San Francisco is undeniably associated with gay culture. It is common for people to know that it's a "gay homeland," but it's far less common for people to have any idea why.

These days, San Francisco gets its reputation from its reputation. That is, San Francisco has become such a popular gay tourist trap that gay people visit San Francisco because gay people visit San Francisco — but not for any of the original reasons. The Castro, the flagship San Francisco gayborhood, is known around the world by self-identified gay and non-gay people as the unofficial 'Capital' of 'Queer' identity — or of a "Queer Nation." Some refer to the Castro as being "famous for being famous," ("Turner and Turner", qtd. in Howe 254), elegantly conveying the point that San Francisco's historic reasons for being a gay 'Mecca' are mostly now forgotten.

San Francisco's role as a 'gay city' is actually rooted in several much older roles that the city has played:

  1. SF's role as a seaport, especially in service to the United States Navy
  2. Its role in the Gold Rush
  3. Its role in the construction of the American railroad, (and the implications of this on Asian immigration policy)

    and

  4. Its geographic isolation from the historically more-populous Eastern American culture.
A cursory glance at the above list will quickly reveal three things:
  1. San Francisco was male-dominated since its beginnings
  2. San Francisco was historically not family-oriented (or even family-friendly)
  3. San Francisco was built on welcoming the people who might be less-welcome in other parts of America.

Early San Francisco was not quite devoid of women, but women were underrepresented in the San Francisco population. Men came to San Francisco to get rich during the Gold Rush. Men came from China to work on American railroads, and immigrant women were even explicitly restricted by custom (and then law), from coming to San Francisco, as a means of population control. (If the Chinese population were to rival the white population in San Francisco, the white population might lose its 'control,' and might be unable to continue the practice of underpaying the immigrant laborers, among other things).

The U.S. Navy also helped to establish a strong male presence in San Francisco. As the closest American seaport to the "Far East," San Francisco would serve as a clearinghouse for seamen and goods making their way to and from China, Japan, and other Pacific locations.

When sailors were discovered to be 'gay' (by whatever means), the Navy would typically discharge them at the nearest port, and although San Francisco was not unique in receiving newly-discharged gay sailors, something about San Francisco encouraged them to stay. There were a number of reasons for any sailor -- gay and straight alike -- to stay in San Francisco rather than go to his original home. In addition to the aforementioned surplus of testosterone in San Francisco, which might appeal to gay men, there was debauchery abound to be enjoyed in the city. Gambling, prostitution, and alcohol were in abundant supply, and many single men found it hard to leave. It was a playground for everyone, and a gay community was beginning to form; one which was, for the most part, either ignored or accepted by its peer groups.

As a gay community began to form, word spread across the country. Not only was San Francisco's reputation spreading as a mythical promised land of Gold and fun, but the specific news of a gay community--a gay 'promised land'--began to surface in the nation at large.

Once this reputation was 'off the ground,' it seems there was no going back. San Francisco became "famous for being famous," and as gay men came to see the San Francisco wonderland of gayness, they unwittingly were fulfilling the very prophecy that had brought them to the city in the first place. With mass media, references in pop culture, the internet, and the lowered costs of travel, San Francisco's reputation as the Gay Homeland only expanded more.

Today, San Francisco continues to exhibit a thriving gay culture. The original draw for gay men is not as important; most major cities in America have at least one gay-friendly section. But San Francisco has established itself—probably forever—as the birthplace of accepted gay culture in America.


Source Cited:

Howe, Alyssa Cymene. "Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism." San Francisco and Identity Tourism. p. 248-264. (Chapter 14). Additional Publication information unavailable; (Class handout).

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