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San Francisco  
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San Francisco has enjoyed an undisputed reputation as a "gay mecca" since at least 1964, when Life magazine published a path-breaking feature article, "Homosexuality in America," that declared the city by the bay to be the "gay capital" of the United States. That characterization stemmed in part from the fact that both of the two leading national organizations for homosexuals--the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis--had been headquartered in San Francisco since the 1950s.

The presence of these organizations in San Francisco in turn reflected a significant upsurge in homosexual visibility in the San Francisco Bay Area during and immediately after World War II. Prior to World War II, San Francisco seems to have been not significantly different from other major American port cities in terms of its homosexual and subcultures; that is, they were present, but not a defining feature of the city in the broader cultural imagination. Before the mid-twentieth century, San Francisco's sexual minority subcultures came nowhere near rivaling the levels of complexity to be found in older, longer-established East Coast cities, particularly New York.

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Early History

Little documentation remains of homosexuality during the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican periods of San Francisco's history, though the early Spanish Mission fathers noted the existence of the so-called "berdache" or "two-spirit" tradition among the indigenous Ohlone tribe.

The initial period of Anglo rule, inaugurated by the conquest of California during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and consolidated by the rapid influx of U. S. citizens during the Gold Rush of 1849, also provides scant evidence of homosexuality, though its undocumented existence can be inferred.

Immigration to California well into the 1850s was almost exclusively male, and a high proportion of the few female immigrants were prostitutes. In such sex-segregated and relatively closed environments (mining camps, prisons, ships), particularly where male-female sexuality is conducted largely on a commercial basis, there tends to be a high incidence of "situational" homosexual activity among men. There was also in San Francisco a well-documented presence of female individuals who lived and worked as men. In 1876, for example, Jeanne Bonet, who lived in male attire, led a gang of former prostitutes who, according to sensational journalist Herbert Asbury, "had nothing to do with men."

The atypical gender distribution of San Francisco's mid-nineteenth-century population contributed to the development of a large "vice" district, the fabled "Barbary Coast," which quickly earned San Francisco its reputation as a "wide-open town." The relative openness of a bawdy, semi-public sexual culture in San Francisco no doubt contributed to the development of rich homosexual and transgender subcultures before the twentieth century, as did the city's maritime economy and its burgeoning, bohemian literary and art scenes. Asbury notes that the brothels along Commercial Street in particular "were much frequented by degenerates," such as men who wore women's clothing, and that popular erotic sex cabarets included both male and female entertainers "who were encouraged to do whatever their erotic fantasies might dictate."

It has been more difficult to recover the history of lesbians than the history of gay men and transgender people during this period, in large part because of the general exclusion of women from employment and public life, except as prostitutes, which made it more difficult for women to create independent sexual lives for themselves apart from the demands of family, child-rearing, and domesticity. It seems likely, however, that "passionate friendships" between women in this period sometimes included sexual expression, but this aspect of women's lives has rarely become part of the public record.

The Precursors of Modern Subcultures

The precursors of modern homosexual and transgender subcultures in San Francisco date from near the turn of the twentieth century. Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson, writing under the pseudonym Xavier Mayne in The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life (1908), described rampant male homosexual prostitution among soldiers mustering at San Francisco's Presidio during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Charles Warren Stoddard, a member of San Francisco's literary elite, published the frankly and autobiographically based novel, For the Pleasure of His Company: An Affair of the Misty City, in 1903.

A San Francisco correspondent of the eminent German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, writing in 1905, described her life as a transgendered person who sometimes ran a boarding house for dance hall girls.

Shortly after the great earthquake and fire of 1906, a young San Franciscan named Alice B. Toklas traveled with a friend to Paris, where she was introduced to Oakland native Gertrude Stein, whereupon Toklas and Stein launched one of the most public, celebrated, and long-lasting lesbian relationships on record.

