“Competing Commitments in San Francisco: Tech Hub or Gay Mecca?”

For decades, San Francisco has prided itself on being labeled as the world’s “gay mecca” (Carlsson 1995). A stroll down Castro Street today will highlight the eccentricity and openness of a community with rich history as it pertains to queer and transgender (‘trans’) justice and liberation. A newcomer today may likewise notice a variety of hip cafes and restaurants, bars with bright colors and music blasting from within, and the newly-painted rainbow crosswalks on the corner of 18th Street and Castro which the district spent $37,400 to paint and renovate just a few years ago (Zimmerman 2014). However, in a city where an estimated 14% of the population identifies as part of the queer and trans community, such forms of active-performative rainbow allyship may in fact be aimed at a wider population for the future of San Francisco than just its queer and trans community (ASR 2017). 

The city of San Francisco has a deep history, similar to that of its queer and trans activism, of being an urban city leading by its technological advancements, start-ups, and inventive thinkers. Just roughly 50 miles from Silicon Valley, the city of San Francisco has a long-running trajectory of being a space many label as the ‘tech hub’ of the West. Just a few hundred feet from the Bay’s waters, Uber today holds four offices–equating to almost 1.7 million square feet–in the Mission Bay district, a historically predominantly Black and Brown community (Li 2019). The Salesforce Tower, located near the Transbay Transit Center in the SoMa (“South of Market”) district, is today worth approximately $3 billion as the tallest tower in the city, stretching 1,070-feet high into the sky in a historically Asian and Pacific Islander as well as gay veteran leather neighborhood (Li 2019). It is important to note that Uber and Salesforce, using them as clear examples rather than pure exceptions, affect communities of color and immigrant communities as well as queer and trans communities that they are taking up space within. Uber today prides itself on its diversity statistics and Salesforce alone has marched in over 27 Pride events in just the last year (Hoge 2018). The way in which tech corporations have become major faces and benefactors in modern day events such as Pride reflects the deeper issue of how complex the relationship with neoliberal capitalism and cisheterosexist white supremacy ideologies in San Francisco have grown and remain. As tech hubs parade around the city in the name of gender and sexual justice, we must remember that these are simultaneously the same companies gentrifying neighborhoods and disenfranchising marginalized communities.

For the purpose of this paper, these two topics–the conceptions of San Francisco as both a “gay mecca” as well as “tech hub”–will be put side by side in order to highlight the complexity of the competing commitments that the city of San Francisco continues to struggle upholding into this 21st century. While queer and trans people continue emigrating into the city each year–especially in today’s socio-economic conditions under current administration–tech start-up centers continue to take up space in a city with concurrent housing and homelessness crisis. Throughout this paper, I will center the discussion around queer and trans communities; it is, and should be, expected that upon looking at such communities of queer and trans people that the identities of community members of color, of indigenous backgrounds, and of immigrant experiences be implied and recognized as these groups face disproportionate measures of discrimination and marginalization at the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and immigration status. Historically, across the country, queer trans people of color (QTPOC) have been the ones at the forefront of every one of the historical events mentioned in the following of this paper (Stryker and Buskirk 1996). 

Thus, I pose the following question for the rest of this paper: can San Francisco live and thrive as an urban city in this 21st century economy with competing labels as both a ‘gay mecca’ and ‘tech hub’? By presenting two theoretical-contradictory histories side-by-side, it is my goal to underline that San Francisco will not be able to continue rising to the top in the modern-day economy as a space for technological advancements and expansion while simultaneously upholding its title as a safe haven for queer and trans communities. In a society that puts neoliberal capitalism above other systems, which is deeply interconnected to the socio-economic, psychological, and physical forms of violence against people of color and queer and trans communities, San Francisco will eventually only be able to maintain one title.

