The Great Purge
Think of the faces that define your city. Those iconic personalities: the entertainers, the organizers, the politicos, and now imagine your region has become so unlivable most of them begin a mass exodus alongside many of your friends and neighbors.
That’s exactly what’s happening in our nation’s coastal capitals, chief among them San Francisco.
“I have given my all to the fight and it has left me living below poverty level in the most expensive city in the US, and that will not be changing any time soon,” says activist and drag legend Anna Conda. “It is no longer my home though because my friends and chosen family are leaving in droves as well.”
When Glendon Hyde, a.k.a. Anna Conda, ran for SF Supervisor in full drag several years ago, the city was already propping up its “Counterculture Capital” reputation like the Weekend at Bernie’s corpse, as longtime residents were forced out by the thousands to make room for commuting Silicon Valley tech workers. Laws and ordinances were changed to make the influx of mainstream residents more comfortable – culminating with the controversial nudity ban.
Conda’s quirky and colorful campaign delighted and validated the self-conscious city, and her strong showing led to her high-profile post as entertainment commissioner and to her becoming president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.
War on Fun
The plague of expensive and tightly packed condos overwhelming San Francisco are choking out nightlife in what Conda famously calls “The War on Fun.” Venues that have been around forever are being demolished to make way for more residential units, or find themselves embattled by the new, monied neighbors who complain about noise, forcing the businesses to either close or make costly modifications.
As San Francisco’s first ever drag queen entertainment commissioner, Conda was a fierce defender of nightlife for the city and the larger LGBT community. She fought to ensure nightlife had a voice when development on neighboring property was proposed, and she mounted a wildly ambitious effort to save the historic SF Eagle, which seemed like a hopeless fool’s errand to me at the time but was ultimately successful.
Despite her successes, the changes to the city are seemingly irreversible. The people who made the city what it was are largely gone and the “War on Fun” appears all but lost.
Evolve or Die
Our historic gayborhoods, from San Francisco’s Castro to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, were born out of necessity because there were so few places we could be ourselves. They were at their LGBT zeniths when they were at their low water mark for mainstream desirability. From roughly the mid-fifties to the eighties old, urban neighborhoods were out of fashion as people flocked to the suburbs. Big old houses in places like the Castro, and even in local districts like the Central West End were considered white elephants, and were going cheap.
We flooded into these neighborhoods when nobody else wanted them and made them great, which makes me wonder why we cling to outdated notions of them now that they’ve evolved into something different. Are we not still a people with imagination and ingenuity? Can we no longer forge new territory?
Of course there’s still plenty of LGBT life and many other redeeming qualities to the now prohibitively expensive markets where we once thrived. But like Anna Conda, either by choice or necessity many are switching gears and taking their talents elsewhere. In Conda’s case, she’s making the ninety-mile trek to Sacramento, which is roughly the size of Kansas City.
Unlike thirty years ago we’re now awash in choices when it comes to where LGBT people can live comfortably and openly. Our world is suddenly big, which can make life interesting even in places that are small. I’ve been spending time in the historic and picturesque river town of Alton, Illinois recently, and one night I found myself in a busy gay bar sitting next to a gay military policeman and his friends. I thought back to all the nights spent around guys posing in uniform, but here was the genuine article next to me, so comfortable with himself he was fine with getting his photo taken for this story.
“Evolve or Die” is the mantra of Vital VOICE publisher Darin Slyman, and being a nostalgic man I have to work to keep my appreciation for history from blinding me to the opportunities and the magic of the moment. In this case, a moment where I’m enjoying a few beers with friendly, nice looking, openly gay military men in Alton. V
Written by Chris Andoe