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Pride of Place: As the Nation's Gay Districts Grow More Affluent, Lesbians Are Migrating to the 'Burbs 

Wednesday, Jun 25 2014
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According to Gary J. Gates, a Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute in UCLA, that's part of a national trend. Gay men's neighborhoods that sprouted from the margins of society are transforming into wealthy, gentrified retail corridors; meanwhile, lesbian districts are getting diluted by the onslaught of new money.

There are reasons these changes are occurring, and there are reasons they all hew to the same pattern. Civil rights gains of recent decades have ramped up the earning potential of gay men, yet they haven't healed the gender divide. Census data from 2012 revealed that full-time women workers still make 77 percent the median salary of full-time male workers — meaning that, on balance, two-woman couples probably earn less than two-man or man-woman couples. Yet cultural priorities also have a hand: Lesbians, like straight women, may face interruptions in their career if they decide to have kids. And they may feel compelled to settle in areas where child-rearing is more feasible.

Whatever the circumstances, the outcome is clear: Gay men still have iron-clad districts, lesbians do not. Men still flock to the nation's urban centers because they can afford to do so; women get shunted out, or voluntarily move, to suburbs, bedroom communities, or rural, outlying areas. Historically, lesbians in the D.C. area moved out to Takoma Park, while their New York counterparts moved to Park Slope, in Brooklyn. In the Bay Area, they've hunkered down in Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz — and, more recently, in Oakland and Berkeley. "Lesbian enclaves tend to be more suburban, and more child-friendly," Gates says. Increasingly, he adds, they're not in the center of the city.

And increasingly, they no longer qualify as "enclaves." After all, it takes people to make a district; when the old residents leave, there's no longer a "district" to attract new ones.

In San Francisco, that trend seems particularly worrisome. This is, after all, a city festooned in pink triangles and platitudes about equality. The city has harbored lesbian organizations dating back to the 1950s; it was the first city to feature Dykes on Bikes in a gay pride parade.

But there are fissures in the LGBT world. And some of them mirror other social disparities that bedevil this city.

It wasn't always this way. During the 1980s and '90s, gay women flocked to San Francisco for its cheap rents and open-minded spirit. The Mission and Noe Valley were checkered with lesbian-themed bookstores, bars, gyms, and discotheques. Groups of single women shacked up together in giant housing collectives, drank coffee companionably at the women-only Artemis Cafe, opened small businesses along the Valencia Street corridor. They formed ad hoc political groups to fight ordinances like the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have prevented gay people from being hired as teachers. Always embattled, they had more reason to stick together and form tight-knit districts than their counterparts today.

And many of them came to San Francisco to ply an industrial trade, which, 30 years ago, was a viable career option for any city resident.

"I came here to visit, and saw a woman driving a forklift," former Potrero Hill resident Teresa Romaine recalls. "And then I knew I wanted to live here."

Romaine was a schoolteacher when she left her San Diego home in 1983, but upon resettling in the Mission District, she decided to start painting houses. "That's where my heart was," she says. "All my life I wanted to do trade's work, and it just wasn't acceptable anywhere." At that time, the cost of living was still low enough that a single woman could sustain herself, working as a house painter or crane operator or electrician. And Romaine knew many of them.

Her friend Molly Martin, who arrived in 1976 and took a job with the all-female collective Wonder Woman Electric, remembers the area as an Eden for working-class lesbians. There was a women-only gym on upper Market Street, where Cafe du Nord is now (though it's temporarily closed). The venues that now house the Elbo Room and the Cafe were both lesbian bars. The Women's Building on 18th Street provided a community switchboard and incubator for budding activist groups, including the city's first battered women's shelter.

But Bernal Heights was still largely an immigrant neighborhood, so lesbians who moved there during the '80s and '90s were often perceived as perpetrators, rather than victims, of an early gentrification wave. Even so, they still had a strong bohemian presence downtown. Poet Michelle Tea, who now lives a quiet, domestic life near Ocean Beach, says the Mission was enjoying a veritable spoken word explosion when she arrived in 1993. "There were events every night of the week," she recalls, "and at the same time drag culture and dyke-centric performance were exploding."

Tea rattles off the names of cafes and open mics and black box theaters that have long since gone to dust. There was Luna Sea, a women's performance project housed at the Redstone building at 16th and Capp Streets — now home to a slew of itinerant nonprofits. There was Junk, a gay punk event that happened every week at the Stud Bar, and a roving lesbian dance party called Muffdive. There was a feminist bookstore on Valencia called Old Wives' Tales, which carried the works of obscure or forgotten authors. There was a handful of lesbian bars — now only two remain — and there were barflies who hung out all day discussing anarchist theory. There was Tea's spoken word showcase, Sister Spit, which launched in Blondie's Bar & No Grill on Valencia — then a lesbian dive bar, now a "total bro choad hangout," she says. And of course, there was the Bearded Lady.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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