Starting the historical analysis of this paper at the end of World War II, the United States Army had already developed the first general-purpose electronic digital computer for the military lines placed hundreds of thousands of miles away (Chun 2004:28). It is important to underline and echo, again, that the first ever computer was created for, and in a time of, war and terror. The development of most technological advancements across the United States have been historically made in times of war and in effort of protecting the United States from unknown outsiders deriving from an political and ideological framework that supports xenophobia yet simultaneous Western expansion across the globe. As Wendy Chun documents throughout her research, the ENIAC–as the computer was called–was created and controlled entirely by a team of women hired by the U.S. Army despite what majoritarian historical narratives may indicate (2004:29). A year after the U.S. Army publicly displayed the ENIAC and its technological achievements, the Army disclosed having dishonorably discharging up to 68,000 veterans for engaging in homosexual activities during wartime (Bérubé 1991:139). Homosexuality in the U.S. had already been made illegal on a federal level, and was still listed as a disease according to the American Psychological Association (Stryker and Buskirk 1996:30). This message regarding the act of discharging military soldiers who had taken a part of homosexual activities occurred during the same time that Alan Turing, British mathematician who created the first work on computation theory, was arrested, criminalized, and tormented by the British government for having potentially conducted homosexual acts in Britain during wartime (Copeland 2005). The reflections of homophobia abroad, specifically by Western nations, are exemplified within U.S. politics and its practice of cisheterosexism and the manifestation of homophobia in the States correlates to its fear of Communism and dedication to a system of capitalism in a post-war economy to protect its national security and nationalist agenda (Hobson 2016).

These early practices of homophobic legislation historically have been deeply ingrained in San Francisco politics as well, despite the name the city has created for itself. San Francisco police officers were already cracking down on various forms of “indecency” and “promiscuous sexual activity” as well specifically in neighborhoods that had gained a ‘gay’ label by the end of World War II (Stryker and Buskirk 1996:30). The state of California had previously initiated a task to shutdown any bars that did not fully comply with federal liquor regulations–including it being forbidden to sell alcohol to those who appeared to be “homosexual” (1996:30). During this age of post-WWII San Francisco, the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) worked in conjunction with San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and began “a punitive campaign against gay bars” that continued for over a decade into the mid-1960s. Because of the California Supreme Court decision in 1951 Stoumen v. Reilly–overturning its initial decision now stating that a bar could not lose its liquor license regardless if it may be potentially catering to a predominantly gay clientele–SFPD and the ABC together created a city-wide campaign of harassment to put the gay-bars at risk of closure resulting from frequent violent roundups and practices of intimidation toward the bars’ queer and trans populations (Leyland 2002). 

The state of California had passed a penal code in 1949 criminalizing open homosexual sexual activity between either two men or women that still stood the same into the new era; thus, SFPD nonetheless was able to antagonize queer and trans folks throughout the city with little force from city officials (Stryker and Buskirk 1996:33). The Castro strip alone had nine bars open during this era; as alcohol consumption was a prominent practice in urban San Francisco’s post-war economy, community bars likewise held significance to those of the district who had been discharged from the war due to their homosexuality (Stewart-Winter 2009). The Black Cat Cafe in 1963, a gay nightlife bar that hosted drag queen José Sarria among others, was just one of the bars targeted by SFPD and ABC (Stewart-Winter 2009). Located on Montgomery Street in what is today Jackson Square, the emergence of a gay and queer crowd at the Black Cat led to years of battling against police enforcement that continued for years in other areas of the city such as Gene Compton’s in the Tenderloin and bars throughout the Castro and SoMa districts (Pasulka 2015).

Despite such forms of violence against queer and trans people initiated by city enforcement, the officials of San Francisco altogether had other plans for the larger-scope of the city. During the 1950s, the city continued focusing on pushing government-funded private investment projects throughout the 7-by-7-mile radius of the city (Isenberg 2017:34). The public–i.e. everyday people living and operating in the city–had little to no say during the entirety of such shaping of an urban city (34). Justin Herman, the head of the city’s Redevelopment Agency (SFRA), had decided to implement a campaign for the Golden Gateway urban renewal that was notably “irresponsible” and “politically dangerous” despite criticism from community members (231). The Planning Department (SFPD) and SFRA together saw large-scale long-term transformations for areas like the Embarcadero Center, Market Street, the Transamerica Pyramid, and Ghirardelli Square (37-39). More so focused on touristry and attracting visitors from various national and transnational backgrounds, Herman and others ensured that projects were on track to open and create a flourishing tourism industry all across the city into the new decade: Ghirardelli Square opened in 1964, the Golden Gateway Center in 1967, and the Transamerica Pyramid in 1971 (87, 325).

