by John Ferrannini
The 1979 police assault on San Francisco’s former Elephant Walk bar on Castro Street after the White Night riots was a defining moment for the LGBTQ neighborhood, helping to cement the solidarity of a new community while the whole world was watching.
Earlier that year, in February, there was another, less storied raid that helped connect another LGBTQ hamlet in California.
George Raya, 74, an LGBTQ activist who has lived in San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego, was in law school when he was visiting the Fourth Avenue Club, a gay bathhouse in San Diego’s Hillcrest LGBTQ neighborhood.
Police “sent in two teams of two people trying to get a gay person to solicit them,” Raya recalled to the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview. “And I was watching them for a while that evening, and they wanted you to make the first move. Right when I was going to tell the management, the lights went on. ‘Raid!’”
“They herded us all downstairs to a corner someplace,” Raya said. “Talk about being scared shitless.”
All told, 25 officers arrested 23 patrons, according to the San Diego LGBTQ Historic Context Statement, a 2016 document prepared for the city’s planning department.
“It ruined things for those people,” Raya said. “Some of them lost jobs.”
But Raya and others didn’t want to take the injustice lying down. They organized a meeting to address police harassment.
“The community really came together. Myself and the guy who was the head of the ACLU put together a community meeting, and out of that meeting, the community went to the city council and lambasted the police department for wasting these resources on a victimless crime,” he said, referring to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The activists honed in on the issue of discrimination within the San Diego Police Department, and though an assistant police chief insisted that they didn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, tension between the department and the city’s LGBTQ community persisted for years, according to LGBTQ archives at San Diego State University.
The Fourth Avenue Club – now Club San Diego – is still standing, the last bathhouse in the city. But as the generation that created the heady days of gay liberation ages, it is stories like Raya’s that are at risk of being lost — the stories of how LGBTQ people found a home in the Golden State, and not just in the City-by-the-Bay.
Nicole Murray Ramirez, or Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother of the Americas, is a Latino gay activist and a longtime fixture in San Diego’s queerville — Hillcrest.
“Hillcrest before us was an Italian neighborhood,” Murray Ramirez told the B.A.R. “Gays started moving there in the late 1970s, and one of our oldest bars, the Brass Rail, was downtown. It’s interesting, for the first time in 100 years, it was sold, and we’ll have a gay owner. … So I think in many ways we followed the Brass Rail up here.”
According to Hillcrest History, the Brass Rail moved to Hillcrest in 1963. Urban Pelicon, a gay man, is one of the new owners who purchased the bar (now just The Rail) in June.
“Before, it was always straight-owned, but it was always a gay bar,” Pelicon told the B.A.R. “The previous owner called it The Rail. Originally, it was the Brass Rail, and we are going to go back to the original name in a couple months.”
The neighborhood remains vibrant, with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs — as well as grocery stores and apartments — stretching along University Avenue.
“Hillcrest remains a strong gay presence — obviously, most of our bars, if not all, are in Hillcrest,” Murray Ramirez said. “We probably still have about 20 bars, and one of the only women’s bars in the world, and of course, we were the first to get Harvey Milk Street.”
According to Murray Ramirez, there’s been discussion as to whether Hillcrest should be designated a cultural district or a historic district.
Benjamin Nichols, a gay man who is the executive director of the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association, said the group supports a cultural district in the area and has been helped by Mayor Todd Gloria, who is the city’s first openly gay elected mayor.
“The city of San Diego, for many, many years, has been trying to create a historic district in Hillcrest, which would preserve buildings. A lot of buildings people don’t want to preserve because they don’t see them as historic, so there was some resistance,” Nichols said. “The planning commission brought back the idea as an LGBT historic district. … They just rebranded it, and the community, rightfully so, got upset about it. Just put a rainbow flag around it.”
Nichols said that the best solution would be to establish a cultural district but with legal protections for LGBTQ spaces.
“Rather than preserving the buildings, we’d preserve the uses,” Nichols said.
Among these would be that nonprofits and businesses with a contributing status could get “certain perks from the city,” Nichols said, for their contribution to the district, giving as an example the Pride parade, which he said would “save $100,000” if it didn’t have to close down city streets and held its event in a park.
