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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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Now, that whole scene is following the path of other outlier communities in San Francisco, and moving over to Oakland.

A couple of weeks ago, the founders of Oakland's Hella Gay dance party held their fifth anniversary celebration at Uptown Nightclub, a rock venue on Telegraph Avenue, with a marquee sign shaped like a guitar. Hundreds of people showed up — mostly women in their 20s and 30s, though the event also drew a lot of men, flannel-shirted hipsters, and other hangers-on.

"When I came to Oakland in 2007, I was told it has the largest concentration of lesbians in the U.S.," Uptown owner Larry Trujillo says, repeating an often-quoted, though apocryphal, statistic. "And that statistic seems true to me," he continues. "At least it's been that way since I got here."

Hella Gay actually had its genesis at the WC Warehouse, a long-defunct dairy creamy in West Oakland that was converted into a bar and art gallery. The promoters borrowed DJ equipment from a downstairs neighbor and enlisted a house guest to make the flyers. It was, according to founding member Hae Yong, "pretty patchwork." But on the first night, 300 people came.

That alone showed the demand for gay-themed entertainment, in an area not known for being awash in gay infrastructure. Oakland's lesbian demographic was already fairly well-established among business owners and city officials, and various people had already tried to capitalize on it. In 2007, two well-meaning straight guys tried to launch their own lesbian bar in the Laurel District — an area dotted with stucco homes and churches and corner groceries, rumored to be a lesbian neighborhood. After a public fallout with a local lesbian promoter, they rebranded their business, turning it into a conventional lounge with Monday Night Football and rotating DJs.

Others soon entered the fray, creating a hodgepodge of nomadic dance parties, poetry readings, after-hours events, and sex parties that resembled the ones once offered in San Francisco. Lesbians generated a new counterculture that quickly permeated the mainstream, right as Oakland was trying to establish itself as a destination for charcuterie bars and monthly art walks. In 2010, the city resuscitated its annual Pride celebration, which had already enjoyed a short run from 1997 to 2004. This June, butch-identified Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan announced her second mayoral bid for the fall election.

In some ways, Oakland's newfound lesbian identity seemed counterintuitive — given that the city isn't so much a metropolis as a cluster of small towns, and given that gay pride typically thrives in urban centers. In other senses, it was entirely predictable. But it wasn't a direct reconstitution of the scene that had once percolated in San Francisco. Oakland has a loose collection of roving LGBT cultural events, and a lot of lesbian couples tucked away in their affordable homes. What it lacks is a four-block expanse of women's bookstores and nightclubs and cafes, like the one on Valencia Street 30 years ago. And some theorists believe there's no need for one anymore.

As both Gates and Kolko have argued, lesbians have a predilection for moving to the suburbs. That's partly because they tend to earn less than gay or straight men, and might seek housing in cheaper, residential areas. But it's also perhaps because lesbian couples are more likely, and able, to have children than gay men. (In 2013, Gates published a study showing that almost half of LGBT women under 50 are currently raising a child, compared to a fifth of LGBT men.) Thus, they need houses with more square footage, possibly a backyard, and a decent school district nearby. They also might shoulder other economic burdens that often fall to women: having to take care of an elderly parent, for example. And, particularly in light of recent civil rights gains, they might not desire a gay neighborhood the way gay men do, Gates points out. A couple intent on raising a family doesn't need a balkanized district — or a string of bars and nightclubs.

Domestic proclivities, compounded by the gender wage gap, are undermining the notion of a lesbian district. Younger, artsy people are descending on Oakland, but they don't have the density, or the urgency, to create their own township. And there aren't enough left in San Francisco to maintain a cultural critical mass.

Fritz, a gravelly voiced woman in a hooded sweatshirt, considers herself the "ambassador" of the Wild Side West, a historic lesbian bar in Bernal Heights. She offers tours to all variety of interlopers: ogling tourists, straights form the neighborhood, correspondents from local newspapers. Many are first-time patrons; some aren't sure whether to treat the place as a neighborhood watering hole, or a shrine to Bernal's past.

In fact, it's a little of both.

The Wild Side West seems frozen in time, even as the city transforms all around it. And, on a balmy Thursday afternoon in May, it's still packed with regulars: old men hunched over frothy beers, coarse-haired women unfolding crinkled newspapers, a large dog who lies, panting, in the corner. Fritz is unloading a bag of hot dog buns for anyone who wants to stick around later and watch the Giants game; she's also taken it upon herself to lead another tour.

Sure, the neighborhood is changing, she acknowledges, strutting through the bar's ample backyard and pausing to point out various amenities — the wood swing, the barbecue grill, the mannequin with a bottle-cap bikini. Fritz sits down at a picnic table and bunches her mouth studiously, taking mental stock of the new elements.

"When they got rid of the pay phones, that's when the property values went up," she says. Bernal used to be a working-class area with a small but noticeable population of drug dealers; now it's dotted with organic tea houses and Pilates studios. In January, the online real estate brokerage Redfin crowned it the hottest neighborhood in the US, based on property listings searches; the median home price is just shy of a million dollars.

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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