The Castro just might be San Francisco’s most legendary neighborhood. Even I have heard the stories of hedonism and debauchery, and I was born in the early 1990’s, long after the neighborhood’s heyday. Some of the great writers of the late twentieth century penned novels about the devil-may-care acceptance towards sex that dominated the Castro during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
And for about a decade, the Castro was one of the few safe havens for those deemed “sexual deviants” by mainstream American society. LGTB culture came to define not just the Castro but San Francisco more generally, contributing to the Bay Area’s famous liberalism towards society’s outsiders. Then, in the mid-1980’s, AIDS happened.
There’s no words in the English language that can accurately capture the AIDS epidemic. The disease spread like wildfire, murdering without abandon people in one the country’s most stigmatized communities. AIDS hit San Francisco, and specifically the Castro, hard. The medical community was ill-equipped to handle an outbreak on such a large scale, while President Reagan, a noted social conservative, refused for years to even utter the name of the disease.
The Castro’s once-celebrated culture of free sex, sex without abandon, only contributed to the spread of AIDS. Spontaneous meet-ups in dive bars between two strangers often meant protection wasn’t used, and this allowed AIDS to proliferate at deadly rates. Unfortunately, it took time for researchers to understand AIDS and how gay men (and intravenous drug users) contracted it, and by then, thousands of families lost their sons and thousands of men lost their partners.
In the early 1990’s, effective and costly palliative care for those infected with AIDS and HIV entered the market; those infected could not be cured, but fewer symptoms would be experienced in addition to a longer and higher-quality life. Today, AIDS and HIV remains a problem – yes, even in the U.S., although the media rarely covers it. To date, though, the AIDS epidemic, and how the federal government approached it, remains one of the United States’ great human rights tragedies.
But today, the Castro doesn’t outwardly show these wounds.
Unless visitors take a close look, the Castro of 2016 looks remarkably tame, all spiffed up for families from the Midwest taking photos on their iPhones. Sure, there’s a raunchy sex shop and a gay bar here and there, but these storefronts are self-consciously tacky, voluntarily playing the part visitors expect them to. Rainbow iconography, the emblem of the gay and trans rights movement, can be found on crosswalks and on the sides of buildings. There’s a celebratory feel to the surface of the Castro, as if all the rainbows exist to say “we’re all equal now!”
All one has to do is look down to feel the gravity of the past of the neighborhood and LGTB community it serves. The educational Rainbow Honor Walk highlights individuals who transgressed their culture’s boundaries of so-called acceptable sexual and gender behavior. I highly recommend reading about these accomplished individuals who, in some cases, were killed for who they were. This informational side to the Castro is perfect for kids, especially those in middle and high school – this is a part of history not often taught in the classroom.
One of San Francisco’s most somber, heart wrenching sites sits in the heart of the Castro. Simple, powerful, and easy to miss, little context is given at The Pink Triangle Park and Memorial, with the exception of a plaque that plainly states, “in remembrance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims of the Nazi regime.” Whether it be in central Europe during the 1930’s or in Greenwich Village during the ’80’s, the Castro attempts to celebrate and remember a global community under constant attack.
Why pink triangles? You likely know how the Nazis forced central European Jews to wear a yellow patch on their chest in the shape of the star of David. Similarly, they forced gay people to wear a pink triangle patch so as to publicly identify them as “deviants.”
I found the best way to experience the Castro is to take the time and understand its history while thinking about the current state of LGTB rights. Unfortunately, LGTB youth are still significantly more likely to commit suicide than their straight and cis-gendered peers. Gay men are prohibited from donating blood, and ban that has been in place since the AIDS epidemic yet exists despite science determining it to be without merit. Sexual education in schools tends to be aimed at students who will eventually enter traditional heterosexual partnerships, so LGTB youth often come of age unprepared and uneducated about their own safety needs.
These are just a handful of the plethora of problems facing the LGTB community in the United States, and while it’s fun to admire the Castro’s rainbow-soaked crosswalk, there is much more to this neighborhood than meets the eye.
For more information about the ban gay men face when attempting to donate blood, please refer to this educational article from Mother Jones.