By the 1970s, San Francisco had become a tourist spot with pockets of suburban living. Across the country, approximately two-thirds of Americans lived in middle-class neighborhoods (Florida 2017). It is important to note, however, that the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed only two years prior to that, representing only the short-term changes for people of color who, previously, could have been legally discriminated against in urban housing opportunities on the basis of race, color, and ethnicity. For example, the Castro at this time was noted to be roughly 90% white, a number that would only slightly decline the following decades (Stewart-Winter 2009). The turn from Eureka Valley being called by locals as ‘The Castro’ and new definition of what the Castro transformed into being known as can best be prompted by two major events that, both of which, heavily relied on the intersectional and, in a sense, strategically communist approach taken in order to have made the impact they are known for today. The first is the 1967 Summer of Love in the Haight region, directly adjacent to the Castro (Stewart-Winter 2009). The second following would be the rise and local-fame of photography-shop-owner and politician, Harvey Milk (Stewart-Winter 2009). Prior to these events, the Eureka Valley had been home to predominantly white Catholics, small business owners, church officials, and schoolteachers (Stewart-Winter 2009). However, the open and evangelical strategy Milk took to organizing the district and specifically queer and trans individuals is what led to the major transformation of Castro as a “gayborhood” (Carlsson 1995) Harvey Milk was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977, becoming one of the most highlighted and prominent openly-gay officials elected into public office (Stewart-Winter 2009). Upon Milk and Mayor Moscone’s assassination in November of the next year, in which case murderer Dan White was convicted on the sole account of manslaughter, queer and trans people came together for what would later be remembered as the White Night Riots of San Francisco, causing millions of dollars in property damage to the city (Stewart-Winter 2009). As local historian Timothy Stewart-Winter further remembers, the “turn of events in 1978 made Harvey Milk into the U.S. gay and lesbian movement’s first political martyr, and the Castro its first hallowed ground” (2009).

At the same time, the Castro was not the only district forming community and coalition through the masses. Gay and lesbian groups had already been organizing and spreading chatbooks and magazines across the Bay Area for a decade, from groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis who had been organizing since the early 60s (Faderman 2015:53-90, Stryker and Buskirk 1996:38). Gene Compton’s Cafeteria on the corner of Turk and Taylor had already made its name as an all-welcoming space for the trans community in the Tenderloin where drag queens and trans folk would spend nights socializing with one another after performances and work (Stryker and Buskirk 1996, Zach 2016). The entrance of Reverend Cecil Williams in the late-60s to Glide Memorial Church a few blocks down from the Compton Cafeteria became a sanctuary space for queer and trans people of color as well, and Glide quickly became one of the first churches to form a Council on Religion and the Homosexual to better support the community of QTPOC (Zach 2016). Communities across the city during the 1970s came together in light of the various movements taking place to create strong forms of solidarity and organizing of underserved and underrepresented populations. 

Much of the history following such years of community organizing, however, is a topic that has been cast a shadow–the AIDS crisis. In 1980, a man named Peter wrote an article for a local SF gay newspaper called the Sentinel saying he wanted to create a space to support those affected by HIV/AIDS and a year later, gay and lesbian individuals had begun organizing in the Castro’s Metropolitan Community Church which had become a safe haven for those affected (Leyland 2002:141). A group of lesbians had purchased the Women’s Building on 18th Street in 1979 specifically for a space to discuss health and safety and offer educational courses in the hundred-year old building (Zach 2016). Marks of kaposi sarcoma from HIV/AIDS complications was being addressed and counted weekly in the SF Chronicle starting Fall of 1981 (2016:143). Because of the federal government’s blatant disregard for the thousands of individuals dying annually as a result to such complications, San Francisco and specifically the Castro had “united in a never-before-seen camaraderie around the issue of AIDS” (2016:139). Community organizations like ACT UP and churches like the Metropolitan worked together to put on frequent candlelight marches beginning Spring of 1983 to pay tribute to the community members lost because of the disease (2016:154). Today, an estimated 45,000 gay men alone most likely have HIV today as a result of the crisis during the 80s and 90s (2016:154).

The following era of the 1990s, queer and trans people were actively showing up all across the city in protest of various social justice issues facing intersecting communities. In 1990, Queer Nation, what historian Susan Stryker labels as “arguably one of the most important [groups] of the new groups” was founded in that summer “honed in the fight against AIDS” (1996:121). A year later–what was to be called the “Year of the Queer”–members from Queer Nation, ACT UP, other groups, and community members came together to protest George Bush’s New World Order and bombing of Iraq on the morning of January 16 (1996:117). Queer and trans people united in areas such as the Bay Bridge, Market Street, Dolores Park, and the Federal Building to protest the Persian Gulf War in forms of demonstration that were not seen decades prior (121). As the AIDS crisis began to diminish in death toll numbers, queer and trans people were able to take the knowledge gained from their organizing and put it in spaces where others community members needed support. The end of the 20th century, around the concurrent rise of third-wave feminism and fall of the Black Panther Party’s politics, saw intersectional activism that moved away from gay liberation and, rather, justice for all including and focusing on those of color, indigenous backgrounds, and with disabilities.

