Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to find myself in San Francisco. I was there when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews gave his historic apology to those who suffered under Victoria’s gay conviction laws. While I was disappointed to miss out on such an historic occasion, I was pleased to be in another place of great significance to the LGBTI community – the Castro.
During World War II, San Francisco was a major port of embarkation and housed a naval training facility. A melting pot for people from all across the country, San Francisco became a place known for its relative openness and tolerance. During the war, the US military began discharging men for homosexual behaviour. As well as putting an end to a soldier's military career, this 'blue discharge' - as it was known - often had negative effects on their civilian life, putting pressure on men to find employment and housing for their families. You can read more about this here.
San Francisco appeared to be one area where men and women could find people who were tolerant. The Castro district, named after military leader José Castro, became a popular gay neighbourhood as more and more gay men moved into the area in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Harvey Milk, possibly the area’s most famous gay resident, moved there in 1973. Just as Harvey Milk was leading the way in political advocacy for the LGBTI community in San Francisco, gay activism in Australia was making headway with the formation of groups such as the Melbourne Gay Teachers Group and CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in Sydney. Yet homosexuality was not decriminalised in Victoria until 1980. It took even longer in New South Wales, where the law was changed in 1984.
Just as gay men and women were beginning to be heard, to find acceptance and gain political authority, the AIDS crisis arrived. The Castro community was particularly hard hit. It has been estimated that within 15 years, over 20,000 people had died as a result of HIV/AIDS in San Francisco alone. David Weissman directed the incredibly moving documentary ‘We Were Here’ in order to record and preserve the experiences of those men and women who lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Castro. One man described the experience:
We’re forced to deal with this unbelievable circumstance of a community that in addition to being hated and under attack is now forced alone to try to figure how to deal with this extraordinary medical disaster.
Just like the gay community in Victoria, the community in San Francisco was quick to act in defence of this still unknown illness. In Victoria, the approaches of the Victorian AIDS Council and Gay Men’s Health Centre became part of what was known as a uniquely ‘Australian model’ for dealing with the AIDS crisis. The approach adopted by the Australian government, spearheaded by Federal Health Minister Neal Blewett, involved working closely with existing community-run HIV/AIDS organisations that were running education and support programs, while at the same time funding medical research and development and maintaining bipartisan political support. You can read all about the incredible history of the Victorian AIDS Council in a history we produced in 2013, Under the Red Ribbon.
In San Francisco, and indeed across the US, the conservative Reagan administration was slow to react to the rapidly developing epidemic. Due to the government's fear of losing support from more conservative and religious sectors of the community, funding was limited and hard to secure for organisations run by the gay community.
One positive legacy of the epidemic was the creation of the GLBT Historical Society. Originally founded as the San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in 1985, the society was created to capture and preserve the records of the gay and lesbian community in the Bay Area and to make this history available to the community. With the AIDS crisis ostracising many from their families, friends wanted a way to remember those who died and somewhere to preserve their possessions. A small group of people actively set out to save the belongings of gay men that were being thrown away, sometimes diving into dumpsters to retrieve them! Feeling like a community abandoned, the formation of the historical society was an important way for the gay community to record its history now and for the future.
Today, the GLBT Historical Society has a museum in the Castro that displays exhibitions on a range of topics, including the AIDS crisis, Harvey Milk, the fight for equality, women’s history, queer immigration stories, marriage equality and many, many more.
The Castro today is a major tourist hot spot and remains the destination of choice for those seeking the freedom and acceptance that is still sadly not always found everywhere else. But amidst the outrageously gay businesses, nightclubs and numerous pet accessory stores, the neighbourhood does not forget the battles its community has fought and the hardship it has witnessed. In February this year, Australian artist Deb created a beautiful mural celebrating marriage equality. The Rainbow Honor Walk down Castro Street is a volunteer-run project that pays tribute to LGBTI individuals and their significant contributions to the community. Harvey Milk’s camera shop is now the Human Rights Campaign Centre, and continues to perpetuate not only his memory, but also his mission for a better tomorrow, for equality and for a world without hate.
WBW foreign correspondent