San Francisco Pride: How one city developed such a thriving LGBT community

by Ember

The Castro district is one of the first and largest LGBT neighborhoods in the world. How did San Francisco develop such a thriving, proud, and loud LGBT community?

I’ve recently returned to my home here in San Francisco from an adventure all across the UK and Ireland, and while I was abroad I actually received many questions and comments about the grand and enigmatic city I call home. One, which sticks out, was when a new friend asked if the gay culture in San Francisco is really what it is made out to be.

I was attending the Glastonbury festival at the time, but San Francisco would have been right smack in the middle of Pride Week, which happens every year at the end of June. Adding to the chaos and celebration of San Francisco’s 43rd annual Pride was the fact that a Supreme Court ruling against DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) had overturned Proposition 8, and re-legalized gay marriage in California. It must have been a Pride like no other.

I told him yes. San Francisco’s gay culture is everything it is made out to be.

City Hall lit up with pride colors in celebration of Pride 2013
City Hall lit up with pride colors in...

San Francisco is a mecca for LGBT culture, activism, and events. It is often a central starting point for LGBT movements that carry on globally. The Castro district is one of the first, and is the largest LGBT neighborhood in the world.
One doesn’t have to be in San Francisco long to get a taste of the gay culture here, but beyond that I really didn’t know how or why the community and culture came to be.

So, in honor of Pride and the recent re-legalization of gay marriage in California, I wanted to take a look at how this famous city by the bay developed such a thriving, proud, and loud LGBT culture.

The Turn of the Century in a Growing City

Following the Gold Rush, through to the end of the 19th century San Francisco saw many new immigrants, especially from Scandinavia, Germany, and Ireland, as they began settling and building homes in an area of San Francisco once known as Eureka Valley. Many of these Victorian homes actually survived the 1906 earthquake, and themselves add a lot of scenery to the unique areas that make up the former Eureka Valley, which includes today’s Castro district.

By the early 1930’s, San Francisco’s continually growing community of Catholic Irish immigrants were very well established within Eureka Valley, the working class area of the city. They formed a close-knit community, and on a greater scale had begun to have a lot of influence in the area and throughout the city of San Francisco.

This close-knit community would soon see the formation of a gay community right alongside their own, and a clash of ideologies would make history in an event whose lasting effects still touch many LGBT individuals and communities around the world.

Dishonorably Discharged for Being Gay

During WWII, San Francisco became a main port for men and women leaving to and returning from war. It was also the major port where many dishonorably discharged gay men and women were processed out of service.

The overwhelming need for men, and women, in the service at the time saw many gay and lesbian individuals being enlisted. However, a growing and changing understanding of psychology at the time deemed homosexuality an ailment that made an individual unfit for service.

During the war, the US military began actively seeking out and dishonorably discharging gay men and women who were in active service.

Thousands of these discharged men and women were processed out in San Francisco, as it was often the closest major port. Considering they would have to return to their families to tell them that they had not only been dishonorably discharged, but also that it was because they were gay, not surprisingly, most stayed in San Francisco.

These groups formed some of San Francisco’s first gay communities.


The Summer of Love

The 1950’s saw the development of one of San Francisco’s internationally famous neighborhoods, the Haight-Ashbury district.

The budding reputation of being a more liberal city, the post-war growth of gay communities, and the development of many arts, including music and literature throughout the 1950’s and early 60’s in San Francisco drew in many young adults, or hippies as some might call them, wanting to join the counterculture movement. They began to form communities in an area with affordable housing along Haight street, one hill over from Eureka Valley. The main intersection in the area was Haight and Ashbury, which is where the district got its name.

In the summer 1967, hundreds of thousands of young adults flocked to Haight-Ashbury after being attracted by various media coverage of the small and forming hippie community, as well as more famously the Scott McKenzie song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which had been an instant hit, and was topping music charts by June of 1967.

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear some Flowers in your Hair)

This movement became known as the “Summer of Love,” and saw the development of hippie communities across the nation and around the world. It saw radical changes in music, the formation of new rock bands, and saw lasting changes in social and political views. The “Summer of Love” is a defining moment in the hippie or counterculture movement.

The Castro District, A Gay Friendly Neighborhood

Castro Theater, a famous landmark in the Castro District
Castro Theater, a famous landmark in ...

What was once known as a part of the Eureka Valley became known as the Castro District when many of the gay and lesbian people brought in by the hippie movement moved into, and settled in, the affordable Victorian homes in the former working class area.

The Haight-Ashbury district isn’t the only district formally established as a result of the counterculture movement. The radical and noticeably left wing political and cultural philosophies of these hippies attracted many gay and lesbian individuals to San Francisco, who felt that their lifestyle would be more accepted among the left swinging hippies.

At first, many of the gay and lesbian individuals moved into the Haight-Ashbury area, with the hippies. However, due to rampant drug use, and other illegal activities, many moved to the affordable neighboring district, which by 1970 became known as The Castro District of San Francisco- one of the first ever LGBT neighborhoods.

By this time many of the families of the original Catholic Irish immigrants, now financially well established, had moved into newer and nicer areas neighboring the Castro, the once working class neighborhood had been transformed.

