joined workplaces customarily identified as female-oriented. It examines the various hardships these men faced at work, paying particular attention to the conflation of gender-based, sexuality-based, and AIDS-based discrimination. Tiemeyer also examines how this heavily gay-identified group of workers created an important place for gay men to come out, garner acceptance from their fellow workers, fight homophobia and AIDS phobia, and advocate for LGBT civil rights. All the while, male flight attendants facilitated key breakthroughs in gender-based civil rights law, including an important expansion of the ways that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would protect workers from sex discrimination. Throughout their history, men working as flight attendants helped evolve an industry often identified with American adventuring, technological innovation, and economic power into a queer space.