“But then it wouldn’t be the Pride parade,” Nichols said, adding that if it were a contributor, it could theoretically get its police fees waived.
In a statement, San Diego Pride Executive Director Fernando Z. López stated that eliminating police and city fees could present “a monumental shift in city policy.”
As Pride has grown — contributing $30 million in regional economic impact, López stated, “we’ve also experienced a sharp increase in fees.”
“By eliminating police and city fees, we’d be able to channel more resources directly back into serving the LGBTQ community. Pride worldwide has undeniable social, cultural, and economic value,” López added. “An LGBTQ cultural district plan that genuinely acknowledges and invests in this reality could be a monumental shift in city policy.”
Another example Nichols gave was landlords communicating with new tenants that there may be noise from LGBTQ nightlife establishments and trying to mitigate its effects.
“Every gay and lesbian nightlife venue in San Diego has an apartment complex going up next door,” Nichols said. “People move in because it’s the gayborhood but they complain because there’s a drag show next door – though the reason they moved here was because of the nightlife and the excitement.”
In Nichols’ proposal, developers building next to a nightclub that had received cultural status “would have to meet additional guidelines – noise protection, notifying tenants that they’re moving into an event and cultural district.”
Nichols said he’s hoping Hillcrest sets a “national standard for cultural districts.”
“This will allow us to embrace change without losing our soul,” he added, continuing that LGBTQ neighborhoods around the state and nation have to meet the challenges of the present moment.
When Nichols came to Hillcrest, he said, “There was an underlying current of ‘Will & Grace’ is on primetime so everything’s fine; we don’t need a gayborhood. In the past four, or five years a lot of people have felt really glad Hillcrest is still here, now that the winds have changed direction.”
In the past several years, fewer Americans have reported finding same-sex relations morally acceptable. According to Gallup, that number went from 71% in 2022 to 64% this year. Further, over 500 bills – mostly targeting the trans community – have been introduced in U.S. statehouses, prompting the Human Rights Campaign to declare that LGBTQs face a state of emergency.
Murray Ramirez said anyone interested in learning more about Hillcrest should consult the Lambda Archives (https://www.lambdaarchives.org/), which did not return a request for comment.
Sacramento resident Terry Sidie told the B.A.R. that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he’d trek a couple of hours south to San Francisco’s Polk Street bars, people would scoff at the Golden State’s capital city.
“They would make fun of Sacramento and call it ‘Sacotomatoes,’ and I thought, ‘I’m going to get you guys someday,’” he said.
In 1985, he did, opening the Faces nightclub in Sacramento’s LGBTQ neighborhood Lavender Heights, about ten blocks east of the state capitol building.
When asked how Faces changed the neighborhood, Sidie wasn’t shy.
“I think we changed it 100 percent or more,” he said.
Today, Faces sits across from The Depot and Sacramento Badlands — owned by T.J. Bruce, a gay man who also owns Splash San Jose and is co-manager of the soon-to-reopen San Francisco Badlands — and nearby the Mercantile Saloon. But according to Raya, who went to California State University Sacramento, when he moved to midtown Sacramento in 1970, the center of gay gravity was in West Sacramento, a separate city across the Sacramento River in neighboring Yolo County.
“We had a county sheriff for years and years, John Misterly, and he didn’t want any sin in Sacramento,” Raya said. “All the gambling, prostitution, and gay bars were in West Sacramento: Log Cabin, Hide and Seek, and a gay bathhouse.”
After Misterly left office, LGBTQ bars and baths began to open in Sacramento.
The first bathhouse in Sacramento proper, at Fifth Street near Broadway, was opened by the late Rick Stokes, who also co-founded the Steamworks Baths in Berkeley.
“Rick was just a real entrepreneur,” Raya recalled. “When Rick Stokes and David Clayton got into the bathhouse business, their first was called Ritch Street [in San Francisco] – I used to go to it, that was in the 1970s – and they decided to open bathhouses in medium-sized cities, so they’d open one here and in Santa Clara. They had one in Puerto Rico and one in Hawaii.”
The Mercantile Saloon, which opened in 1977, was the first gay bar, Raya said, followed by the Wreck Room and the Western Pacific Depot (now simply The Depot), so named because of a nearby railway depot. Faces opened across the street.
