Photo Credit: Liz Highleyman
June 12th a throng of celebrants gathered at the historic Stud Bar to mark the birth of San Francisco’s Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, which honors the contributions of leather and kink communities to the culture and history of San Francisco. Some, notable personas who assisted with the cutting of the studded-leather ribbon included Cultural District organizers Bob Goldfarb, Rachel Sullivan, and Rachel Ryan, as well as renowned figures such academic and sexual-critic, Gayle Rubin, and leather icon Race Bannon.
The Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, voted and approved by the Board of Supervisors last month, designates several blocks of San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood a site of historical and cultural significance to the city and to its LGBTQ residents. Such contributions include longtime business fixtures such as the Stud Bar, the Eagle, and Powerhouse, as well as the fashions produced out of San Francisco and sold worldwide by leather retailer Mr. S Leather. San Francisco, indeed, would not be what it is today without these businesses, or without annual events such Folsom Street Fair, an annual gathering which has drawn thousands of kinky and BDSM-curious folks to walk SOMA’s streets in leather for over 30 years.
But while the contributions of the leather and LGBTQ community are significant—they are also endangered. While in 1970 San Francisco boasted over 115 gay bars, as of 2011 it had only 33, today it has only a few more, around 40 or so. In short, the LGBTQ community in San Francisco is winnowing, instead of growing like it should be, and organizers of the Leather & LGBT Cultural District are trying to do something about that.
The Death of the Gayborhood Occuring in San Francisco & Nationwide
Three months ago, March 10, 2018, hundreds of mourners gathered in front The Gangway – the oldest bar in San Francisco, which closed its doors in January. Those assembled remembered and listened, with fondness, to memories of days, weeks, months, and years which LGBTQ folk had spent there among friends and chosen-family during its 50-plus years of operation.
Their procession and protest, the March to Remember and Reclaim Queer Space, was sponsored by the GLBT Historical Society and the SF LGBT Center, among others, to “commemorate the city’s LGBTQ past and take active steps to sustain the city’s living queer heritage and culture.” The event’s Facebook page observes that “in the 1950s, Polk Street was a destination for the country’s LGBT community, and by the early 70s was the gayest street in San Francisco.” Since the 1970s, “80 queer bars and establishments” have resided with “within a 12 block stretch of Polk Street.” Today, though “few remain.”
But the disruption and displacement of LGBTQ communities is not limited to Polk Street, San Francisco, California. It is occurring across the United States in many neighborhoods (or, “gayborhoods”) which had been built into safe havens by the LGBTQ people. Between 2005-2011 the number of gay bars nationwide experienced a 12% drop. Across the board, the number of bars—by way of comparison—only experienced a 7% drop nationwide during that same period of time. Given such a disparity in rates of closure, it seems readily apparent that gay bars are currently subject to additional economic pressures which mainstream bars are not. In 2017, The Advocate published its list of “26 Dead (Or Dying) Gay Bars” in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Taking Pride in Protecting Our LGBTQ Communities and Neighborhoods
Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District organizer Rachel Ryan—also a member of the Stud Bar’s cooperative of co-owners—spoke as they prepared to cut the ribbon. Her words though were also seemingly addressed to San Francisco itself, and to the memories and struggles of the LGBTQ community which has made this city its home over the greater part of this past century. Ryan remembered how we as a community “have witnessed the heartbreak a plague, but we have also seen fierce activism. We have been threatened by attempts to ‘clean up urban blight,’ and by rising rents and evictions, but we have fought to keep our bars and businesses open.”
Ryan hopes that the Cultural district, and other organizing will help “queer and leather communities continue to stabilize and grow in the coming years” and create “housing and health services for our youth and elders.” She hopes “to see increased tourism, not just for our big festival weekends, but year round.” But, most importantly she says, “I want people to know exactly where they are when they walk through the Leather District.”
Historical Preservation: A Way to Resist Gentification?
The Leather & LGBTQ cultural district is one among a number of cultural districts being designated by the board of supervisors—in an attempt to preserve longtime residents and communities and bolster them against corrosive gentrification. Other cultural districts include Calle 24 in the Mission, and SOMA Pilipinas, and a Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin. A recent effort has also been launched in Castro to create an LGBTQ-specific cultural district as well.
Such efforts are critical in preserving neighborhoods and community spaces against erosion by the forces of gentrification: resulting in rising costs, displacement, and the scattering of historic residents of neighborhoods to the winds. Legislative recognitions of the contributions of the longtime residents and communities within the city can facilitate funding or ways to defray costs for community members. Also, the creation of organized community groups such as the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District can empower residents to have a seat at the table in determining what development and businesses come into their neighborhoods.
Can Queer-er Financial Services Help?
A credit union offering fair and equal financial services to LGBTQ households and businesses could dramatically boost the ability for organized efforts such as the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District to promote businesses and affordable housing for residents. Fairly priced mortgage and business loans could propel these communities to make investments in LGBTQ-serving bars and businesses which can help them resist the rising costs of gentrification. An LGBTQ credit union can help residents pool, share, and grow wealth so that they can continue to thrive in America’s cities, with pride.