Queer Third Spaces: Resurgence and Resilience

Written by Mindy Spatt, Edited by Robin Abad Ocubillo

SF Urban Film Fest
SF Urban Film Fest

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Enthusiastic attendees packed the venue. Photo by Austin Blackwell

There couldn’t be a more perfect place to celebrate queer space than the newly reopened STUD on Folsom Street. It’s last physical location closed due to escalating rents, it’s re-emergence in the neighborhood exemplifies the resilience and resurgence of queer institutions in San Francisco; and cities everywhere. The bar’s roots in San Francisco and the gay community are deep: historically one of the few queer bars that drew both men and women, the spirit of the STUD was legible in diverse crowd at Queer Third Spaces: Resilience and Resurgence which included lesbians, gay men, drag queens, trans folks, and a variety of ages, races, and ethnicities. On the afternoon and evening of Sunday, April 21st, the crowd’s energy in the new space — packed with standing room only and spilling onto the outdoor patio — felt electric. It was a fitting celebration to the end of the 10th anniversary season of the SF Urban Film Fest, which had popped up at venues all over the city over the week prior.

According to Robin Abad Ocubillo, curator of the evening’s program, “Queers are resilient by necessity. We are survivors, innovators, nurturers and protectors. So it’s natural for us — alongside indigenous, immigrant, and communities of color — to exemplify the strength and fortitude of San Francisco.” This intention revealed itself in several ways over the course of the evening.

The STUD is currently located within the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District; one of the three queer-focused Cultural Districts in the City of San Francisco. The District was one of the co-presenters of the evening’s program. Executive Director, Bob Goldfarb, explained in his opening remarks that a key to the neighborhood’s resurgence was his group’s work with the City to change zoning rules to clear the way for new nightlife businesses. Bob’s view that the area was getting its mojo back was right on the mark this evening. At the sold-out event, the raucous crowd took full advantage of the hour before the program to grab drinks, congregate on the outdoor patio, and view a digital exhibition of photography entitled “Renegades” by Chloe Sherman, “a tender, joyous portrait of the thriving queer subculture in ’90s San Francisco;” one of the many eras that the STUD was part of. Much of Sherman’s work documented the Mission and South of Market Districts of San Francisco, in keeping with the place-based focus of the following performance and films.

Bob Goldfarb, Executive Director of the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District, delivering welcome remarks. Photo by Charlene Joy Jimenez

In an interview at the event, Cal Callahan, District Manager of the Leather District, glowed when he talked about the STUD’s resurgence, and the District’s. He said real estate development in SOMA had driven a 30% growth in population that had pushed out some historic businesses and long-term residents. “At its prime, the leather community here included about 40–50- queer oriented businesses,” Callahan said. “Five or six years ago it was down to about a dozen. They are finally beginning to come back and we’re sitting in a prime example of it.”

Robin Abad Ocubillo has been principal programmer and producer with SFUFF for the last seven seasons, and has focused on lgbtq activism and placemaking in much of his other curatorial and editorial work. He chose the evening’s theme, Queer Third Spaces: Resurgence and Resilience, because “it’s so evident that ‘third spaces’ like the STUD SF — places where we gather as a queer community to organize, to party, to support one another — will always be necessary. Forget the doom loop — SF queers are nurturing the Bloom Loop.”

Abad Ocubillo also accepted a certificate on behalf of the SF Urban Film Festival from San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Joaquin Torres, who congratulated the Festival for its success and for centering stories about the queer community throughout its 10-year history. California Assemblymember Matt Haney, who represents the District in his current role and in his former role on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — when he advocated for cultural districts — also issued certificates of congratulations to the Festival.

With all that I wondered how the audience’s boisterous attention would be refocused onto the stage. We were thrilled when noted drag artist PerSia kicked things off with a performance that immediately drew everyone in. PerSia’s performance, titled “Soledad” after the famous Spanish ballad, focused on themes of empowerment, especially for Latinx, trans, and youth members of the LGBTQ community. Her performance connected with messages in the the formal film screenings later in the evening.

Educator and Drag Artist PerSia performing her original piece, “Soledad.” Photos by Charlene Joy Jimenez (left) and Austin Blackwell (right)

The short film Stop the Movie (Cruising), a soundtrack-free archival video piece produced by Jim Hubbard, was shown during the opening reception. It documents a seminal moment in queer political activism, the demonstrations against the production and release of the movie “Cruising” in 1980. “Cruising” was a tale of murder and brutality set in New York’s leather scene that aroused the ire of gay men sick of being exploited and stereotyped by Hollywood.

The film program also included the premiere of “Harvey Milk Plaza: The Power of Place,” directed by Corey Leavitt and produced by the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, a short documentary that looks at the importance of distinctly queer public spaces through the lens of an urban design. This film follows a redesign process for the corner of Castro and Market, known as Harvey Milk Plaza, that included broad community input.

