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Wide-Open Town

Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965

nan alamilla boyd
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 333
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  • Book Info
    Wide-Open Town
    Book Description:

    Wide-Open Towntraces the history of gay men and lesbians in San Francisco from the turn of the century, when queer bars emerged in San Francisco's tourist districts, to 1965, when a raid on a drag ball changed the course of queer history. Bringing to life the striking personalities and vibrant milieu that fueled this era, Nan Alamilla Boyd examines the culture that developed around the bar scene and homophile activism. She argues that the communities forged inside bars and taverns functioned politically and, ultimately, offered practical and ideological responses to the policing of San Francisco's queer and transgender communities. Using police and court records, oral histories, tourist literature, and manuscript collections from local and state archives, Nan Alamilla Boyd explains the phenomenal growth of San Francisco as a "wide-open town"-a town where anything goes. She also relates the early history of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement that took place in San Francisco prior to 1965.Wide-Open Townargues that police persecution forged debates about rights and justice that transformed San Francisco's queer communities into the identity-based groups we see today. In its vivid re-creation of bar and drag life, its absorbing portrait of central figures in the communities, and its provocative chronicling of this period in the country's most transgressive city,Wide-Open Townoffers a fascinating and lively new chapter of American queer history.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93874-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION San Francisco Was a Wide-Open Town
    (pp. 1-19)

    San Francisco is a seductive city. Perched on the edge of a continent, its beautiful vistas, eccentric characters, and liberal politics reflect both the unruly nature of its frontier-town beginnings and the sophisticated desires of an urban metropolis. Sociologists Howard Becker and Irving Horowitz call San Francisco a culture of civility, noting that “deviance, like difference, is a civic resource, enjoyed by tourist and resident alike.”¹ But while the strength of the city’s queer communities is world renowned, there are few texts devoted to San Francisco’s gay and lesbian history.² What follows, as a result, charts new ground. It asks...

    (pp. 20-24)
    José Sarria and Nan Alamilla Boyd

    I was born in San Francisco at the St. Francis hospital. San Francisco wasn’t as complex then, nor big or modern. It was a very quiet city. Those were good days, before the Depression. We had a nice home on Broderick and California Streets. I had a good childhood. I went to kindergarten at the Emerson School there on California Street. Then I was put in private schools because I spoke Spanish. Later, I learned English. My mother was forever and a day hassling me because she didn’t want me to forget the Spanish. And I was kind of troublesome....

    (pp. 25-62)

    In 1906, just after the great earthquake and fire destroyed much of San Francisco, the Seattle Saloon and Dance Hall opened in the city’s Barbary Coast district. The Seattle Saloon employed twenty “dance girls” who, according to Barbary Coast chronicler Herbert Asbury, were paid up to twenty dollars a week to entertain male customers. “They wore thin blouses cut very low, skirts cut very high, and black silk stockings held in place by fancy garters.”¹ This popular dive, at 574 Pacific Street, was the largest dance hall in the rebuilt Barbary Coast, and it exemplified the kind of sex traffic...

    (pp. 63-67)
    Reba Hudson and Nan Alamilla Boyd

    You’ve got to remember that dating back to its Gold Rush days San Francisco has always been known for its tolerance. That’s what drew all these people here—its liberalism and its acceptance of everything. And San Francisco was never a religious town. It’s always been wild and woolly. As a matter of fact, it’s been more shut down since George Christopher became mayor in the 1950s. That and the two wars sort of closed it down, but it used to be wide open. When we came here we used to go to jazz clubs after 2:00 and drink liquor...

  8. 2 LESBIAN SPACE, LESBIAN TERRITORY: San Francisco’s North Beach District, 1933–1954
    (pp. 68-101)

    Mona’s was San Francisco’s first lesbian nightclub. It opened on Union Street in 1934, just after the repeal of Prohibition, but moved in 1936 to Columbus Avenue. Originally intending it as a hangout for writers and artists, Mona Sargent and her then-husband, Jimmie Sargent, covered the floors at 140 Columbus with sawdust to give the place a bohemian atmosphere.¹ Nightclub-style entertainment soon grew out of impromptu performances, and Sargent hired the most popular singers as waitresses. Over time, singing waitresses developed a floor show where women dressed as men and sang parodies of popular songs.² The bar’s popularity brought it...

