I moved to San Francisco in late 1979. By then most of the gay bars had curbed their most overt form of racial discrimination and I could get a cocktail with only one maybe two forms of identification, though my white friends were seldom asked for any.
I found a wonderful flat in 16th & Market Streets in the heart of the Castro-San Francisco’s gay ghetto. Consequently, having just completed graduate school and full of youthful idealism, I became active in the gay community and pretty well-known in the local hangouts. Knowing what I know now that may account for my relative ease of access. However, it was still clear that as a black man I was not welcomed in many of the neighborhood bars—especially not with a group of my black friends.
The one bar where I felt welcome was the Pendulum, which some jokingly or others derisively referred to as the Nairobi Lounge. At that time the Pendulum was the only Castro bar that catered to black men—of course this was understood to be the black and white men together bar. If you were a black man seeking the company of another black man, you had to head to the East Bay. That began to change over time, and, by the time, I left San Francisco in 1988 the bar was a hot spot for black lesbians and gay men as well.
The Pendulum is now shuttered, in part I suspect as a result of the fact that in 2005, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission ruled that Les Natalia and his other Castro bar called SF Badlands discriminated against black patrons by requiring them to present multiple forms of identification before entering. African Americans recently marked the two-year anniversary of the closing of the Pendulum. Natalia bought the establishment in 2005 — and closed it for renovations. It has yet to reopen.
Now there are media reports that a white gay man was raped by a black man in the Castro. According to recent news reports, Mark Welsh chokes up as he describes his rape last fall and the word his two assailants kept repeating. "They kept saying ‘faggot' over and over again. It went on for what seemed like forever." Welch is a 51-year-old owner of a video store in the Castro district.
Mr. Welsh reportedly came forward about the attack to publicize sexual assaults against gay men in the Castro — which he says police have been downplaying. His outrage helped spark a new anti-rape education program as well as volunteer citizen patrols in one of the nation's best-known gay neighborhoods. But — because both Mr. Welsh and another rape victim say their assailants were black — news of their attacks has heightened tensions in a community that for years has been accused of racial exclusion.
I have visited the Castro many times since 1988, and, though some things have changed, much hasn’t. I still must wait longer than the white patrons for a cocktail and other black gay men still overt their eyes least we be seen as being together and therefore a threat. Both Castro residents and police acknowledge that people have yelled slurs at blacks on neighborhood streets. And I know where to go when to avoid unwanted harassment.
With all the talk of unity and coalition building I hope that my colleagues at the national, state and local LGBT organizations who have a presence in San Francisco will watch this situation carefully.
I know we will.
H. Alexander Robinson is CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, www.nbjc.org, America’s only Black LGBT civil rights organization.