Growing Up Queer in San Francisco – Easy, Right?

Just like thousands of queers living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I came here from somewhere else, already out of the closet and already an adult. Because I didn’t know anyone actually from San Francisco but knew, like everyone else, that it was a “gay mecca,” I assumed that coming out here was probably close to ideal. Well, this girl got educated otherwise last Thursday night.

Still Here, part of the National Queer Arts Festival playing in San Francisco this month, featured artists who grew up and came out in San Francisco during the ’80s and ’90s. The show was eye-opening and challenged what it means to be a woman and gay, among other assumptions. So what was growing up and coming out in a gay mecca during the AIDS crisis like? More complicated than you’d think.

As Cristina Mitra, dancer and co-curator of the production along with writer, Natalia Vigil, said in the opening of the show, “We’re here to ‘un-unicorn’ ourselves, to share what it is really like to grow up and come out in San Francisco.” To hear all the diverse and honest stories that made up Still Here was refreshing as hell.

In her eloquent spoken-word piece “How to Use a Map,” Vigil, a Chicana born and raised in San Francisco, said that the experience of coming out there was something people had to create for themselves. “For those of us who are gay and grew up in San Francisco, people will assume we have an easy passage to coming out, that the beginning and end point is well-defined, that we will recognize the gay symbols within ourselves and will call them gay or queer, fag or fairy, lesbian or bisexual, butch or transgender, intersex or femme … But most of us were not given a map to queerness.” As Vigil spoke, Mitra danced to her words, creating a powerful collaborative moment.

Assumptions were further shaken when artist Cara Rose deFabio strutted on stage wearing a tan overcoat, saying, “I’m going to tell you something that’s hard to say, something about myself. I’m a …” While everyone waited for the revelation they knew was coming, she stripped off her coat, revealed a swimsuit underneath and breathlessly confessed, “I’m….a….a…synchronized swimmer!”

She went on to say she learned synchronized swimming in San Francisco public pools, where she “practiced kissing” with her swim mates and had underwater conversations. It was underwater, submerged at the bottom of the pool, that she learned what the lesions on her teacher’s face meant. Parents said he was “sick,”’ but deFabio knew more, and this knowledge of what AIDS was and how deadly it could be changed her in mid-adolescence. From that point on, “I practiced fear, the understanding that sex would kill me, and that virtue avoided death.”

As if adolescence wasn’t hard enough.

San Francisco wasn’t the easiest place to be a good son, either. One writer/photographer/graphic designer began his piece, “Out With(out),” by describing pleasant Burmese family dinners in the Tenderloin district where he grew up. After dinner he enjoyed the ritual of wishing his mother goodnight and telling her he loved her. But when his grade-school teacher asked everyone to write about something they hated about their parents, he wrote about being beaten by his father. His teacher reported it. An administrator showed up at home and warned the father.

This chain of events altered the family’s dynamics dramatically. Those happy, traditional family dinners became a thing of the past. Later, when he moved out, his family couldn’t understand why he would want to live on his own in the same city as his family. “Out With(out)” touched upon the theme of being out in San Francisco and at the same time not out to one’s family due to cultural tradition.

Lack of family understanding was an experience that echoed for other artists, too, as San Francisco’s burgeoning gay culture seemed to be, at times, at odds with its cultural and ethnic diversity. “Don’t go to the Castro,” is what Danny Robles’ El Salvadoran and Filipino parents told him. A writer and graduate student, Robles grew up in the richness of the Mission neighborhood, hearing English, Spanish and Tagalog, seeing a Samoan man in traditional dress sitting outside his home every day while crew-cut dykes strolled by. It was everybody and everything.

Did this boy who had crushes on other boys end up going to the Castro even though his parents forbade it? Of course he did. He went dreaming of a gay haven and finding Prince Charming, but curiously his story stopped there, leaving the audience hanging, wondering if he found true love in the Castro. Was it all he hoped it would be? After hearing numerous reports about Castro bars not letting in men of color a few years back, I wanted to hear the rest of Robles’ story.

The Castro had little to do with Gina de Vries’ upbringing. A scholarship kid from working-class Ingleside who came out in the 6th grade, she traveled an hour each day to attend a hippie school in Haight Ashbury, where kids with designer clothes were the norm. That’s where she met her best friend Molly. Molly wore fedoras and a tool kit around her waist and had a secret she felt she couldn’t share with her psychiatrist parents or even, at first, with de Vries: She was transgender. De Vries brought an emotional intensity and an excellent singing voice to the poignancy of their friendship.

But what do you do if you’re Vero, short for Veronica, a budding queer girl of color and you really want to find a place to make out with your girlfriend but you can’t go to the cafes because they are chock full of older white lesbians? You think of alternatives. Places you can make out in peace and tranquility. Places with information booths, gurneys and orderlies. That’s right: a hospital. In this case, St. Luke’s on Cesar Chavez. In a project called video interviews/sex stories by Tina (Bartolome) and James (Q. Chan.), Vero described meeting up with her girlfriend in the lobby of St. Luke’s, then ducking into the bathroom to kiss. Other diversions included buying each other necklaces and other knickknacks from the hospital gift shop. Not your typical lover’s lane.

Vero and her girlfriend created their own place, but many queer youth of color felt they had to choose between identities. They couldn’t have it all—their Vietnamese or African-American or Salvadoran home culture and their queer identity. Tonilyn, a self proclaimed “booty shaking genderqueer love warrior dedicated to social change,” sadly described his mentorship of an Asian youth who was too terrified to come out to his family. Tonilyn had felt the pain of family rejection too, in his own devout Catholic Filipino family, where “you had to choose one facet of yourself over another.”

There were so many stories in Still Here, each of them breathing life into what it means to be from San Francisco, to grow up in its neighborhoods, go to its grade schools and high schools, experience your first kiss and get your heart broken. Each shed light on a diverse and culturally rich San Francisco, different but not irretrievably so from the gentrified, less diverse and more economically stratified city we know today. Despite the changes the city has experienced, the stories in Still Here are hopeful, as if they and their creators know that maybe, just maybe, the city can regain its diversity and richness.

One of the night’s most haunting stories was a video interview/sex story that began by describing a typical hookup—Boy One meets Boy Two, invites him up for coffee, sex ensues. But not the sex you think, because Boy Two had scars across much of his body from having boiling water thrown onto him. He probably wouldn’t be able to feel much, he said. Okay. They had sex anyway. As Boy One’s tongue traced the ridges of Boy Two’s scars, he saw that there was, in fact, little actual physical sensation he could experience. But that didn’t matter, because Boy Two used his imagination. An image of sunshine dancing on leaves played on the screen. Far from the usual hookup, it was making love on another level.

It’s safe to say that all the stories in Still Here are about making love on another level.

Still Here will be performed again on July 30 at:

715 Bryant Street at 5th, San Francisco, CA, 94107 ‎

(415) 518 1517

Tickets and start time will shortly be confirmed here

Picture of Still Here promotion material from NQAF




Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at her at