Bars, Baths & Butches

I remember picking up Michelle Tea’s book Valencia back when I was 18, reading about a queer San Francisco that seemed worlds away from a small apartment in Daly City. I had to wrap my head around the fact that Mission St. in Daly City led straight to the legendary Mission district where the queer population of the City congregated.

I thought about those times as I drove to the mission yesterday a little after noon, excited for Radar Production’s Bars, Baths & Butches: A Queer Historical Tour of Valencia & 16th. A friend invited me to join the tour and it never occurred to me that such a thing even existed, a decade into staying in the Bay Area.

The sun was high up Saturday noon, as the walls of the Women’s Building on 18th St. glistened in the October sun. Folks young and old were slowly milling on the alley way that served as the meeting spot for the tour, as my friend and I took the last drags of our cigarettes, prepared to join the group.

I looked at the faces around me — mostly white, older lesbians — and silently wished for more queer people of color. The first time I visited the Women’s Building was when I was 17, as a young immigrant baby dyke eager to learn about queer sexuality. I think it was right after reading Valencia too. The Building was holding a free class and I remember feeling queasy and extremely intimidated by the three other white butches in the room in their leather jackets and shaved heads. I never went back to the class but it was enough of an experience for me at that time, utterly confused but feeling like I was onto something I should further investigate.

A few minutes later, the tour’s organizers welcomed everyone. There were folks from Radar Productions, a San Francisco-based non-profit that organizes and produces literary events in the Bay Area, and from the GLBT Historical Society which collects, preserves and interprets the history of GLBT people and the communities that support them.

 In addition to the Women’s Building, the group made stops at the Lexington Club, Amelia’s and Esta Noche, historical queer spaces that have been shut down and replaced. there were performances in each stop: a poem to commemorate the Lex, the only lesbian club in the City which closed in April 2015, another poem to remember Amelia’s where Lynn Breedlove performed with their punk band, and Esta Noche on 16th St., where Persia performed to commemorate the space where drag queens once held shows. My heart, disculpe. 

And then it hit me: while national conversations around gender identity and sexuality are becoming more mainstream, the reality is that physical spaces have vanished in San Francisco. Of course Castro remains, but it has always been the haven of white gay men. Places for queer women, specially for queer women of color, are simply gone.

While part of me feels the loss of these spaces, I also know that queer folks have made our own ways of creating safe spaces for ourselves where we can celebrate each other, honor the ways we’ve learned how to survive. While we cannot reclaim past sites of intimacy, we’ve been able to recreate spaces of love and community. We’ve seen and felt the destruction of toxic heteronormativity, and how we’ve always responded with resilience.

Though we tremble before uncertain futures
may we meet illness, death and adversity with strength
may we dance in the face of our fears.

– Gloria  E. Anzaldúa