In 1908, The Dash, a saloon and dance hall in the Barbary Coast district, was closed by the police for reportedly allowing cross-dressed male entertainers to dance on tabletops and permit customers to perform oral sex on them beneath their upraised skirts.

World War I and the Emergence of Modern Subcultures

World War I brought drastic changes to the sexual culture of San Francisco. In coordination with military authorities concerned over the spread of venereal disease among troops and social purity reformers involved in alcohol prohibition and anti-prostitution crusades, city officials shut down the Barbary Coast in 1917. Much of the "vice" trade went underground and relocated to the Tenderloin district, immediately north of Market Street, the city's main commercial thoroughfare, where it was controlled and regulated by corrupt members of the San Francisco Police Department.

It was in the Tenderloin's speakeasies and gin joints during the era of Prohibition that San Francisco's modern gay subculture began to take shape. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, a number of gay bars quickly opened in the Tenderloin, which remained the epicenter of gay bar culture into the 1960s. One former Tenderloin establishment, Finocchio's, a female-impersonation nightclub, relocated to the new bohemian entertainment district, North Beach, which emerged in the former Barbary Coast. Finocchio's survived there until 1999.

The North Beach entertainment district was also home to San Francisco's first known lesbian establishment, Mona's, which featured cross-dressed female performers and staff. Between the 1930s and 1950s, homosexual and transgender subcultures existed in close association with nightclubs like Mona's and Finocchio's, which simultaneously catered to tourists seeking risqué experiences, as well as to members of sexual subcultures seeking social space.

Gay and lesbian people also lived in the North Beach neighborhood, especially those with artistic and literary sensibilities. Elsa Gidlow, who made her home there between 1926 and 1954 (when she moved to nearby Marin County), had authored the first volume of explicitly lesbian poetry to be published in North America, On a Grey Thread, in 1923. Her immediate circle included the writers Kenneth Rexroth and Lincoln and Una Jeffers, and she was a correspondent of Radclyffe Hall and Una Trowbridge, whom she had met during a year abroad in Paris.

World War II

World War II brought further drastic changes to San Francisco's sexual ecology. As historian Allan Bérubé has demonstrated, the war itself played a pivotal role in the formation of new sexual identity communities by throwing together vast numbers of gay men who formed associative networks based on their shared sexualities, and also created significant new employment opportunities in wartime industries for single women, including lesbians.

As one of the principal administrative centers of the war's Pacific theater of operations, San Francisco became something of a dumping ground for homosexuals dishonorably discharged from military service. At the Treasure Island Naval Hospital in San Francisco Bay, medical and psychological experts conducted nonconsensual tests on many of these men in an effort to discover the "causes and cures" of homosexuality.

Faced with the prospect of returning home in disgrace or remaining in arguably the most scenic city in the United States, many gay World War II veterans opted for the latter. In the late 1940s, a tabloid paper in San Francisco described this demographic trend with the shocking headline, "Homos Invade S. F.!"

The Homophile Movement and the 1950s Counterculture

In the 1950s, San Francisco was home to the first national organizations for homosexual rights, as well as to an emerging counterculture that celebrated sexual diversity. The Mattachine Society, a men's organization founded by gay communist Harry Hay in Los Angeles in 1950, relocated its national headquarters to San Francisco between 1954 and 1957, after politically moderate and conservative elements in the organization broke with its radical founders.

At the same time, in 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, a national organization for lesbians. The founding of other so-called "" groups, such as the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) in the 1960s made San Francisco the center of organized gay political life in the United States. A police raid of a 1965 fundraising ball for the CRH, which enjoyed the support of San Francisco's liberal clergy, resulted in a great deal of negative publicity for the police and helped place homophile rights on San Francisco's progressive political agenda.

In tandem with this unprecedented organizational growth, San Francisco's long-established reputation as a haven for radicals, eccentrics, and dreamers helped sustain a new "beatnik" counterculture in the 1950s, popularized by pansexual literary figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

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A publicity portrait of comedian and San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano provided by Outright Speakers and Talent Bureau.
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