Celebrating the 1980s and 90s
by Hank Trout
As a little queer boy growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, coming of age in the 1960s, I gazed at San Francisco in the distance as a beacon pulling me westward to its Golden Gate. I worshiped Dashiell Hammett and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg; I memorized Rod McKuen’s Stanyon Street and Other Sorrows; I didn’t understand “Vertigo” but I sat through it a dozen times, for the scenery; I sang along with Grace Slick and wanted to feed MY head too! I didn’t want to leave my heart in San Francisco – like millions of others, I wanted to move here and FIND my heart!
Now, mind you, when I finally arrived in San Francisco, I was no starry-eyed writer-wannabe with flowers in my hair, stumbling drunk and stoned down the Yellow Brick Road! No, no, no! I was summoned unto Oz by The Great and Powerful John Embry, publisher of Drummer magazine! [I believe some of the photographers represented in this show published photos in Drummer at one time or another.] I had written a few stories for the magazine, but I was shocked when Mr. Embry called me at work one day and asked, “How would you like to be assistant editor?”
“What time is the next plane?” was all I could think to say.
And what a glittering, magical world I dropped into on that 23rd day of August 1980!
The 1980s and 90s in San Francisco will always be remembered for the epidemic that decimated my generation. That is unavoidable.
But in the midst of all that grief and loss, what great things we did! What relationships we formed, what art we created – and yes, what fun we had!
For every tear we shed, we spent another hour on the dance floor at Club Q, with Page Hodel spinning the soundtrack of our lives, or thumping around mindlessly at the End-Up, the Trocadero Transfer, or the I-Beam. If we wanted quieter entertainment, we could catch a new play, for us and about us, by a gay playwright at the freshly minted Theatre Rhinoceros or Theatre Artaud. Come October, we were likely to be dancing to Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun for FREE at the Castro Street Fair! We invented gay street fairs! If you couldn’t afford tickets to see Sharon McKnight at the Plush Room, not to worry, you could catch keyboard wizard David Kelsey for free on Polk Street.
David Kelsey will always be one of my favorite memories from the 1980s. David was a master of keyboards. He used to play the Wurlitzer organ at the Castro Theatre before the movies. Two or three nights a week, he also played at the New Belle Saloon. The New Belle was a huge old bar that resembled a 19th Century music hall. It had a large stage, complete with proscenium, that was almost filled with David’s grand piano stage right and a large organ stage left. Between the two was a lone piano bench. David could swivel on the bench from the piano to the organ with great fluidity, some times in the middle of a song. Often, as during his performance of music from the 1925 silent movie “The Phantom of the Opera,” he would sit astride the piano bench, playing the piano with one hand and the organ with the other, using his feet to work the pedals on both. Now that sounds like a silly gimmick, but his performances were never less than perfectly musical. My friends and I spent a lot of hours at the New Belle listening to David.
We also did a lot of drinking! We all did. Especially South of Market. The first few years that I lived here, there were more bars along Folsom Street between 6th and 12th than there were brightly colored hankies in back pockets. I made this list just off the top of my head the other day – the Black and Blue, the Bolt, the Ambush, the Trench, My Place, the Stables, the Cave, the Stud, the Arena, the Watering Hole, the Eagle – I’m telling you, bar-hopping South of Market in those days took remarkable stamina.
But when we tired of the bar scene, we could hang out at the Valencia Rose or Josie’s Juice Joint and listen to young gay comedians like Karen Ripley, Lea DeLaria, Marga Gomez, Scott Capurro, Danny Williams and other funny gay folks who labored there at the birth of gay comedy. The men all told jokes about unfortunate tricks at the baths and the women all told jokes about the men.
There might not be such a thing as “gay comedy” without Tom Ammiano! Tom was everywhere, dishing about everyone, especially local politicians. He was never vicious, but he was never subtle, either. I remember he once said of Mayor Diane Feinstein, “I like Dianne, but that Planet of the Apes hairdo has to go!” But like most of us, when he needed to get serious, Tom got busy. After leading the San Francisco school board, and fighting off the bigotry of the Briggs Initiative, his work on the Board of Supervisors produced some of the city’s most progressive laws and programs, including the seeds of the Healthy SF program. And his run for mayor was no joke, either. He damn near became San Francisco’s first gay mayor – and still, he kept us laughing when we needed it most.
I thank all the gods that we never lost our sense of humor as our sense of obligation to one another grew. Even when we had serious work to do, we made it fun. I remember the very funny “Men Behind Bars” variety shows organized by Mark Abramson and others – who knew all those bartenders were such talented dancers and singers! And there was Rita Rockett and her troupe bringing food, love, laughter and tap-dancing to the patients in Ward 5B at General Hospital. I remember the fun I had with Bears of San Francisco when we distributed Easter baskets at Davies Medical Center. And I remember laughing a lot but also learning the meaning of the word “generosity” working with Ruth Brinker on the very first fundraisers for Project Open Hand.
Thinking of Ruth Brinker and Rita Rockett and Page Hodel reminds me… If it weren’t for the women of San Francisco, I and most of my friends would be dead. The women of San Francisco, gay and straight, rolled up their sleeves and marched to the front lines of the fight against AIDS. They were our care-givers, our confidantes, our comfort, our sisters in every sense of that word. They lent their talents to every fundraiser, they marched in every demonstration, they held our hands at every memorial. When the rest of the world seemed poised to throw me and my gay brothers onto the garbage heap, the beautiful, courageous women of San Francisco stood up and said, Oh, hell no, not on our watch! I would be remiss if I passed up this opportunity to acknowledge all of the women who kept so many of my friends alive. Thank you.
Only in supposedly godless San Francisco could we make even religion fun!
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were more than happy to expiate our guilt – that is, when they weren’t too busy raising tens of millions of dollars and teaching us how to have one hell of a good time — guilt be damned! The Sisters even made politics fun. I’m sure most of us remember when Jack Fertig, Sister Boom Boom, ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors and got nearly 24,000 votes, listed on the ballot as “Nun of the Above.” When Jack also tried to run for Mayor, in the Castro there popped up posters featuring Sister Boom Boom riding over the San Francisco skyline on a broom, spelling out “Surrender Diane.”
Amidst all the fun we had, we also found time to create incredible art here! Queer magazines thrived here for many years, from the big and glossy like Drummer and Folsom to cheaply Xeroxed and barely legible queercore ‘zines. Artists like Ken Wood and REX created some of their most daring pen-and-ink drawings here. Thom Gunn was here writing poetry about the men with night sweats. Cleve Jones and other San Franciscans began stitching together a commemorative quilt that became known as The Names Project – which grew to 48,000 panels and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The glorious Cockettes were creating theatre of an entirely new kind, on and off the stage. We even spurred our own counter- to the counter-culture when Queer Punks crashed the 1989 Pride Parade using a battered police car as a “float.”
Look around at these magnificent photographs. They are proof that Gay Pride may have been born at Stonewall in 1969, but it came of age in San Francisco in the 1980s. We grew up together. Fast. We formed a community that was dedicated to caring for one another — and to having a lot of fun along the way. It turns out, I wasn’t the only little queer Munchkin who found his heart in San Francisco. Other writers and musicians, painters and poets – and, thankfully, photographers! – all created art that not only reflected the times but shaped them, ennobled them. These photographs remind us that amid all the gloom of the 1980s and 90s, there was also a lot of sunshine, a lot of love, and a lot of hope – “You gotta give ‘em hope!”
I salute all of the photographers represented in this show, and thank you for using your cameras to tell our stories.