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LGBTs weigh in on if minorities feel welcome in Castro

by David-Elijah Nahmod

After Strut, the men's health center in the Castro, abruptly canceled its Black Love event in July, some LGBT African-Americans and others began discussing whether people of color feel welcome in the Castro.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which operates Strut, said the Black Love cancellation was due to an "odd" email it received that officials said "raised concern." But they never made the email public and declined further comment. They said Black Love would resume at a later date, which happened this month.

For members of San Francisco's queer African-American community, the Black Love cancellation was the latest in a long line of incidents in which people of color have felt that they are not wanted in the Castro.

Decades ago, Asian-Americans, blacks, and other minorities often had to show multiple IDs to enter bars. In 2004, blacks and others accused Les Natali of discriminating against African-Americans at his Badlands bar. That resulted in findings by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that Natali had discriminated against African-Americans, but the findings were never official, because the HRC director at the time did not sign off on the report. The parties eventually reached a mediated settlement, and Natali has always denied the charges. After numerous court battles, Natali later bought the Pendulum, a Castro bar that catered to African-American gays, closed it for renovations, and reopened it as Toad Hall in 2009.

In 2016, Black Lives Matter dropped out of being the organizational grand marshal in the San Francisco Pride parade after Pride officials announced they were increasing police presence at the event in the aftermath of the massacre at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people died. BLM cited the numerous shootings of unarmed African-Americans by police as the reason for its decision.

Shaun Haines is a gay African-American organizer in San Francisco. He attended the October 19 Black Love program, the first one since the July cancellation.

"The event has changed. It was held on a different floor and day of the week and attracted a lot less people than what seems to be the average for events held at Strut. Someone suggested that security might be organized in conjunction with Castro Community on Patrol. They weren't present," he said, referring to the volunteer safety group.

Haines added that he greatly enjoyed the performances he saw at Black Love, which included poetry, spoken word, and comedy. He shared his feelings about both the good and bad sides of the Castro.

"The Castro is often a great place for community gatherings, recreation, and protests against our overall oppression," Haines told the Bay Area Reporter. "The Castro represents our mainstream gay community."

Haines said that the Castro can be a place where queers can gather against the Trump administration.

"We have the opportunity to join forces with other communities who are slowly starting to understand that we are all in this together," he said.

But Haines agrees that there are problems that need to be addressed.

"Among LGBT minorities, the transgender community, and for individuals with non-mainstream identities, the Castro is not widely considered to be a mecca for all," Haines said.

"We have been marching, holding rallies, and organizing demonstrations and yet not much has changed," he noted. "We feel undervalued and are underserved. We must, at every turn, demand to be heard or fight for a seat at the table or else our cultural heritage and contributions will be lost and not preserved alongside mainstream LGBT identities."

Haines feels that in most representations of the community, diversity is ignored.

The B.A.R. also spoke to Sister Merry Peter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Reverend Dr. Megan Rohrer of Grace Lutheran Church about solutions.

"As long as there has been a Castro, vulnerable LGBTQ individuals who have felt unwelcome or unable to afford a Castro lifestyle have urged reforms, safety, and legal opportunities to become homeowners and merchants in the area and support for artists and activists," Rohrer, the first out trans pastor to lead a Lutheran congregation, said.

"The screaming queens and the vanguard youth on Polk Street in the 1960s and 1970s protested the same issues we see today," added Rohrer, referring to trans people, drag queens, and young LGBTs.

Rohrer, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, made a point of saying that they want businesses in the Castro to succeed.

"At the same time, our LGBTQ community must address the racial disparities, economic inequalities, and, sometimes, outright biases of our community," Rohrer said.
Rohrer urged the community to look back upon its history.

"LGBTQ activists must find ways to both thank the queer heroes who have brought us this far and name the ways that we have benefited from racism, economizing the bodies of others, and encouraging addiction," they said. "We must also do what we can to mentor and financially support the art, advocacy, businesses, and low-income housing options that support the most vulnerable in our LGBTQ community."
Peter also feels that much can be learned from looking back.

"Discrimination has been part of the Castro since the beginning," Peter said. "We need to listen to people's stories - people of color have never been welcome in bars. To change this, we have to admit that this is a systemic issue. We have to believe the people who feel excluded - we can't pretend that these aren't real stories. We have to start making deep and powerful changes."
Peter said that there are things people can do on a personal level.

"We have to confront our own prejudices," Peter said. "We have to make an effort to get to know people who are different from us - we have to be honest as a community that our institutions profit from discrimination."

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