Project Looks to Survey SF’s LGBT Past

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday October 27, 2013

A new project aims to map the history of the LGBT community in San Francisco as the first step toward remembering and preserving the people and places that played critical roles in cementing the city as a gay mecca.

The project and a separate one currently under way in Los Angeles are believed to be the first two efforts anywhere in the United States to produce documents detailing their municipalities' comprehensive, citywide LGBT histories.

"I like to refer to it as the final frontier of historic preservation," said architectural historian Shayne Watson, 36, an out lesbian who lives in San Francisco, of the effort to document LGBT history.

Watson and Donna Graves, a public historian based in Berkeley, in partnership with the GLBT Historical Society won a $76,000 grant from the San Francisco Historic Preservation Fund Committee, overseen by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, to complete by early 2015 what is known as an historic context statement. It is a preservation planning tool that federal, state and local governments can refer to when determining what places and structures hold importance to telling a historical theme.

"We reviewed their application and we worked with them over a number of months to try to ensure that it was going to be a sound project and one that would have wide and long-term community benefit," said Mark Ryser, chair of the fund committee.

The document, by unearthing sites of historical significance to the LGBT community, could assist in efforts to landmark certain buildings or possibly establish a historic district in the gay Castro neighborhood. To date San Francisco has named just three sites, all in the Castro, as local historic landmarks due to their ties to LGBT history: the Twin Peaks Tavern, the building that housed Harvey Milk's Castro Camera shop, and the home of the AIDS quilt.

"We want to make sure important places are interpreted, protected, and designated as landmarks," said Graves, 57, a straight ally who recently worked on a project aimed at preserving and reviving the city's Japantown district.

Los Angeles' LGBT context statement is part of its larger SurveyLA project that began in 2007 as a joint project between the city's planning department and the Getty Trust. This year it won a $20,000 federally funded grant from the state Office of Historic Preservation to survey the city's LGBT history and expects to complete the work by next September.

"We are going to have all our survey results and context online in a searchable database we are working with the Getty Conservation Institute to development that will be online in the next year," said Janet Hansen, deputy manager of the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources.

Back in 2004 the group known as Friends of 1800 published a partial report on San Francisco's LGBT history called "Sexing the City: The Development of Sexual Identity Based Subcultures in San Francisco, 1933-1979." The group had formed to protect from demolition the Carmel Fallon Building at 1800 Market Street that was eventually incorporated into the LGBT Community Center.

"The Friends of 1800 sparked this idea of the importance of preserving not just buildings but land-marking areas that were of importance and crucial to LGBT history," said Nan Alamilla Boyd, a professor at San Francisco State University who identifies as queer and wrote a book about the city's LGBT history up to 1965. "A historic context statement really tries to create a guide to the historical narrative that can frame the way people make decisions about land-marking so it is not random."

The 23-page Friends report called for the creation of an historical district "to recognize how the city has contributed to the growing recognition and legitimation of sexual and gender minorities as full members of American society." It also called for sub-districts created in North Beach, the Tenderloin, Polk Gulch, and the Castro.

It noted that the GLBT Historical Society's archival database lists more than 1,300 local sites associated with sexuality-based subcultures, such as bars, bathhouses, restaurants, community centers, religious centers, social service organizations, bookstores, nonprofit organizations, publishers, and gay-oriented businesses.

"It officially recognized the legitimacy of queer history when it came to planning issues," said architect Alan Martinez, who chaired the Friends group and is a former member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission.

Graves and Watson plan to keep the scope of their work between the early roots of the city's LGBT community in the 19th century through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Some of the themes they intend to explore include the influence of 1920s bohemian culture; the establishment of social gathering places in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition; the effects of World War II; police harassment and bar raids in the 1950s as the first LGBT activist groups began to form; and the LGBT rights movements in the 1970s.

Martinez, who with Boyd is serving on the project's advisory committee, is eager to see important lesbian historical sites be given prominence due to the document's production.

"If nothing else, finding some appropriate ways to honor lesbian history probably is the most important thing," he said.

For her master's in historic preservation thesis in 2009 at the University of Southern California, Watson documented the lesbian history of San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. She now plans to gather information on sites across the city to include in the historic context statement, such as Maud's in Cole Valley, a lesbian bar opened in the 1960s that closed in the 1980s.

The bar, at 937 Cole Street, is now called Finnegan's Wake but remains largely as is from its days as Maud's, said Watson, who grew up in San Jose and has lived in San Francisco since 2002.

"It was sort of like a community center for the lesbian community," she said.

Rikki Streicher, an out lesbian who died in 1994, owned Maud's and also helped found the Federation of Gay Games. The site of the early games, Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park, is an example of a place most people don't associate as being of LGBT historical import, said Graves, that likely will be highlighted in the context statement.

"I am also really interested in LGBT culture being part of this study. I am very interested in finding the homes, studios, and performance spaces of LGBT artists," she said.

The document is not meant to be exhaustive, the women pointed out, though they do intend for it to be as broad as possible, with special attention made to including important sites related to bisexuals, LGBT people of color, and the transgender community.

"It is a very big story," Graves said of the city's LGBT past. "We feel committed to making sure we do represent the range of diverse experiences of the LGBT community."

They are asking the public's help in locating people and sites to include and are inviting people to come share their stories with them at a forum next month.

"We are going to need people's help in telling those stories," said Graves. "Sometimes it is big stories and sometimes it is everyday experiences that have shaped the community. We want to hear all of that from people."

The first public presentation on the project, titled "Remembering LGBT Historic Sites in San Francisco: A Community Workshop," will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 14 in the Audre Lorde Room at the San Francisco Women's Building, 3543 18th Street in the Mission.

For more information, contact Watson and Graves at [email protected] or visit the "Preserving LGBT Historic Sites" page on Facebook at

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