The midtown neighborhood “was a not-really-desirable part of town,” Raya said, adding it was populated with “seniors, gay people, and hippies, basically.”
“A lot of the houses were older buildings not kept up and it was just not popular,” he added. “People were moving to the suburbs for new housing and it was cheap.”
The Lavender Heights name came about when the neighborhood was fighting the AIDS epidemic, Sidie said.
“There was a group of older queens that went to the Western [Depot] all the time,” Sidie said. “The Fairy Godfather Fund is what they established, and that’s where they came up with the name.”
People who want to learn more about Lavender Heights’ history can find resources in the Gender and Sexual Identity Collection of Sacramento State’s Special Collections and University Archives, Raya said, to which he’d given some of his own records.
Spokesperson Amy Kautzman told the B.A.R. that the university “received this collection in 2000 from professor emeritus [the late] Ivor Kraft.”
“The principal intent was to enable our campus to create a major collection of materials and holdings dealing with all aspects of LGBTQ+ life,” Kautzman said. “Professor Kraft committed to leaving additional funding for the endowment to build a collection that would specifically represent under-represented and targeted minorities in the community.
“Our library historically built a strong collection that includes early periodicals like ‘One, the homosexual viewpoint’ magazine that began in 1953,” Kautzman added. “Our collections grew with Kraft’s initial gift and the addition of Kraft’s personal collection of books and magazines collected over decades, all supplemented via our long-time focus on collecting in this area.”
There’s also the Lavender Library, Archives, and Cultural Exchange near the aforementioned bars, which did not return a request for comment for this report. The nonprofit was established in 1997 as a lending library and archive for the local LGBTQ community.
In a related matter, California State Parks’ Office of Historic Preservation is currently working on a historic context statement for Sacramento’s LGBTQ history. The city’s LGBTQ neighborhood has boomed, Sidie said, because of its proximity to the Bay Area.
“People left San Francisco and Faces got much more well known,” Sidie said. “Capacity of 1,500 people; three dance floors. And the Merc is still open … The Bolt is open here in north Sacramento doing a good job, so we have a pretty vivacious community. We’ve lost some of the leather crowd, the cowboy crowd; we used to have a wonderful gay rodeo.”
There were many LGBTQ spaces that have closed in recent decades, Raya said, including a bookstore and a Hamburger Mary’s. Sidie was one of the co-owners of the Hamburger Mary’s, which had been at 17th and J streets, along with Richard Boriolo and David Mensch.
“They had it for 19 years and bought me out after 10 years,” Sidie said. “Closed it 10 years ago or so.”
Bruce took over The Depot in 1997.
“As things changed with the introduction of the internet, and men could meet outside of the bars, we bar owners had our work cut out for us with what that meant to stay relevant and keep the doors open,” Bruce told the B.A.R. “Suddenly, we had to entertain customers to get them to come out to the bars often enough to pack the place and keep [it] exciting and busy.”
Also, as LGBTQ people became more accepted, the bar crowd began to include more and more straight allies.
“These days we have to really make sure to remind our straight customers that they are in a gay bar,” Bruce said. “To do so we do many things, including prideful crew work shirts and rainbow flags, as well as keeping go-go dancer men and women and our amazing drag queens a big part of the weekend entertainment. … Even with all of the changes over the past 24 years, I still love the gay bar business and doing my best to be a positive part of my community.”
John Ferrannini is an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter. This article is part of the LGBTQ Media History Project coordinated by Philadelphia Gay News.
Men danced on the Rich’s bar float at the 1994 San Diego Pride parade. Photo: P505.103, L2013.63 San Diego Pride Collection, Lambda Archives of San Diego, San Diego, CA, July 16, 1994. Courtesy Lambda Archives of San Diego.
A long shot of the crowd of attendees gathered below the “Hillcrest” sign at the Hillcrest Street Fair in San Diego on August 26, 1984. Photographed by Sharon Parker and Susan Richards, P201.005, L2010.12 Sharon Parker and Susan Richards Collection, Lambda Archives of San Diego, San Diego, CA. Courtesy Lambda Archives of San Diego.
Officials celebrate the Lavender Heights district in Sacramento. Photo: Courtesy Outword magazine