C is for Castro District: San Francisco’s Gayborhood


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We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets.

~ Harvey Milk

The Castro District in San Francisco wasn’t always a gay neighborhood; at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was called Little Scandinavia due to the many Scandinavian immigrants who lived there. In the 1930s, it was predominantly a neighborhood for Irish immigrants, but in the 1940s, the US Army was the reason that the number of gay men skyrocketed in the Castro. In those days, the army started identifying sexual preference and gay soldiers were let go with a big “H” on a blue piece of paper. Many soldiers who were on their way to the Pacific and Asia (and San Francisco was the last US port on the way there) who received this so-called “blue discharge” could and would not return home because of shame and thus got stranded in San Fran. In the McCarthy years this trend continued with gays who were fired from the army and the public sector and then booked a one-way trip to the city by the Bay where the gay (and illegal) bars drew more and more attention.[1]

In the 1960s and 1970s, many families left the Castro to settle in the suburbs and many gays bought the old Victorians for next to nothing ($20.000-$40.000) and restored them.

The famous gay activist Harvey Milk opened in 1973 a camera shop (Castro Camera) and started a political battle from his shop by promoting gay rights. He managed to become San Francisco’s first gay Supervisor but was gunned down in 1978 by his colleague Dan White. That assassination put the gay movement of San Francisco on the world map. (I will write a separate entry on Milk himself).

In the 1980s, the first AIDS cases came to the surface. The disease struck many victims in the Castro and has continued to take its toll even though AIDS is now less fatal than it once was. As the tolerance towards gays increased, many gay families actually moved away from the Castro in the last few years, in search of cheaper or more suburban neighborhoods. The so-called gay ghetto is in fact much less gay now, and in the last few years, there have been discussions whether the Castro should be preserved as San Francisco’s unique gayborhood.

Nightlife in the Castro is as dynamic as ever and community events like the Castro Street Fair (October), the Gay Pride Parade (last Sunday in June) and the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (also in June) are famous.

And are you a fan of Harvey Milk?

His camera shop was at 575 Castro Street. Since the movie Milk (with Sean Penn) this location has become a place of pilgrimage for many gays from all over the world.

[1] savory detail: some people now believe that McCarthy was gay himself.

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