Reclaiming and remembering queer space

A crowd heads up Polk Street during the March to Remember and Reclaim Queer Space. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This past Saturday, LGBT activists, friends, neighbors, and elected officials gathered in San Francisco’s Polk Gulch for a march to remember and reclaim the many gay bars and other queer spaces in that neighborhood that have shut down over the years. Hosts of the march included well-known local LGBT activists Juanita More and Cleve Jones.

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin poses with LGBT activists Juanita More and Cleve Jones.

I’ve lived near the Polk Gulch for over 14 years, and rehearse on Polk Street weekly with the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco. So even though I had already committed to attending a vegan conference in Berkeley that day, I left that event early, and rushed back to San Francisco to participate in this march.

A black wreath commemorates the former site of The Gangway.

Though most of the stops were along Polk Street, we started one block over on Larkin, outside the latest gay bar to shut its doors: The Gangway. A black wreath was hung on the door, and The Brass Liberation Orchestra performed for the crowd. While the subject of the event was somber, their presence kept the march upbeat, becoming more of a mile-long wake than a funeral.

The Brass Liberation Orchestra performs during the march.
A member of the Brass Liberation Orchestra plays a drum.

Another local icon, Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was in attendance, and placed one of the wreaths.

Sister Roma greets the crowd.
A crowd watches Sister Roma hang a wreath at a stop along the march.

We made our way up Polk Street, from Geary to Washington, stopping at numerous locations along the way for speakers to hang wreaths and talk about the history of the neighborhood.

A marcher waves a rainbow flag outside a fire station as the crowd walks toward Polk Street.
The crowd watches Cleve Jones speak at a stop along the march.
A marcher wears a hoodie with the words “Still Here Still Queer!” written on the back.
The crowd gathers at the final stop of the march.
A video showing highlights of the march.

My thoughts: While I’ve been openly queer since 1991, I’ve personally never liked bars, having a distaste for alcohol, crowds, and loud noise. The only gay-ish bar I frequented was The Mint Karaoke Lounge, as I enjoy singing, but I stopped going there for the most part after I quit drinking entirely in 2009.

Regardless, these spaces are an important part of our history. Most of the bars along this march closed long before I moved to the Bay Area in 1992, and provided places of relative safety and camaraderie in times when it was more dangerous to be openly gay, much less trans. Despite San Francisco’s reputation as a queer-friendly city, gentrification and harassment remain problems in our community, especially for people of color. We need safe, affordable spaces to gather and celebrate our authentic lives.

My full set of photos from the event is available on Flickr. A few of the photos are on Wikimedia Commons as well. Please credit me as Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of my photos, thanks!

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