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Changing the flag in the Castro is not progress

The Castro is no longer gay in any sense that pushes boundaries. It exists firmly within the understanding of straight society. Although someone coming here from out of state could be forgiven for believing this place to be a haven for queers, it’s actually little more than a tourist trap. Like Haight Ashbury is for hippie culture, the Castro self-consciously sells itself both to the people who live there and the ones who come for the experience.

The neighborhood is a showcase for rainbow capitalism centered around the disposable incomes of a certain class and demographic of mainly white, mainly masc-presenting, cis gay men. The Castro stands for straight society’s acceptance of the homonormative gay man — and it sets the standard for that kind of gayness, too.

For people who don’t fit the above description, there’s nowhere to go in the Castro. This is what gives rise to the complaint that the neighborhood is “too cis” or “too white” or “too gay.”

But it wasn’t always like this. In 1975 there were 8 lesbian bars in the Castro, 3 years before the Pride flag was created and 22 before it was raised above SoulCycle in Harvey Milk Plaza. Today there are none. Only bars that cater to gay men remain among the sex shops, brunch spots, and dog grooming salons.

The Importance of Shared Private Spaces

Queer people of all kinds come to the Castro under the misapprehension that we will feel safe and desired here, and when the circuit queens ignore us, it hits hard. We feel ostracized, looking up at that giant rainbow flag. Like our community does not serve us. Worse, that it serves only the people who, nowadays at least, have the most privilege, for whom being gay is no longer a barrier to success in life.

It’s tempting to want to make Castro gays feel uncomfortable in the way that they make so many other queers — gender nonconforming, trans, nonbinary, Black, Brown, and Asian people, women and femmes in —feel uncomfortable. But going to the bars and making ourselves a visible presence there is ultimately destructive.

Cis gay men deserve spaces to be with each other, and if these spaces serve overpriced margaritas and feature dancing underwear boys, so be it. There is a need for physical spaces within queer communities where people who are looking for a specific kind of intimacy (sexual or otherwise) can be among people who are also looking for that. We all need to find our people, even among our people.

That these spaces remain participatory is important because spectators ultimately destroy them. Not on purpose, but they do. A case in point: The well-documented death of the lesbian bar. When male-identified people and straight women started coming to lesbian bars, not to actively disrupt them (or even to try their luck with the regular clientele), but because they felt safe there, too, what the space was changed. The bar was no longer a site of private rituals for a group that had historically been persecuted, where participation could be assumed.

We can observe a similar phenomena when circuit queens go to parties by and for gender-nonconforming folks. They come because we put on incredible parties, but they only fuck each other, making the people the party organizers were trying to center into spectators. Of course we can still have a good time, but we are also being spectated, and often actively excluded and made to feel undesirable. Those of us who only feel safe enough to express our desires around people we feel in close community with find themselves unable to participate because of this. Inclusivity has its drawbacks.

We should intentionally create queer spaces for the kinds of intimacy we want. Whether that’s by having theme nights at gay bars (your straight girl friends are less likely to want to come to the club if it’s nominally “underwear night!”) or by keeping queer play parties underground, accessible by invitation only.

Frequenting the cis gay bars of the Castro will only make them less interesting, turn us into spectators, and take away resources from spaces that are made for us. Spaces that we could be making together.

Gay Generational Wealth

Making and continuing these spaces is not easy, though. It needs time, and labor, and money. Less privileged, marginalized sections of the queer community don’t have the multiple decades of resources, political power, and attention that Castro gays do. Although many cis gay spaces were lost as culture was shifted and destroyed due to AIDS, the bars in the Castro were able to weather the most recent pandemic largely untouched, whereas queer owned and operated spots like The Stud were closed forever.

The concentration of resources in the Castro represents a kind of “generational wealth” for the white, cis, gay community that live and play there.

Queer and trans people, especially people of color, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, don’t have the same generational legacy of resources. Both as a community and often as individuals too.

