For 30 years or more, San Francisco could claim to be the gay capital of the world. It’s gay strip, The Castro, was famous around the world and known by gay and straight alike. San Francisco opened its arms to the outcast gay youth of America; nurtured the rainbow flag-and-freedom rings culture; and was immortalized in Armistead Maupin’s classic Tales Of The City series. But times change, and after a recent visit, Tim Hughes reports that old gay town she ain’t what she used to be.
In San Francisco’s SoMo district, just along the street from the EndUp – a gay disco made famous by Armistead Maupin’s book Tales of the City – you’ll find the innocuous looking doorway of Blow Buddies.
Inside, are a labyrinth of chain fencing and booths dedicated to the art of the blow job. Walkways and glory holes at different levels allow you to sit or stand while you suck some stranger’s cock or maybe get your cock sucked. On the night of my visit, a large cluster of glory holed booths were already filled by queens – who in turn were filled with anticipation – as guys cruised at crotch height above searching for a handsome face and an accommodating throat.
It’s kinda ironic that such a landmark of ’70s homo-culture like the EndUp should exist so near Blow Buddies. In other ways they couldn’t be further apart. While the EndUp’s latest dance nights are, at least, reminiscent of the venue’s discotheque roots. Blow Buddies couldn’t be less like its ’70’s and 80’s equivalents. Despite the miles of erections raised there every night, there’s little of the sexual abandon you might have glimpsed in Al Pacino’s queer killer-thriller, Cruising. In Blow Buddies there’s a strict “no fucking” rule, and there’s no alcohol sold on the premises – in case you get too drunk to behave yourself. The bathrooms are heavily stocked with soap, paper towels and mouthwash containing hydrogen peroxide. There’s free HIV and STD screening, and even the hardcore porno films blinking out of the monitors only show safer sex scenes like jacking-off and blow jobs. This is highly sanitized sleaze.
Even meticulous research in the backrooms of leather bars like The Lonestar, The Powerhouse and My Place uncovered little more than blow jobs, kissing and wanking. Over at the Power Exchange – an enormous multi-level sex club, a large sign spelled out the sexual etiquette loud and clear. Underlined several times in chalk are the words, “Do Not Ever: 1) Fuck without a condom. 2) Talk loudly. 3) Touch anyone without permission.”
Inside the Power Exchange’s vast confines is a series of sex settings that includes a surreal-looking forest glade complete with painted trees and meandering path, lined with twenty or so tents and tepees It’s anyone’s guess what was going on under the canvases, but on my visit, despite a maze of rest rooms and slings, there was little in the way of hardcore action. Mack, the sex club with the sleaziest reputation has closed down, and the recent visitor might think that the sex scene had cleaned up its act.
Yet, a quick sprint through the city’s internet chat rooms reveals a growing underground culture of barebacking (anal sex without a condom). More and more gay cyber surfers are logging-on with names like Thundertop Bareback, Bareback Bttm and RawPig: “Kinky, horny, slutpig loves to get raw fucked by hung nasty tops.” All of which proves that risky sex hasn’t gone away, it’s just gone underground. These are guys who reckon successful anti-HIV-positive drug treatments make it okay to ignore the risk of infection, who are HIV positive and figure they’ve nothing to loose, or actually get off on the risk of infection.
Raw sex has become a fetish in itself. Now a new San Francisco-based site, bareback.net, allows like-minded guys to meet and swap photos. “Hey boyz… I am a young dude (25),” reads the intro, “and I am starting this new site dedicated to what I love… fucking and getting fucked bareback. I know there are some of you out there that will tell me that I am stupid and being unsafe… fine… fuck off and go to another site. BUT I know there are a lot of guys that share my passion… this site is dedicated to you!’
Gay San Francisco resident, Bob, told me: “The AIDS-is-over crowd seems to be a relatively small but persistent group. The community seems to be split on this issue. Some hardcore advocates of barebacking don’t like the idea of anyone telling them they can’t do something.’