    (pp. 102-107)
    Joe Baron and Nan Alamilla Boyd

    I arrived in San Francisco on August 1, 1954. Officially I was from Daytona Beach, Florida, but I had also lived in Gainesville and Miami. At that point, I had completed my military obligation, but I didn’t want to go back to Florida. Most people from Florida either went to New York, Chicago, or Atlanta, but none of those alternatives were appealing to me. A friend of mine who was getting out of the service at the same time said, “I’m going to San Francisco, why don’t you come with me?” So I went.

    Later, I moved in with a...

  10. 3 POLICING QUEERS IN THE 1940S AND 1950S: Harassment, Prosecution, and the Legal Defense of Gay Bars
    (pp. 108-147)

    “Why does the Bay City have such an overlarge percentage of these queer people?” a federal agent asks in Lou Rand’s 1964 detective novelRough Trade.¹ “They seem to be actually encouraged here. Why, they even have their own clubs and bars. I may be old fashioned, but I just don’t get this local tolerance.” Rand’s novel, set in San Francisco in the early 1950s, wraps a murder mystery around the agent’s pressing question. Why did local police seem to allow gay bars and clubs to exist? Was there some degree of tolerance for gay life in San Francisco? To...

    (pp. 148-158)
    Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and Nan Alamilla Boyd

    D.M.:In the 1940s and 1950s there were bars out in North Beach: Mona’s, the Chi-Chi Club—

    P.L.:—the Paper Doll.

    D.M.:But it wasn’t like we had a community. It was like there were places to go for entertainment and there was a certain ambiance, but there was not the sense of community that we have developed since.

    N.B.:What is a community? How would you define that?

    P.L.:Well, I vary from talking about a gay or lesbian community to saying that I don’t know if we have one. And if we have one, we’ve got ten. There...

  12. 4 “A QUEER LADDER OF SOCIAL MOBILITY”: San Francisco’s Homophile Movements, 1953–1960
    (pp. 159-193)

    In her 1993 videoLast Call at Maud’s,director Paris Poirier captures the energy and nostalgia of a quirky cast of characters who gathered to celebrate—and mourn—the closing of Maud’s, a popular lesbian bar. Maud’s opened in 1966 at 937 Cole Street, near San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and for almost twenty-five years it functioned as a lesbian bar, clubhouse, and community center. How did Maud’s survive the often hostile and turbulent atmosphere of the city’s gay bar scene? To answer this question, Poirier solicits commentary by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the charter members and charismatic leaders of...

  13. Plates
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 194-199)
    George Mendenhall and Nan Alamilla Boyd

    The great thing about that era was the secret society. It’s no longer a secret society. Then, the word “gay” was not popularly known, and you could say on a bus, “I went to a gay party last night,” and people wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Today, the word “gay” can’t be used in any other context. Back then, there was a lot of mystery, and I think the mystery was fun. We had our own words, our own dialogue, like “trade” and “butch.” There was even a couple of gay books in the ’60s which had glossaries...

  15. 5 QUEER COOPERATION AND RESISTANCE: A Gay and Lesbian Movement Comes Together in the 1960s
    (pp. 200-236)

    In the summer of 1964Lifemagazine published an exposé titled “Homosexuality in America.” Photographers captured the flamboyance of gay life, and journalists like Ernest Havemann described in lurid detail the concentration of homosexuals in American cities: “Do the homosexuals, like the Communists, intend to bury us?” Havemann asked.¹ Responding not simply to the rhetorical link between communism and homosexuality that McCarthy-era politics secured, Havemann’s panicked statement articulated another threat: the growing population of homosexuals in urban areas. “Homosexuality—and the problem it poses—exists all over the U.S., but is most evident in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San...

  16. CONCLUSION Marketing a Queer San Francisco
    (pp. 237-242)

    Each year at the end of June, San Francisco fills with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) tourists. The Castro Theater in San Francisco’s gay neighborhood screens a week-long lesbian-gay-themed film festival, the city flies multicolored gay pride flags from poles stretching the length of Market Street, and crowds of up to half a million gather for the annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade on the last Sunday in June. June is a lucrative month for gay-owned businesses. Gay bars, restaurants, and hotels fill to capacity, and stores catering to gay tourists do a brisk trade in pride rings, necklaces,...

  17. APPENDIX A Map of North Beach Queer Bars and Restaurants, 1933–1965
    (pp. 243-245)
  18. APPENDIX B List of Interviewees
    (pp. 246-246)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 247-302)
  20. Index
    (pp. 303-321)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 322-322)