Violence in the Castro and the Loss of a Gay Male Cultural Practice 2 November 2006Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights.
As many of you may have heard, the halloween celebration in the Castro got ugly this year with the shootings of 9 people as the police were herding the crowd out of the neighborhood. This is just the most recent Halloween fiasco, which has been on a downward slide for the past 5 or 6 years. In 2002 and 2003 there were gay bashings, so the police and city stepped in to try to control it, but the vandalism and violence have continued year after year.
Gay men in San Francisco started holding impromptu street parties on Halloween shortly after World War II. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were in North Beach, usually in front of the Black Cat bar across the street from Vesuvius and City Lights Bookstore, the cafe where the Beats were hanging out at the time. There were similar goings on in Polk gulch and eventually by the early 1970s, they had moved to the Castro as the gay men moved into that neighborhood. There had always been a smattering of straight folks at these street parties (think: fag hag hangers-on), but starting in the late 1990s, the Halloween party got co-opted by that “cool” or should I say “hip” crowd of straight people who were sort of tourists in San Francisco while they lived the go-go days of the bubble, hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood, getting the local “culture.” By 2000, young straight kids from around the Bay Area were crashing the party and by 2002, there was violence. This year’s apparent gang shooting was just the last straw.
Obviously, I’m concerned about the violence, which in years past has been anti-gay. But it’s kind of a cultural thing for me to: This is not gay male culture any more. This is the cooption of a gay male tradition in San Francisco, turning into something that reflects neither gay male culture at large (gay men in the U.S. have the lowest criminality rates of all males in America) or of San Francisco (with its self-identity of inclusiveness and respect for all its bizarreness). Realistically I know that you can’t control who participates in public cultural practices; nonetheless, I mourn the loss of a particularly gay celebration, which had in the past always included the joy and subversion of camp and drag and leather dress-up, and men kissing each other (and not in that bizarre way that only privileged straight frat boys do on halloween, but in the way that gay men do).
The loss of the castro to straight white yuppies is increasingly eating away at the cohesiveness of San Francisco’s gay community. It’s been a long and slow process, like a disease that doesn’t kill you right away, but takes years to have its nuisive effect. The lesbians trickled away from Duboce Triangle and from the city altogether through the late 1980s and early 1990s; the working class and young gay men have been forced out by the gentrification; the land lords have canceled leases on gay businessnesses, slowly but surely over the past few years; and the only people who can afford to buy housing are professional couples, nearly all straight.
Some argue that it’s just a sign of our acceptance in the city that the neighborhood is dissolving. Maybe so. But I feel it as an assault on the geographical social space that enables gay men to maintain a culture of their own. Without it, or something like it, we revert back to the 1950s culture of skulking off from our straight neighborhoods to bars for a quick fuck. Gay neighborhoods afford the opportunity for more complex cultural depth, that takes our shared gayness and allows a proliferation of meanings. It is hard to estimate the loss of the social space, or even to feel it, as it has been happening so slowly (it’s not like the police came in and rounded us up and moved us out). But ultimately, I fear that the loss of gay neighborhoods in San Francisco can only have the effect of widdling away at the culture, because empirically, people need regular and normal social interaction to generate the meanings that make up a culture. If gay men are dispersed into the population again, like we were before WWII, then we have lost the dazzling work of our gay ancestors’ who worked tirelessly to create spaces for us to *be* (to use 1960s parlance).
For me still, 10 years out of the closet, I have an enormous sense of relief and calm when I enter a gay space. Still in San Francisco, being around straight people too long takes its toll, even when they are accepting, because there is still the unspoken expectation that I the gay man won’t make them uncomfortable by saying something wrong or ‘too gay.’ Some gay men accept and even desire this burden, and want to pass and integrate. I have no problem with that choice, as long as it doesn’t lead to the foreclosure of my choice to live in a gay space.
Afterword: As if to pour salt in the wounds, there have been a series of gay bashings in the Castro over the past couple months, where three gay men and one lesbian have been attacked, beaten up and raped by a gang of straight men. The community is currently organizing neighborhood patrols, like they had in the 1970s, to ensure our safety in what used to be our neighborhood.