Brian Springfield, Executive Director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza said during his opening remarks that the film was a “beautiful fit with the theme of the festival,” Rooted Resurgence. The Plaza opened in 1980 as a portal the underground subway station, and was renamed in 1985 after the iconic gay activist and elected official Harvey Milk. Springfield explained that in 2016 when SFMTA was planning changes to the Plaza his group got involved to make sure any redevelopment was done in a way that “did justice to its namesake” and the political movements the Plaza has hosted.

Executive Director of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and “¡Viva 16!” filmmaker Tina Valentin Aguirre delivering welcome remarks. Malia Spanyol, Queer entrepreneur and owner of Mother bar; and Robin Abad Ocubillo, panel curator and moderator. Photo by Austin Blackwell

The formal film screenings initiated with with “¡Viva 16!,” a bilingual documentary from 1994 directed by Augie Robles and Tina Valentin Aguirre, featuring the community that was centered around the bar formerly known as Esta Noche. It was a haven, hang out, and resource for many Latinx queers during the onset of the AIDS epidemic and beyond. After Esta Noche closed in 2014, the space was operated as number of different bars. It wasn’t until about a decade later, in 2023, that the former location of Esta Noche was taken over by another queer operator: Malia Spanyol, who named the bar “Mother.”

Despite being the shortest and last of all the ones shown, the film drawing the loudest cheers of the night was the trailer for “Mother,” a documentary directed by Brandon Yadegari Moreno and Meg Shutzer following the opening of the first lesbian bar in San Francisco after the pandemic.

Shutzer told me that she and her co-director saw “value in looking back at what was, and documenting what’s happening now. What’s beautiful about Mother [the bar] is how intergenerational it is, and how much the team is both looking back to honor what came before and looking forward to the future, that’s the rootedness and the resurgence.” Shutzer’s film also included archival photography by Chloe Sherman of lesbian life in the Mission, infamous in past decades for its variety of women owned-and-operated bars, businesses, and community services. The opening of Mother is yet another signal of a queer- and women-centered renaissance in the City.

The trailer featured Malia Spanyol, who Robin introduced during the panel as “the queen of queer business owners.” In talking about the personal journey that led her to own a coffee shop, a gym, and now the bar Mother, Spanyol said her goal is to create spaces where everyone feels welcome. And she looks to have done just that. Many in the overflowing audience knew Spanyol or worked at Mother, and wild applause erupted every time she spoke.

SFUFF Program Curator and Panel Moderator Robin Ocubillo, political activist and transgender drag artist Honey Mahogany, journalist and filmmaker Meg Shutzer, and queer business entrepenuer Malia Spanyol. Photo by Charlene Joy Jimenez. The crowd reacting with joy to “The Power of Place: Harvey Milk Plaza” documentary directed by Corey Leavitt. Photo by Austin Blackwell

The panel discussion after the films kicked off with story of the STUD’s resurgence from Honey Mahogany, one of the co-owners of the bar. Mahogany, who is also a performer, small business owner, and political activist said members of the lgbtq community had wanted the STUD back but no one person could afford to purchase and continue operating it. Then it occurred to a group of STUD loyalists that as a group, they could do what no one individual could.

Mahogany relayed that the 13 people who came together to purchase the bar relied on examples of successful, collectively run businesses like Rainbow Grocery, a fixture in San Francisco for almost 50 years. Despite its challenges, she thinks “collective ownership is a great model that can keep resources in our communities.”

After the drag performance, film screenings, and panel discussion, the audience was eager to ask questions of the panelists of each other. Questions touched on the relevance of storytelling and local activism to global humanitarian crises, genocide, and war; to what each of the panelists hope for the queer future of San Francisco. Honey Mahogany, who co-founded San Francisco’s Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin, closed the panel by citing the invaluable importance of cultural districts which, she said, were created not only to protect culture but also fight back against gentrification and make sure communities of color and queers were not priced out of San Francisco. From there, the discussion turned to the possibility of creating a lesbian cultural district on Valencia Street, a further resurgence of the community energy that preceded places like Mother.

Moments of affection and intimacy mixed in with big collectivist energies at the event. Photo by Chalene Joy Jimenez

In reflecting on the evening, curator and program producer Robin Abad Ocubillo observed that “…people were making the connections between identity, place, and the social practice of public policy and art. I set the program up to do so, but was delightfully surprised to see how deeply our attendees embraced this, and seem primed to act on it!”

The full program webpage is available at the SFUFF Festival Website: sfurbanfilmfest.com/2024/programs/queer-third-spaces-resurgence-and-resilience

More photos on the SF Urban Film Festival Flickr Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjBo9Zd

This event took place on April 21, 2024 at STUD in San Francisco, and was co-presented by The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, The Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza, The LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District, & STUD. For more information about SF Urban Film Fest, visit their website.

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