We are still more likely to be cut off from family wealth, to have experienced homelessness, and to be living with HIV and other chronic health conditions. Making spaces for us is and has always been harder than it should be.

The cis, white gays of the Castro could stand in solidarity with the rest of the queer community in San Francisco and uplift the more marginalized groups by supporting spaces created by us and for us. I don’t mean putting on “Black Queer Magic Night” at Beaux, either. I mean transferring resources throughout the community in a way that addresses structural inequalities and strives for a diverse ecosystem of queer spaces, not a white, cis, masculine monoculture.

We should not accept that the loudest voices and the most power goes to cis, white, gay men. We should want better for our broad queer community. If “the Castro” is shorthand for “where the resources that are supposed to be for the whole queer community are concentrated” then yes, the Castro is too cis and gay.

Change the Flag

Nobody should look up at the Pride flag and feel like it doesn’t include them. But they do — like it or not, the flag is tainted with the association with homonormative, corporate gayness. If the gays of the Castro want to publicly set an intention to do better, there’s no more visible marker than changing the flag.

The “Progress” flag, designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018 as a way to “to shift focus and emphasis to what is important in our current community climate.” has been posited as a replacement for Gilbert Baker’s 6-stripe design in the Castro.

Baker designed several versions of the flag, the first of which he made at a space then known as the Clown Hotel in SOMA and flew in 1978 at the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco.

The original gay pride flag had 8 stripes, each chosen to represent something about gay culture. The 6 we know, plus hot pink for sex, and turquoise for art and magic.

This original design is a better candidate for a replacement in the Castro than the “Progress” flag for a number of reasons. First, flying this flag means retaining a connection with our history. It was designed in San Francisco by the person who gave the world one if its first recognizable, public-facing, unashamed symbols of gay pride. San Francisco, and the Castro in particular, has been a site of struggle and of victory for the gay pride movement. Gilbert Baker, along with Harvey Milk and many other gay liberation activists in the middle decades of the last century, risked and suffered violence and deprivation and death for gay freedom.

Before the AIDS pandemic there was a surging, joyful queer liberation movement in many ways more unflinchingly progressive, more willing to challenge every boundary and embrace sex, art, and magic than the movement today. That it is being forgotten is a tragedy for all of us. The original Gay Manifesto wouldn’t be out of place in a queer zine rack today. Through books, art, music, and activist groups, gay and lesbian liberation movements aimed to disrupt and destroy straight society. Not to sell out and become nothing more than another consumer market, if they continued to exist at all.

Between AIDS and neoliberalism, marriage equality and cops at Pride, gay culture in San Francisco has been castrated. Like Haight Ashbury, the Castro has become a parody of what once made it special, and dangerous. We should be attempting to recapture this spirit and improve on it, not leave it in the past.

Second, the Progress flag’s “addition” of marginalized communities to the “traditional” 6-striped rainbow plays into a misguided narrative about the importance of Black and Brown people in our shared queer history. Yes, the Castro is now and has always been racist. Homonormative society is just as messed up as its heteronormative counterpart. Adding stripes to represent marginalized communities at this point, however, erases the past contributions of people from these communities. The idea of Progress sets inclusion as an intention, rather than acknowledging that queer community has always included people of color. That a person of any background can be queer, and have built communities of people who desire them. Marking queer people of color as other, even as a gesture of acknowledgement of white gay racism, actually reenforces it.

Changing the flag to Baker’s original design means bringing the sex, art, and magic back to what we want to be proud of. These are three concepts that should be central to queer culture. Our bodies and lives are defined by our sexualities, and can be sites of both art and magic. To be in queer community means creating a different, sometimes magical, world. A world that challenges us to shed our straight thinking and provokes straight society to examine its own desires. This work has always been done by marginalized people. Let’s look back to a time before AIDS took so many of us, before we were identified as a target market. To before the rainbow became a symbol of exclusion, fit only for the sides of cop cars and the logos of Fortune 500 companies in June. Sometimes the best way to make progress is to remember where we came from, and start again from there.

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