So, in the last two weeks, SF lost a long term leader in the tenant movement, a progressive weekly, a Spanish-language newspaper, and one of the West Coast's only dyke bars. I am having some feelings...
I ran into one of the youth I used to work with at drop in a few years back by the Main Library yesterday. She and her girlfriend had just moved back to the city. They were staying outside. I bought some tamales for all of us and we talked. Things had been good in Sacramento, she said. She was in school. She had a job. She had housing. She wanted to get those things set up here. I swallowed my cynicism, reminding her that no matter what she read in the news, City College was still enrolling. At the same time, I was thinking about how impossible this city must be for young queer people at this time. When I moved here ten years ago at 22, the city was good to me and my friends. I went to city college. Rent was a stretch, but if you fit enough people into the nooks and crannies of apartments, it worked. And then you had an apartment. And roommates who were looking out for you. And the city had a long history of queers and working class communities of color working together on anti-displacement and housing issues. There were lots of ways to get and stay politically engaged. Lots of art events, parties. A feeling of history, and of extended queer family.
Sometime in the last ten years of this experimental queer adulthood building, I grew up. I met my partner. We each sank several years into working with young people in the city. We had a baby--at home in our apartment on Folsom street. Now should be the time that I get to become some sort queer mini-elder, and where my relative stability can be of some benefit and support to younger queers in my life. Except that my partner, baby, and I still worry about getting evicted from our one bedroom apartment. And there are no young queers left anyway. At least not lesbians.
Walking around my neighborhood, the Mission and Bernal, it always brightens my day to run into young people I know, my partner’s students, or people I know through political work. But I also miss running into queers--old roommates, ex-lovers, lovers of ex-lovers. The last several months, I’ve been wondering what it means for me and my family that 70% of the queer people and 90% of the lesbians I’ve ever met in this city aren’t here anymore. What it means that I mostly only see those queers who do still live in SF at parties in the East Bay. I’ve been wondering how we collectively begin to move past the only conversation people are able to have at every social gathering I’ve attended for the last two years---where am I going to live? What am I going to do to get through this? I’ve been thinking about how queers in San Francisco already lived through an assault on their community a generation ago--except where last time people responded by banding together to care for the sick and dying and organize--we now respond by scattering ourselves more widely out across a handful of metropolitan areas, displacing others in the process, and internalizing a careerist and entrepreneurial orientation to our own lives--trying to learn, often poorly, how to carefully calculate the right kind of individual response. Where will I live? What will I do for work? How will I pay my student debt?
Guess what isn’t going to work? Trying to fight the forces of this historical moment that conspire to--for some of us, violently enforce, and others of us, incentivize--our assimilation into being self-interested individuals primarily invested in our own success by attempting to mount the right kind of individual response. I know what it is going to take is deepening our commitments to place, to organizing, and to sharing resources with one another. But there’s also another thing I think it is going to take: I think we are going to have to mourn. I think we are going to have to be really sad. Together.
I remember taking my best friend to the Lexington Club on new year’s eve during her visit to San Francisco many years ago. I was having a good time, but when I looked over at her she was quiet and weeping. All she could say was, “I didn’t know there could be this many lesbians in one place in public.” And that was how we’ve all felt about the Lex. I never hung out there with much regularity, but the fact that it existed referenced something much larger about the San Francisco we were living in. When El Rio became overrun with drunk straight people most nights of the week, the Lex existed. When SF Weekly ran an article about how awesome the backyard at Wild Side West is without so much as mentioning that it is a lesbian bar, everyone still knew the Lex was queer. When another queer person you knew told you they were getting evicted or bought out and leaving the city, there was still the Lex.
When Esta Noche closed, a club on 16th frequented by trans Latinas, and working class Latin@ queers and drag queens, this is all I could think: They don’t say that these places are actually densely packed tiny worlds. They don’t say how very hard people work to carve out these tiny spaces where the world can be seen and felt and experienced in ways that are different and profoundly important. These spaces weren’t birthed as the brain child of an arrogant young innovator with a fistful of start up capital. They were created through so many collisions of history. These worlds are important and vulnerable. They are very very hard to create and too easy to destroy. And when they are unmade, they don’t just go happen somewhere else. Something is broken.
Having to make some kind of legible case for the importance of these worlds is its own type of violence.
And you know what else besides dive bars are harder to create than to destroy? Neighborhoods. Taxi and transit systems. Pools of highly trained teachers. And just because someone with money tells young white men that they can re-engineer everything from how we teach kids to read, to how poor people sign up for welfare, to how rich people give away the money that should have already been paid in taxes anyway, does not mean they don’t still have something to learn from the many women and people of color who have been laboring away in the midst of the supposedly anachronistic and pathetically ossified structures so despised by tech entrepreneurs.
When will we stop pretending that access to wealth confers some sort of ipso facto moral status to a person or project? Or that everything that is destroyed in the pursuit of wealth is a necessary casualty on the path to a better world? How do we assert that just because you can build an app, you are not qualified to reorganize either our neighborhoods or our public systems that took generations to build?
I read an article last week where a ride-sharing exec dismissed regulations by saying that, “Sometimes the future is happening and you just have to get out of the way.” Since we are talking about the future, let's also talk a bit about history. Here is one piece: There was a lesbian bar on 19th street. People would go there and fist each other in the bathroom in an effort to try to figure out how to be a different kind of human being than a person could be just about anywhere ever before or ever again. Then it got turned into a cocktail bar for young men with money who felt they didn’t have enough places to be in the world.
I’m sad, friends. And I daresay, that being sad, acknowledging the value of things that have come and are coming to pass is one act of resistance to the logic that the casualties of a narrowly-conceived, ethically bankrupt, historically untethered, and creatively impoverished version of progress are best left unremarked upon.