Midnight at a notoriously cruisey motel near the Castro. A hunk who could have dropped straight out of a porno flick prowls the corridors. He catches my eye through the door that’s been left deliberately ajar, pushes it open and comes in. He dumps a rucksack on the floor and without saying a word, empties out a line of white powder on the TV top and snorts it. Unfortunately, with him he’s brought the most unholy stench. Worse than I’d imagined another human could smell. It’s clear he’s been on a massive drug bender, unwashed for days – perhaps weeks. I pick up his rucksack and show him back out into the corridor. Unfortunately, the smell stays rather longer. As I watch him stumble up the stairwell to the floor above, he’s hardly able to stand up. A couple invite him into their room for a threesome, and the door closes behind him. Minutes later he’s pushed back out into the corridor.
Like most major cities, along with San Francisco’s gay scene goes the dance clubs and inevitable drug culture. Right now, narcotics of choice include liquid X (GHB), ecstasy (X, MDMA), crystal-meth, special K, coke, and, a sometimes lethal cocktail of these substances – often topped off with amyl (for the rush) and Viagra (so you can get it up afterwards).
Recreational drug use is far from new, but today, health officials are increasingly concerned about the affect these party drugs can have when combined with new HIV medications. Some of these medications can dramatically increase the potency of ecstasy and amphetamines, making the danger of an accidental overdose very real. In an attempt to address the problem, San Francisco’s Community Clinic Consortium created a cartoon character, Party Smarty Marty, with his own internet site to educate HIV-positive clubbers about the risks.
Ironically, as public opinion is softening towards the smoking of marijuana for medical reasons, it’s toughening up for tobacco smoking which is illegal in public places including bars and clubs. The use of party drugs is also becoming increasingly taboo, with the split between those who take them, and the anti-drug sentiment of those who don’t, becoming increasingly conspicuous.
When a friend asked a Muscle Mary where he could buy poppers (amyl), he was told with a sneer: “Why don’t you just sniff glue, if you wanna kill yourself!” As the steroid-pumped mass ambled away, we could only laugh at the hypocrisy.
In San Francisco, local legend tells of a drunken queen who picked up a guy in the long dusky shadows of cruisey Buena Vista Park and began rimming him. The story goes that after a few moments it became obvious that the rimmee was a homeless man who couldn’t have visited the Body Shop for some time. It must have ruined a beautiful moment.
The homeless are everywhere and the many parks provide somewhere to sleep undisturbed. With an estimated 10, 000 sleeping rough in the city, the nearby Castro, in particular, is a mecca for young gay runaways and assorted beggars attracted by the generous tourists and tolerant atmosphere. So much so, that when several local businesses banded together to move these panhandlers on with a poster campaign that read “Create change, don’t give it out”, activists picketed their stores. The signs soon came down.
One of the issues perpetuating this vagrancy problem, is the rocketing cost of accommodation in San Francisco. That same problem is also changing the character of the Castro forever. Less affluent residents and small gay businesses are priced out of the area in favor of the huge retail chains who can afford the astronomical rents and leases like Starbucks, Walgreen’s, Pottery Barn and now Ikea.
“San Francisco is ever changing – faster than I like,” confided another gay native, “and though we (the gay community) are greater in numbers than ever before, it’s becoming harder to find specifically gay areas, or neighborhoods because we are spreading out all over the city, in every neighborhood.”
Today, the Castro is in danger of becoming more of a sight-seeing excursion for heterosexual tourists than a gay enclave.
Despite all that’s good and bad about San Francisco, the high visibility and political strength of its gay community has, at least, insulated it from the conservative backlash that’s undermined other gay communities in America. However, a newly passed Californian state law has changed all that. Proposition 8 redefines marriage as being a union between a “man and woman”. This has been a surprise blow to the gay community, as it attacks their fundamental rights to equality. It means that gay marriages are not legally recognized and strips existing same sex couples of inheritance rights as well as the tax and health benefits that straight couples enjoy. Just how San Francisco’s gay residents will respond, and whether they can have the law declared unconstitutional it’s a little early to tell. But tourists expecting to find the liberal paradise enjoyed by Monica, Mouse and Mrs Madrigal of Maupin’s novels, might be in for a shock.