This post first appeared in the Huffington Post.
My bedroom window looks out on the biggest rainbow flag in town. And that’s saying something for a town that’s draped in rainbow flags like monuments are draped in Christo’s pink fabric. And not just in June.
Indeed, my home, just inches away from Harvey Milk Plaza—the hub of the Castro—is poetically referred to by one of my friends as “the epicenter of faggotry.” I’m sure he means that in the nicest way possible.
My condo was built in 1981, just three years after the assassination of Harvey Milk. That was also the year that AIDS (then known simply as gay cancer) made its first appearance in the media. Those events are linked in my mind as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and they seem to come together here, in the shadow of that beautiful, rippling flag.
Directly across the street is the Twin Peaks Tavern, a San Francisco landmark widely credited as the first gay bar in the world with plate glass windows. Of course, it’s also known as the Glass Coffin and God’s Waiting Room, so you can appreciate why it wasn’t until my late forties that I began to visit it with any semblance of regularity.
As has been pointed out in the media of late, “gayborhoods” are going out of fashion, so the moniker Glass Coffin may have a deeper meaning these days. The bar earned that name because its clientele have traditionally been a bit older, but now one could say it’s not just the individuals who are dying out, but the traditional definition of the neighborhood.
Not that property values are declining, of course—far from it—just the old way of life. The Castro is still gay, but then again, so is San Francisco, relative to almost anywhere else in America. But gay no longer means quite what it used to, and my neighbors are a bit more diverse these days. I’m almost as likely to see straight women at the grocery store now as gay men (at least I think the men are gay, though the metrosexuals can make you do a double-take). To confuse things further, the sidewalks are often blocked by baby strollers. Some of those strollers, admittedly, are manned by two daddies, but more often than not, it’s a mixed couple. (I remember when mixed meant Jewish and Christian; only in the Castro could it mean male and female.)
The mail drop at my condo complex says it all: one particular tenant seems to have all her shopping delivered by Google. I can’t tell whether that means she works there or just uses their services; in any event, the hipster vibe is alive and well. The current tech explosion is for geeks what sexual liberation was for gays in the 1970s: It’s the beacon that now brings thousands of new residents to a city that used to be known more for sexual and political innovation than the technical kind.
Real estate listings now routinely refer to the neighborhood as Eureka Valley—a name that hasn’t been used in about 40 years. I suppose Castro has connotations that might put off certain potential buyers.
Personally, I think those realtors should take all potential buyers on a tour of shop windows on Castro Street. If posters of naked men and dildo displays make you think twice, then do: Think twice, and consider whether you really want to live here, as is.
A neighborhood isn’t just a plot of land. It’s a culture. And changing that is a lot harder—and a lot less defensible—than repainting your walls or planting different flowers in the yard.
So far, the neighborhood is thankfully maintaining its open and very gay vibe. San Francisco being San Francisco, the new residents tend to be just as liberal and gay-friendly as the rest of us. But I have to admit that I get a real charge out of the conflict between old and new. The Castro Theatre has taken to presenting sing-alongs of the movie Frozen at practically every weekend matinee. I love nothing more than watching the stream of tiara-clad little girls holding their mothers’ hands and strolling out of the theater, right past the naked protesters outside Twin Peaks. Public nudity was recently banned in San Francisco, so our resident naturists have taken to wearing gold lamé socks on their penises. Try explaining that to your Disney princess.
But we can’t hold onto the past forever. Cultures and neighborhoods, like species, evolve or die. In a world where gay people serve in the military, get married, and vote Republican, the least we can do is open our borders. I just hope we don’t lose our basic values in the process. I was recently appalled by a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle by a gay father in the suburbs who vowed never to bring his child to a Pride parade because Pride parades are “disgusting” spectacles full of scantily clad people proclaiming the joy of sex. I hope he keeps his promise and stays the hell away. Frankly, I have more faith in my gay-friendly straight neighbors than in guys like him.
There was a day when we could only dream of acceptance. But now it’s sinking in that acceptance is a two-way street. Like Castro.