Tag Archives: San Francisco

Lessons in acceptance

When people refer to California as “the land of fruits and nuts,” they’re usually talking about the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the places that has most strongly welcomed people who are LGBTQ – or in any way different from the mainstream. San Francisco hosts the annual Bay to Breakers race, where people wear wildly creative costumes – or nothing at all. Just across the bay, Oakland is home to the Black Panther Party and Occupy Oakland, and the 1960s Free Speech movement and student-led Vietnam War protests took place at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. As of this week, Berkeley (or “Berzerkeley,” as a conservative radio announcer referred to it the other day) is the first city in the U.S. to officially recognize Bisexual Pride Day (which is today, September 23). Questioning authority, challenging convention – that’s the Bay Area.

But no other event challenges convention more, in my opinion, than the Folsom Street Fair.

The Folsom Street Fair is the third largest event held annually in California (the other two being the Tournament of Roses and San Francisco Pride). It attracts all sorts of people, ranging from members of the leather/BDSM community to sightseers and tourists, with a considerable number of “gawkers.” And every year, there seems to be some sort of major controversy associated with the event. One year, Catholic church officials spoke out against the official poster artwork for the fair, which featured several well-known LGBTQ and BDSM community members, clad in fetish attire, seated around The Last Supper table. The table was draped with the Leather Pride flag, and various sex toys and other BDSM paraphernalia were scattered across the table. Another year, a photograph of two twin toddlers attending the fair, clad in leather attire, sparked a call for boycotting the Miller Brewing Company (a major corporate sponsor of the fair). The event has been criticized for public nudity and flogging, potential harm to children, and general debauchery.

The Folsom Street Fair was the first event I attended when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1990s. I was still on my own coming-out journey, and I was searching for community. Had I known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have chosen the Folsom Street Fair as my initiation event, so to speak. I attended that event very naively, knowing almost nothing about BDSM, and being a relative newbie to the general LGBTQ community. But, in hindsight, I’m glad I went, because it opened my mind in ways I never would have expected. And I’ve learned, since then, that the BDSM community can potentially teach us a lot about positive, healthy relationships, communication, and acceptance.

As part of the research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I’ve interviewed several people who are involved in the altsex community in some way. All of them have felt powerfully drawn to BDSM and kink, despite the fact that these practices are so strongly pathologized. Even though homosexuality has been removed from the DSM, kink and consensual BDSM have not – sexual sadism, sexual masochism, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism are among those still included. In fact, most therapists know little or nothing about BDSM, and most of them continue to view it through a pathologizing lens. One 2010 study indicated that, among people who aren’t part of the BDSM community, strongly negative and pathologizing attitudes continue to persist. And still, despite that negativity, people are drawn to these communities.

One of the most popular booths at the Folsom Street Fair is the Spanking and Flogging booth, hosted by the Society of Janus, which is the second-oldest BDSM group in the United States.  Their website gives a brief history of the organization, as well as the origins of their name:

There were three basic reasons why we chose Janus. First of all, Janus has two faces, which we interpreted as the duality of SM (one’s dominant and submissive sides). Second, he’s the Roman god of portals, and more importantly, of beginnings and endings. To us, it represents the beginning of one’s acceptance of self, the beginning of freedom of guilt, and the eventual ending of self-loathing and fear over one’s SM desires. And third, Janus is the Roman god of war–the war we commonly fight against stereotypes commonly held against us (emphasis mine).

Can you imagine a society where we all – every single one of us – experienced complete and unconditional acceptance of self, freedom from guilt, and a release from self-loathing and fear over our desires, sexual or otherwise? How ironic it is that people who are “erotic minorities” – people who are marginalized furthest from the mainstream – are the ones offering us this vision? I think that’s a powerful thought to reflect on.

If you plan to go, enjoy the Folsom Street Fair. And happy Bisexual Pride Day.



Filed under BDSM, bisexuality, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, relationships, San Francisco, stereotypes, Uncategorized

There goes the neighborhood!

It’s a pretty well-established fact that neighborhoods that are predominantly white tend to enjoy significantly higher property values than communities that are more racially diverse and integrated. Here in Sacramento, for example, properties in Land Park, East Sacramento, and River Park (predominantly white) tend to be valued more highly than those in Oak Park, South Sacramento, and Del Paso Heights, communities with high concentrations of African-American, Southeast Asian, and Latino residents, respectively. Moreover, there seems to be somewhat of a tipping-point effect – some racial and ethnic diversity may enhance a neighborhood’s desirability, but once the percentage of minority residents (particularly African-Americans) reaches 15 to 20 percent, property values take a nose-dive.

In contrast, when we look at same-sex couples (particularly gay male couples), we get an entirely different story. A number of studies have noted that when gay couples move into a neighborhood, property values actually tend to rise, not fall. Sociologist Manuel Castells introduced the concept of gay men as “gentrifiers” in San Francisco, citing the fact that they tend to be financially well-off and unshackled by children. Robert Florida, a professor of urban studies who authored the book The Rise of the Creative Class, utilized “the Gay Index” as a litmus test of a city’s creativity (and potential desirability). If this is the case, then marginalized status itself doesn’t necessarily bring down a neighborhood – it’s a more complicated picture than that. Perhaps the intersection of class status makes a difference – gay men living in the Castro district of San Francisco tend to be more financially privileged than their black heterosexual counterparts living in Bayview-Hunter’s Point or East Oakland. Invisibility may play a role too – a black man’s “blackness” is usually more obvious than a gay man’s “gayness.”  Along with that, white privilege likely plays a role. And perhaps gender privilege makes a difference as well, given that studies of “gay gentrification” don’t typically bring lesbian couples into the mix.

