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Culture Features LGBT Q+A

A Walking Tour of the Castro

The Castro District in San Francisco is the beating heart of the Bay Area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) community. While not always home to the gay community, the Castro first became a center for the area’s LGBTQ population following World War II. During the war, the U.S. Army began dishonorably discharging service people on the basis of sexual orientation, and many of those discharged from the Pacific Theater resettled in San Francisco. Furthermore, as the working class families that had once inhabited the Castro (called Eureka Valley at the time) migrated to the suburbs during the 1950s, white collar gay men flooded into the neighborhood. By the 1970s, the Castro was known for its vibrant gay community, and became an epicenter for the gay rights movement and the fight against AIDS.

Today, the Castro remains a place where members of the LGBTQ community can be unashamedly themselves. It’s also home to a variety of historical landmarks and sites that are significant to the LGBTQ community. We visited some of the Castro’s best attractions to give you a snapshot into what the district has to offer.

Harvey Milk Plaza
As visitors to the Castro emerge from the underground Muni station, the first sight to greet them is the Harvey Milk Plaza. Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay people elected to public office in the United States, is perhaps the Castro’s most famous resident. Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, and won, becoming San Francisco City-County Supervisor in 1978. He was unapologetically open with his sexuality, and his victory paved the way for queer politicians after him.

Prior to running for office, Milk was an active leader in the Castro community, founding an organization of LGBTQ-owned businesses called the Castro Village Association, among other achievements. As a public official, Milk fought tirelessly for the rights of LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. In November of 1978, Dan White, a former San Francisco Supervisor, assassinated Milk. Milk’s assassination only fueled the fire behind the gay rights movement, and he became a icon for the movement. Dedicated in 1997, the plaza is just one of the various forms through which Milk has been immortalized. The plaza features a small photo installation from Milk’s life, and more famously, an enormous 20-foot by 30-foot rainbow pride flag that flies high above the station, visible from miles away.

Twin Peaks Tavern
Across the street from the Harvey Milk Plaza is the famous Twin Peaks Tavern, a historical landmark as of 2013 and one of the most beloved establishments in the Castro. Opened by lesbian friends Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Forster in 1972, the bar is known for its full-length glass windows. While the windows allow patrons to look out into the street, they are more notable for allowing the public to look in, at a time when being gay was not widely accepted. Many view this openness as a symbol of the Castro itself, as a place where queer people can be themselves without fear or shame. Twin Peaks remains a popular social gathering spot, notably for LGBTQ people of the older generation.

Pink Triangle Memorial Park
The Pink Triangle Memorial Park is a small art installment located on the intersection of 17th and Market Street. The fifteen granite pylons, each with an inlaid pink triangle, pay homage to LGBTQ victims of the Holocaust. As a part of the Nazis’ campaign to create a perfect Aryan race, they systematically persecuted Europe’s queer population, particularly gay men. Viewed as incapable of producing children to maintain the Aryan race, gay men were sent to concentration camps and made to wear pink triangles; it is this symbol that artists Robert Bruce and Susan Martin chose as the central theme of their memorial.

LGBTQ prisoners were some of the most severely abused groups within concentration camps. Because the Nazis believed homosexuality was a sin, they often performed medical experiments on prisoners, among other horrors. While no statistics exist on the number of queer victims, an estimated 15,000 lost their lives during the Holocaust. Furthermore, after Allied liberation, many LGBTQ prisoners were forced to carry out the remainder of their sentences while the rest of the prisoners went free. Social stigmas surrounding queer people and laws prohibiting homosexuality also meant that the majority of survivors lived the rest of their lives in hiding. The Pink Triangle Memorial Park serves as a quiet reminder of a forgotten piece of the Holocaust story, and of the history of oppression of LGBTQ people.

Castro Theatre
Built in 1922, the Castro Theatre is one of the district’s most historic buildings. In 1977, the City of San Francisco granted it landmark status. The theatre is renowned for its beautiful architecture and ornate interior designs. Up until the late 1970s, the theatre was an extremely popular place to watch mainstream films, bringing business and development to the neighborhood. Following a change in ownership in 1976, the theatre began showing classic and foreign films, as well as hosting film festivals, gaining the theatre a reputation of counterculture that matched the neighborhood’s transition to a center of the gay rights movement. Today, it continues to show classic movies and host film festivals and tributes. It is also famous for showing LGBTQ movies, notably premiering the Oscar-winning biopic “Milk,” a film on the life of Harvey Milk, in 2008.

Castro Camera
Castro Camera is the photography shop that Milk and his partner, Scott Smith, opened in 1972. Because of Milk’s involvement in the community and his popularity among Castro residents, the store was more of a neighborhood gathering spot than a business. Once Milk began his political career, he and his supporters campaigned from the store. Today, the building is home to a store for the Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of LGBTQ people nationwide. Painted beside the upper story windows is a smiling Harvey Milk, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the rainbow pride flag and his famous line “You gotta give ’em hope.”

GLBT History Museum
The GLBT History Museum, located on 18th Street, features three exhibitions engaging with different aspects of LGBTQ history. The Museum is part of the GLBT Historical Society, which maintains extensive archives of documentation of LGBTQ life in mainly the Bay Area and Northern California. These archives include photographs, pamphlets, audio and visual recordings, records of community organizations, and more. The museum also hosts various events for the local community, including parties, educational talks, and author visits.

Mission Dolores Park
A few blocks down from Castro Camera and the GLBT History Museum is Mission Dolores Park. Named for the nearby Mission Dolores, the park is a popular spot for residents and visitors of San Francisco alike. Two large green lawns stretch down the slope on either side of a statue of Miguel Hidalgo, whose famous El Grito (which took place in Dolores, Mexico) spurred the Mexican Revolution. The park also includes six tennis courts, a playground, two dog parks, and a basketball court. On a sunny day in the southwest corner of the park, locally known as “Gay Beach,” visitors might spot scantily clad men soaking in the skyline of the city.

For people from all walks of life, the Castro is a wonderful place to visit and experience the vibrancy of San Francisco.

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