Will homophobia increase as The Castro gets less gay?

“Faggots,” I heard the man say as he approached us near Market and Church St. in San Francisco.

I heard but ignored the man. For me, being called faggot by a hateful, lesser-evolved creature is nothing new. I came out in high school in the south, and as I approach 40 years old — I am more apt to roll my eyes and keep walking, than to chirp back.

“You’re faggots!” the stranger said, louder this time. My boyfriend Reagan heard him this time, replying loudly,“Yes we are faggots!” The hateful man kept walking.

We continued to the Muni, then the short walk to our apartment and we discussed our feelings. Neither of us were too shaken, thanks to margaritas and full bellies, but still needed to process the hate that had been hurled at us by a perfect stranger.

The irony in all of this, is that it occured so close to The Castro — San Francisco’s historic gay district. That this person felt safe enough, to walk alone through this neighborhood and antagonize two grown men, is something we San Francisco gays probably need to address.

One of the things I did this week was to say goodbye to the Castro’s Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Store. Located in Harvey Milk’s Historic Camera Shop at 575 Castro St, this shop has long been my favorite place to snatch up some fashionably in-your-face gay stuff. The store is closing after 16 years in operation.

“Our landlord won’t renew our lease,” one employee told me in between customers, “it’s kind of sad.” As I browsed the heavily-discounted HRC merchandise, things like $1 pins and $5 tshirts, my eyes meandered to the wall behind the cash register, to a mural of Harvey Milk. I took a photo to remember it. Who knows what will happen to it.

The Harvey Milk Mural (Photo: Christopher J. Beale)

“I came to San Francisco because I heard it was really gay,” the cashier told me as they rang up my pins and fanny pack (the last one in the store), “but to be honest, I have been a little disappointed.” Admittedly — I have had the same experience, but I moved here during the pandemic and I largely work from home. The jury is still out for me. This cashier’s point, however, is one that I have heard echoed by LGBTQIA San Franciscans young and old alike, the Castro as a ‘gayborhood’ is dying.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to San Francisco, in fact, it’s taking place in LGBTQIA districts across the country as gay rights become more widespread, gay Americans are assimilating into society, and moving out of the (often more-expensive) gay areas. As the population in those neighborhoods shifts, businesses that exist to serve the once-concentrated gay community begin to shut their doors due to lack of customers.

There are two schools of thought that are often applied to this, the first being that this mass-out-migration of gays is a positive sign. That we no longer need gay neighborhoods. The other, is that by leaving these neighborhoods behind, we are abandoning our history to gentrification.

HARVEY MILK ARCHIVES-SCOTT SMITH COLLECTION, HORMEL GAY & LESBIAN CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

Is it possible that the man spitting, “Faggots!” on the very sidewalks where gay icons like Harvey Milk and Sylvester once walked is a sign of what may come as our numbers dwindle?

Will more homophobic aggression make its way to the streets of The Castro?

Not if there are enough of us there to prevent it.

I was not afraid when that person verbally assaulted us. My strength in the face of homophobia comes, not only from years of hearing this word, but also from the knowledge that I am not alone here. There is, in-fact, more safety in numbers.

As things “open back up” here in San Francisco — I hope to see our vibrant queer neighborhood spring back to life, to remain a beacon of hope for disenfranchised gay people everywhere, a reminder that hate is not welcome here.

Christopher Beale is a multimedia journalist living in San Francisco. He hosts the podcast Unpacked and the queer radio show “On Bay Time” Monday afternoons on BFF.fm.

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