The Castro District almost immediately gained recognition as gay and lesbian mecca, and has only grown since.

The Gay Liberation, Gay Pride, and Harvey Milk

The hippies who initially attracted many gay and lesbian individuals also played a role inspiring some early LGBT rights movements within the gay community itself. One notable movement was Gay Liberation, which encouraged gays and lesbians to “come out.” An offshoot of the Gay Liberation, and the Stonewall Riots in New York, was the development of Gay Pride and the Pride parade.

June of 1970 was the first San Francisco Pride, with a small “gay-in” held in Golden Gate Park, and since 1972 the event has been held annually, evolving into what we have today as Pride Week, which hosts the Pride Parade every June in San Francisco.

In 1973, Harvey Milk became heavily involved in gay rights activism. Although a younger Milk had no interest in activism or politics, he had been inspired by the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, and would go on to become one of the most significant activist for the gay rights movement.

In 1978, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to a public office. During his approximate 11 months of service, Milk continued his activism for gay rights, and helped pass a number of gay rights regulations in San Francisco.

Today, because of Harvey Milk’s influence and activism, he is sometimes referred to as the Martin Luther King of gay rights. In November of 1978, a policeman named Dan White assassinated Harvey Milk.

The Castro Theater showing the film "Milk," which celebrated Harvey Milk, his life, and his activism.
The Castro Theater showing the film "...

The Twinkie Defense

While on trial for the assassination of Harvey Milk and the mayor George Moscone, Dan White claimed that he had not intentionally meant to kill either man. The defense brought forth a woeful tale, in which White had been under great amounts of stress on the job.

He had to deal with groups of hippies who were portrayed as lazy and troublesome, unlike the communities he had been raised in.

He had to deal with riots and protests. There had been clashes between the growing gay community and the traditional Irish catholic groups, which directly neighbored this community.
His defense painted a picture of his stress and severe depression. They talked about how White had normally been a very health conscious man, but because of his depression had taken to eating a lot of sugary foods and drinks. They talked about how his poor diet led to an even greater deterioration of his mental condition. All of this led up to the day of the assassinations.

White’s defense argued that the assassinations had not been premeditated, but rather that White had been so stressed out and depressed that he had not been of sound mind, and that he’d had diminished mental capacity during the assassinations, and therefore didn’t fully realize what he was doing.
Because the majority of the jury came from the same close-knit community as White, which had been dealing with many of the same issues White claimed had caused so much stress and depression, they were able to sympathize with him.
White was not convicted of premeditated murder, nor was he convicted of murdering Milk and Moscone. In the end, he served five years on a manslaughter conviction, before being released on parole. White committed suicide less than two years after his release from prison.

Twinkies are a cake-y cream filled sugary junk food snack.
Twinkies are a cake-y cream filled su...

While Twinkies were not mentioned in the trial, it became a popular mocking phrase to indicate a trial in which the defense uses ridiculous or unbelievable claims to justify their actions, after a reporter referred to White’s junk food arguments as a “Twinkie defense.” The name instantly stuck, and has carried the stigmatized reputation since.


Following Milk’s assassination, the efforts to develop a flag to represent the LGBT community increased with the demand for something to symbolize their solidarity, with Milk, and with each other. Initial forms resembling the rainbow flag we have today were made and tested, before finally settling with basic six-color rainbow pride flag in 1979. 

Pride Flags in Castro
Pride Flags in Castro
Dykes on bikes at 2013 Pride, in San Francisco
Dykes on bikes at 2013 Pride, in San ...

Today the same flag can be seen hanging from lampposts, business entrance ways, home windows, or wherever one might fit throughout the Castro, as well as throughout San Francisco year round. And, during Pride each year the city is absolutely decorated with the Pride flag, in honor of it’s thriving gay community, and as a symbol gay rights worldwide.

Updated: 08/01/2013, Ember
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JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

I'm really looking forward to the follow up article. That should be an amazing insight.

Ember on 12/19/2013

Kari, thank you! It was the same for me when I started looking into this. I'm planning a follow up article as one of my house-mates serves on the pride board and knows a lot of people, many whom lived through a lot of this history. I'm looking forward to speaking with them and learning more :D

Kari on 12/18/2013

Interesting. I had only known a few bits of this information, but the things I didn't know were fascinating.

Ember on 08/24/2013

Wow, thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

MaggiePowell on 08/18/2013

Great information... passing this on

Ember on 08/11/2013

BrendaReeves- Thank you, I appreciate it! ^-^

Mira- I knew bits, but I learned a lot writing it too! I was so fascinated by it all, I could have written so much more than I did, I spent a lot of time taking a lot of stuff out. Thank you!

Mira on 08/09/2013

Such a great article, Ember! I knew bits and pieces, but learned quite a few interesting things! :)

BrendaReeves on 08/09/2013

Great article!

Ember on 08/01/2013

Ah- all fixed now thank you! :)

RupertTaylor on 07/31/2013

Apologies for being a party pooper but there are a couple of errors in your sub head:

"How did how San Francisco developed such a thriving, proud, and loud LGBT community?"

How did how? and developed should be develop.

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