During the 1970s, San Francisco was, in the words of the late Carl Wittman, "a refugee camp for homosexuals." During the period that author Jack Fritscher called "the Titanic 1970s" thousands of gay men moved to the city by the bay in search of opportunity but mostly to be themselves. Many of these men are now gone; victims of the AIDS epidemic that put an end to gay San Francisco's golden age. But survivors remain, some of who have written their memoirs.
One of the lucky ones is Jim Stewart, who moved to the San Francisco area in 1975 and lived in the city or in the nearby Russian River until 1982. Stewart's recollections make up Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco.
In Folsom Street Blues, Stewart refers to 70s San Francisco as "a foreign country." "San Francisco in the 1970s drew men from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, and the world beyond. If you were a gay man and lived in San Francisco during that marvelous decade, you didn't need to travel. The world came to you," he writes.
"A drifter from Tulsa, Oklahoma, living in a single-occupancy hotel room, went home with a man from London who was living on trust funds from his family's diamond mines in Africa. A farmer's son from North Dakota crashed with the son of the president of Ford Motor Company Europe. When somebody asked you what you did, they didn't mean your job. They meant what were your sexual talents, your specialties the fantasies you wanted to explore. Gay San Francisco of the 1970s was democracy's poster child.."
Stewart continues, "San Francisco in the 1970s was home to hordes of expats from around the world. These expatriates were quite different from immigrant families from Mexico and the Philippines or the Vietnamese boat people. Expats usually arrived in San Francisco unburdened with family. Often they brought independent incomes. Most were single. A lot were gay. Some were leathermen. They found San Francisco a better place to live than where they came from."
In his memoir, Stewart describes the "three geographical areas that attracted gay men. There was the older gay quarter centered around Polk Street. It catered to queens, gentlemen of a certain persuasion, some disco dollies. There were the all-American boys who flocked to 18th and Castro streets, the area called simply the Castro. And then there were leathermen and bad boys who gathered along Folsom Street, South of Market, the area that morphed into SoMa."
On May 1, 1976, Jim Stewart moved into SoMa, setting up his playroom, his darkroom, and his living quarters in a flat on Clementina, just off Folsom Street. During the next three years Stewart was an active and productive member of SoMa's gay leather community. He was a carpenter, a photographer, and a bartender; sharing experiences with the men who flocked into SoMa.
But Stewart was no stranger to San Francisco's other gay ghettoes. As he recalls, "I used to go to the Castro during the day, Folsom at night, and Polk Street for cabaret." And he admits that "the Castro had amenities that Folsom didn't. Castro was gay around the clock. Vanilla. Folsom was blue collar straights during the day and leatherfolk at night. Black and blue."
During his three years on Clementina Street, Jim Stewart befriended such luminaries as Chuck Arnett, David Hurles, Camille O'Grady and Wakefield Poole. He was friends with Jack Fritscher, who "sponsored" Stewart into the City's leather scene, and Fritscher's then-lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Stewart's photos were displayed in Fey-Way Studios, a leather art gallery owned by famed Oscar streaker Robert Opel.
Stewart contributed photos to Drummer around the time that Fritscher became editor-in-chief of that magazine (1977). Stewart's photos of the Leatherneck helped make it the leather bar to go to in San Francisco. "Once Fritscher became Editor-in-Chief of Drummer he turned it into an iconic guide for leatherfolk worldwide," Stewart says. "It became not only a how to/how not to guide but also reported on what was happening world wide in various disciplines (pun intended) if it was of leather interest. Men didn't buy Drummer just for the pictures, they also bought it for the articles."
On Halloween 1978 Stewart helped organize a fundraiser against the Briggs Initiative, which threatened gay teachers. This gave him the opportunity to work with Harvey Milk, then at his peak as San Francisco City Supervisor and "Mayor of Castro Street."
"Harvey Milk had a lot of guts,' Stewart recalls. "He knew how to get things done. He was a great politician who knew how to work the press. I think, however, he was a poor businessman. His camera store on Castro was more a gathering place for gay activists than gay photographers. But Harvey Milk was a man with talents that the gay movement needed then."
Stewart himself was an activist, though not in today's terms: "In the 1960s I marched for civil rights and got arrested. I marched for peace and got beat up. In San Francisco, in the 1970s, by living an openly gay life, I was an activist. I was a professional gay, as opposed to a gay professional."
Jim Stewart wrote Folsom Street Blues "to relive my youth." Stewart's youth ended in 1982, when he left San Francisco: "By moving to Chicago and starting a career as a librarian I changed from a professional gay to a gay professional. Chicago's gay scene in the 1980s and 1990s in many aspects paralleled that of San Francisco and other cities. Gay culture changed. It was invaded and occupied by AIDS. Most of us also changed with it. We aged. Returning to grad school, becoming a history librarian, finding a lifetime partner, and yes, getting a pension, became a better fit for me than those endless halcyon nights at the bars and baths that I once thought would never end. I discovered that the trick to life is finding what fits best for whatever stage of life one is at."
In Folsom Street Blues Jim Stewart achieved what he hoped to write: a memoir "filled with the foreign and forbidden and peopled with the enchanted and exotic. An old friend of mine I hadn't seen for years asked me if Folsom Street Blues is a scandal. I hope so. Everybody needs the fun of a little scandal now and then."
Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco by Jim Stewart; Palm Drive Publishing; 214 pages; $14.95