At the forefront of equality: San Francisco’s historic LGBT sites

July 08, 2015                 3m read time
Martin Totland


The 46th annual San Francisco Pride Celebration was one for the history books. The parade may be over and the glitter all swept up, but there’s still plenty of LGBT pride to celebrate in the city. For a deeper sense of just how far we’ve come, visit one of these four notable spots next time you’re in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood.

The Pink Triangle Park & Memorial, Market and 17th Streets

At the intersection of Market and 17th Streets stands a WWII memorial built by the Castro/Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association. The memorial features 15 granite pylons topped with downward-facing pink triangles, the same symbol that the Nazis forced gay men in concentration camps to wear. Under Hitler’s rule, 15,000 gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women were persecuted and killed. Today, the parklet offers a chance to remember the lives that were lost and reflect on WWII’s impact on the greater LGBT community.

“World War II changed the LGBT community in San Francisco,” says Kathy Amendola, owner of Cruisin’ The Castro, which leads walking tours through the historic San Francisco neighborhood. “The military cracked down on homosexuals, dishonorably discharged them, and dumped them here,” she says.

San Francisco was a reporting station for soldiers going to and from battle in the Pacific, and many gay servicemen ended up staying here after being stripped of their military benefits. “This city has always been welcoming to diverse people,” says Amendola.

The Rainbow Flag

Across the street from the Pink Triangle Park and Memorial, a massive rainbow flag, the ubiquitous symbol of the LGBT pride and equality movement, serves as a welcoming beacon to the neighborhood.

Gilbert Baker, a local artist, drag queen, and gay rights activist, began working on the banner after talking with his friend Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay officials in the U.S. Both men had been wanting a positive alternative to the pink triangle and the city supervisor challenged Baker to create the new symbol.

Now part of the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection, Baker told the MoMa in an interview that Milk emphasized to him “how important it was to be visible … A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility, or saying, ‘This is who I am!’”

Along with the help of nearly 30 volunteers, Baker dyed fabric and stitched together the first rainbow flag in San Francisco’s Gay Community Center. That original 30-by-60-foot flag flew for the first time in the United Nations Plaza on Gay Pride Day on June 25, 1978. Soon after, the colorful banner became an internationally recognized symbol of the LGBT community.

Castro Camera, 575 Castro Street

Harvey Milk and his partner, Scott Smith, opened Castro Camera in 1972. The couple operated the store until Milk’s assassination in 1978. The Castro has long been the center of the gay community in San Francisco, and Castro Camera became its locus within the neighborhood.

When Milk ran for local office, the shop served as campaign headquarters. Milk also turned the place into a refuge for gay youths who had traveled to San Francisco in search of acceptance. It served as a center for community activism for more than just gay rights, as Milk also campaigned for human rights and the rights of the elderly and laborers. Fittingly enough, today it’s home to the Human Rights Campaign Action Center.

On the sidewalk in front of the store, there is a plaque commemorating Milk, under which rests one third of his ashes, placed there by Smith before he died from AIDS in 1995.

GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th Street

The GLBT Museum in the Castro is the only full-scale, stand-alone museum of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history and culture in the United States. Sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society, the museum began as a temporary exhibition on 18th Street in conjunction with the production of the Harvey Milk biopic in 2008. Around the same time, a group donated enough money to secure a permanent location for the exhibition.

Exhibits include an excerpt from Harvey Milk’s will; costumes and artifacts from the life of José Sarria, aka "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street," the first openly gay candidate to run for public office; and photographs from three vibrant queer communities of the past—North Beach, the Tenderloin, and the Valencia Street corridor.

The museum’s role as a place for San Franciscans to come together to learn about the LGBT community’s plight in U.S. history is more important than ever, said acting executive director Daryl Carr in a June 11 op-ed piece in The Bay Area Reporter. Demetrius Martin, a museum volunteer, echoes Carr’s sentiment. The most important thing the museum does, he says, is provide an accurate picture of the LGBT community’s history for young people.

Interested in learning more about this historic neighborhood? Book a Cruisin’ the Castro walking tour through ZOZI.

Martin Totland

Martin Totland is a journalist and photographer from Norway. He currently lives in San Francisco and has worked in countries around the world, including Thailand, Mozambique, and South Africa. When he's not studying journalism at UC Berkeley, he's either cooking, reading, or working on his powerlifting techniques in the gym.

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