By the near end of the century, the city began to look and feel different year by year. On a national level, there was not a single significant high-tech company in any urban neighborhood across the U.S. (Florida 2017). It is more than coincidental, as should be noted, that AIDS complications were disproportionately viewed and treated in urban cities across the U.S. as compared to suburban towns. As Richard Florida notes from his research for the MIT Technology Review regarding the emergence of tech hubs, “they were all out in the suburbs—not just Intel and Apple in Silicon Valley, or Microsoft in the Seattle suburbs, but the Route 128 beltway outside Boston, and the corporate campuses of North Carolina’s Research Triangle” (2017:89).  In San Francisco specifically, the influx of gays and lesbians into the Castro, Noe Valley, and other neighborhoods in the 80s began to raise rents out of the desire of joining a thriving queer-inclusive community environment (Bronstein 2014). However, looking forward, it is debatable whether or not gays and lesbians are to blame for the rapid rise in cost of living and decrease in housing for members of San Francisco and the Bay Area as a whole.

As mentioned prior, the city’s hyper-expansion as a tourist destination led not to just the entrance of queer people but also striving artists, tech workers, and a large influx of middle-class newcomers into San Francisco. In Nicole Roberts’ account on “Intolerance in San Francisco” (2013), she writes openly of the emerging contradiction of San Francisco as a space for queer and trans people:

“During the 1970s, San Francisco was often characterized as the ‘Gay Mecca’ of the United States. While it’s true that San Francisco was more supportive of the gay community during this period, this depiction often dismisses the problematic side of the increasing visibility of homosexuals. As with the increasing visibility of any minority group who is struggling to find its place in a community, the homosexual population in San Francisco soon found itself the target of anti-gay harassment and violence. This article hopes to elaborate on the published reports of intolerance that were chronicled by the gay community’s own press.” (105).

Other areas in the northern part of the city had likewise experienced severe excavation like North Beach–what city officials labeled as “the Postwar American Sex District” (Sides 2006:355). Topless and bottomless bars like the Condor on the corner of Broadway and Columbus Street, where cocktail waitress Carol Doda had made a name for herself as a topless dancer and waitress, and the Condor became just one spot of surveillance and scrutiny from city officials who had other ideas for the renewal of North Beach. Open forms of sex and sexuality were one topic that the city worked closely with SFPD on, in ensuring their shutdown in order to make way for tourist spots. Market Street and Valencia Street also, spaces that historically had catered to the queer and trans community, had now begun gaining popularity as a result of newly established cheap dining places, accessible parking, and avant garde theatres for people not originally from the city (Williamson 1993). The 1990s felt the city’s new social climate and rising conservatism as a means of upholding a capitalist economy that brought tourists into the area at the expense of locals and community members who had already called San Francisco home.

Ironically, this was around the same time period in which San Francisco taxi workers faced new chauffeur company laws and deregulation (Dubal 2017:120). Because of this new protocol for taxi workers, the following decades faced “low but relatively stable wages maintained through regulation of rates and competition and accomplished through painstaking advocacy” as new Transportation Network Companies (TNC) began to emerge (121). With the decline of taxi services and rise of TNCs, San Francisco saw the opportunity to grow both its tech and transportation agencies. Quickly, as more and more “[Uber and Lyft rides] flooded the streets of San Francisco, the value of the privatized taxi medallion plummeted” into the early 21st century (125). However, the rise of such ridesharing companies “was anything but coincidental, of course, [as] it gave them particular leverage in San Francisco and California politics” (Flores 2017:3765). The population of 21st century San Francisco residents had also changed drastically by this time “with an unusually large proportion of relatively affluent smartphone users” in a city with already one of the densest travel markets in the world (3765). The San Francisco County Transportation Authority released a study in 2017 stating that, on average, there are over 170,000 ride-hailing services made daily, meaning there are over 45,000 drivers operating within the city’s 49 square miles (2).

