I started this month off in San Francisco. My partner and I spent four days there before getting on a ship going to Alaska and back. On one day while in the city, we took a historical walking tour of the Castro, the famous neighborhood, an icon steeped in the milestones of time.
My first trip to the Castro was in 1990, shortly after I came out to myself and to my parents. I was 20 years old. The neighborhood had a grit to it. All the shops were independently owned. It had everything from small cafés and bars to novelty and sex toy shops. I walked by Headquarters and saw men in military uniforms out front; farther down Castro street, Worn Out West was selling denim and shirts that would suit any cowboy or lumberjack.
It was one of the first times I saw men holding hands in public, or kissing on the street corner. It was a novelty. This place was one in which, for really the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged, like I was part of something. As I looked around and watched the flurry of people around me, I saw myself in them. I thought to myself, “So this is what it’s supposed to feel like.” It was that sense of wonder, the spirit of awe, that distraction at the slightest view of a handsome man who fit my instinctual specifications.
This was 1990, just 9 years after the emergence of HIV and AIDS. So, as my boyfriend at the time and I strolled the streets, young and in love, I also saw the devastation. An older man walked with a cane, lesions on his neck and arms, and a friend helped him cross the street.
The Castro is very different now and yet parts of it are the same. It is more commercialized, and while some of the small businesses are still around, as well as some of the old haunts like Midnight Sun and Moby Dick’s remain, there was also a change in the feeling of walking down the street.
Yes, as we passed in front of Worn Out West, our tour guide reviewed the infamous Hanky Code, not so much for our benefit, but for Mike & Phyllis, very supportive parents of their gay son, Ben, back home in Sydney, Australia.
Yes, as we stood on a street corner, drag queens prepared to run around the block to raise money for “The Country Club,” a place where those looking for an alcohol-free environment may enjoy time with others.
There were also families. With strollers. Strollers with babies in them!
Now, let me be clear – I am not anti-family or anti-baby (though the closest thing I think I will ever get to being a father is to that of a pug I will name Halston). But my stored recollection of this neighborhood was that of a place where I felt the sexual tension as I walked down the streets pulsating with bears, uniformed men, drag queens, and everyone else who was there to be free, to celebrate their identities, to live without shame.
So now, as we walked along Castro Street, and our tour guide pointed out a collection of Billy dolls posed in the window of a nearby shop (the dolls are well endowed and some are displayed in their nude form), I myself had a moment of shock as a young mother pushed a stroller with one child, and another child walked at her side. Had I become a prude?
Surely, growing up in a neighborhood as diverse as this would help a young person to become open minded and inclusive, so I am not complaining. The world needs more people like that. The Castro of my youth, had evolved; I, too, had shifted in thought. I had always thought of myself as very open minded but even this scene pushed the boundaries of my thinking.
We finished the tour in front of what was Harvey Milk’s camera shop and apartment. It is now owned by the Human Rights Campaign and is a shop that sells some really cool merchandise that supports the organization and promotes equality. On the sidewalk out front, a portion of Harvey’s ashes are in the sidewalk, covered by a commemorative plaque with his image on it. I stood there for a moment and really soaked in where we were. I looked around and considered all of the fights, the rallies, the protests and the parties, the celebrations, the parades that had occurred there – how the community of which I am proudly a member has, at various times, converged upon this special place to honor its place in history.
And today, at month’s end, history has been made once again. The Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which will allow same-sex couples married in states with marriage equality laws to enjoy Federal recognition of their relationship (and the myriad benefits and resources that come with that). Additionally, the court also struck down Prop 8 in California, and marriages for gays and lesbians resumed there late last week. My partner and I have even begun to hear the lure of wedding bells – and after 12 years together, why shouldn’t we? (More on that another day).
Back when I was 20, when I walked down Castro Street, feeling a bit rebellious, on the fringe, but excited about who I was becoming, I never imagined I would someday be able to legally marry my partner and have our bond be recognized by the federal government. As parades and festivals fill this weekend’s social calendars in many cities around the U.S.A., I gratefully, wholeheartedly enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon at home with the man I love.
And that, too, at one point in my life, I never would have imagined.