Whatever the case, a new study to be published in the Journal of Urban Economics sheds some new light on this issue. Using a database of over 20,000 home valuations, David Christafore of Konkuk University and Susane Leguizamon of Tulane University compared home values in various neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio, controlling for other factors like proximity to the city center, education, and crime rates. The factor that made the most significant difference, interestingly, was how people in those neighborhoods voted on the state’s Defense of Marriage Act in 2004. The two researchers found that same-sex couples increase property values in neighborhoods that support marriage equality, and devalue prices in neighborhoods that do not. Clearly, it’s not just the presence of same-sex couples that affects property values – it’s the attitudes of the existing residents that make the difference. 
I think this study has the potential to change the tone of the “there goes the neighborhood” conversation. It’s not “the gays” that are the problem – the real problem lies within people’s homophobic attitudes. In some ways, I see some parallels with the U.S. military’s recently-overturned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – a policy that was implemented based on the idea that the presence of homosexuals would significantly disrupt the cohesion of the military unit. Note that the targeted problem was the presence of visibly gay people, not visibly homophobic people. If we eliminate gay visiblity, unit cohesion will be preserved. If we keep the gays, or the blacks, or whatever marginalized group out of our neighborhood, our property values will be preserved. Focusing on homophobia rather than homosexuality brings the discussion to an entirely different level.   

I wonder, when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity in neighborhoods, what would happen if we shifted the focus from race to racism. Do property values go down because racial and ethnic minorities are moving in, or do neighborhoods devalue because of racist attitudes?

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Filed under Castro neighborhood, homophobia, racism, San Francisco

Safe haven

This morning, instead of coming straight home from a beautiful weekend in Capitola, I made a pit stop in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. I had hoped to visit a couple of bookstores to get my newly published book on the shelves, and I also wanted to look into setting up some author events. It’s been several years since I’ve been to the Castro, and while some things have changed, much of it was comfortingly familiar. The Castro Theatre, with its imposing marquee, still showcases classic and indie films (“The Bad Seed” being the one I noticed today, its irony not lost on me). Harvey’s, named after the slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, still serves up food to the Sunday morning crowds. In contrast, its neighbor, A Different Light, the flagship gay and lesbian bookstore, has closed its doors. Two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence roamed the sidewalks, chatting with passersby. The SF Cheer squad passed out flyers for a classic car event. And numerous gay male couples held hands openly as they walked down the street, occasionally stopping to talk with friends or acquaintances. This, I thought to myself, is what makes the Castro the Castro. It’s why so many LGBTQs (particularly gay men) flock to this neighborhood. It has an incredible neighborhood feel to it, where people are friendly and open and accepting. It’s why so many people consider it to be a safe haven.

And sadly, there probably is no true safe haven for sexual minorities in the United States – or anywhere else in the world, really. Hate crimes are very much a reality in the LGBTQ community. Over 30% of gay men have been victimized by a hate crime at some point in their lives. Between 12-15% of lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women have been the target of a serious hate crime. And 1 out of 1000 murders in the United States involves a transperson. And these crimes happen everywhere – at home, in the workplace, in other public places. Including “safe havens” like the Castro.

Here in Sacramento, while nothing like the Castro even remotely exists, there is an area a few blocks wide and a few blocks deep that locals refer to as “Lavender Heights.” A couple of gay and lesbian bars and clubs are in this area. The Lavender Library and Cultural Exchange is in the heart of Lavender Heights, as is the Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center. This is our “safe haven” – which, last night, was very unsafe for a man, walking with an acquaintance, who was assaulted with homophobic epithets and then sustained a blow to the head with a heavy object. The perpetrators were a man and a woman in a silver Land Rover – perhaps roaming the area, looking to cause trouble.

What could possibly motivate someone to make a special trip to Lavender Heights at two o’clock in the morning to perpetrate such a violent act of hate? It doesn’t surprise me that there were two people in the car – hate crimes are far more likely to be perpetrated by groups of people, rather than by a single individual. There’s probably some degree of inhibition-lowering and social contagion when people who harbor sexual prejudice are around others who share the same beliefs. It also doesn’t surprise me that this crime was perpetrated by a male-female pairing – committing an act of hate against a marginalized group can help people secure their sense of belonging to the dominant group, and distance themselves more from the feared “other.”  Nor does it surprise me that the victim was male – gay men are twice as likely than their lesbian or bisexual (male or female) counterparts to be victimized. And while there is no window into the souls of these individuals, I have to think that inflicting this powerfully violent act must alleviate some deeply rooted anxieties and fears. Why else would anyone project out such hate if it isn’t a reflection of one’s personal unconscious anxieties and conflicts? 

There is a group here in Sacramento called the Lavender Angels, which is a volunteer late-night guide and street escort program, concentrating its efforts in the Lavender Heights area. (Incidentally, they are providing a volunteer training on Wednesday, October 6 – for more information, send an e-mail message to Lavender.Angels@saccenter.org). I think the Lavender Angels are such a gift to our community. At the same time, if we REALLY want to eradicate hate crimes against sexual minorities, we need to fundamentally change the culture that supports and encourages these crimes. If same-sex couples could just be regular couples, holding hands and walking down the street, anywhere in the U.S. (not just in the Castro), these crimes would diminish significantly. If more heterosexual people would speak up every time a homophobic slur is uttered, these crimes would diminish significantly. If heterosexual couples and families made their gay and lesbian neighbors feel safe to be open about their relationship status, these crimes would diminish significantly. Until then, no safe haven really exists.

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Filed under Castro neighborhood, hate crimes, Lavender Heights, Sacramento, San Francisco, Uncategorized