Just because there are this many drivers, however, does not mean that an equivalent portion of those workers live in the city as well. The majority of drivers, from personal experience, have predominantly spoken in conversation about living in various parts of East Bay (Emeryville, Hayward) or South Bay (San Jose, Santa Clara). Then, the question arises: who is calling San Francisco home in this new economy? Today there are about 35,000 tech workers traveling every day between their Silicon Valley workplace and San Francisco home, as well as an additional estimate of 53,000 tech workers in the city alone (Bronstein 2014). The increase of tech workers moving to the city has led to the skyrise in housing costs–43.5% of homes in San Francisco listed for sale in the city are priced at $1 million or more and residential rentings for two-bedroom apartments on average cost $3,250 a month, by far the highest in the United States (Bronstein 2014). For queer and trans people, and especially QTPOC, finding affordable housing when simultaneously disenfranchised and discriminated against in today’s economy is more than difficult. Drew Kiser, from working with the city’s homelessness project, notes that issues of homelessness disproportionately affects queer and transgender people (2016). In a city where an estimated 14% of the general population identifies as LGBTQ, they disproportionately constitute for roughly 30% of the entire homeless population in San Francisco–i.e. almost every 1 in 3 individuals experiencing homelessness in SF identify as LGBTQ (ASR 2017). One may ask then, how is it that San Francisco spends roughly $241 million a year on programs for homeless populations, more than double the budget for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department (Kiser 2016)? 

In this socioeconomic political climate, for the city of San Francisco it is becoming visibly clear that maintaining two concurrent competing commitments in the name of diversity and progress is almost impossible due to their individually unique ties and different relationships with American capitalism and neoliberal economies. In recent years, San Francisco has been listed as the top location for venture capital investment in the country, hauling in $23.4 billion—more than triple the investments in Silicon Valley proper (Florida 2017). For nearly a decade San Franciscan planners, developers, and city officials including past mayor Ed Lee believed that high-tech development would “lift all boats” for the city; the new reality of today highlights a different ideal phase of “winner-take-all urbanism” for the city (Florida 2017). Urban areas on a general scale provide city inhabitants with “diversity, creative energy, cultural richness, vibrant street life, and openness to new ideas that attract startup talent” (Florida 2017). However, what happens when that diversity and vibrant energy of an urban city is appropriated by white and middle-class newcomers with little ties to where they are living? The spaces for queer and trans people in the city are physically being taken from our grip, as spaces in districts like the SoMa, Mission, Castro, and even Tenderloin are becoming gentrified for emerging artists and incoming techies instead of the marginalized communities who have called such areas home for decades.

From an opposing standpoint, it is arguable whether or not San Francisco wants to be both a hub and haven for the queer and trans community as well as techies. The city continues to push for more diverse and inclusive communities while also not critically challenging the way in which newcomers, who have the financial and social capital and capability to do so, easily take up space in neighborhoods that historically belonged to other communities. San Francisco continues to put on one of the largest Pride events in the world; last year San Francisco’s Pride weekend was filled with over 200 parade contingents and exhibitors and more than twenty stages and venues (Harrington 2018). An expected 100,000 people came in attendance, in a city with roughly 870,000 people (Harrington 2018). Yet, many of the attendees came from other parts of the U.S. and the majority of the actual floats for the parade included groups like Uber, Salesforce, Facebook, and Twitter–all of which have negatively affected both their constituency of employees as well as community members in the same neighborhood. The way in which queer and trans communities are economically in control of their own political movements has drastically changed from decades prior, and the same goes for the ways in which the city oversees regulating–or rather deregulating–the various forms of expanding its development, transportation, and law enforcement programs into today’s economy. 

In summary, it is debatable what the future of San Francisco will look like. Looking at the trajectory, however, it may be predictable that the expansion of the city’s tech force will triumph over the needs of queer and trans communities, as is a similar trend on a state and federal level as well. San Francisco cannot ethically pride itself on being a safe haven for queer and trans people if there is an estimated 2,250 queer and trans people experiencing homelessness each day–a rough third of the entire population of those experiencing homelessness in the city (ASR 2017). The city will fall short of its promise to protecting its queer and trans community as long as it continues abiding to the neoliberal capitalist motifs of ensuring the placement of major corporations and big business over our marginalized communities. Otherwise, the city will solely become a tech hub for cisgender straight people and the queer community will have to find a new place to call home in order to survive.


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