Walking tour will explore site of North Beach queer bars

  • by Marijke Rowland
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023
Share this Post:
The Garden of Eden on Broadway in San Francisco was the lesbian bar Tommy's Place in the 1950s. Photo: Shawn Sprockett
The Garden of Eden on Broadway in San Francisco was the lesbian bar Tommy's Place in the 1950s. Photo: Shawn Sprockett

An upcoming guided tour of North Beach will shed light on the neighborhood's sometimes forgotten role in San Francisco's LGBTQ history.

The San Francisco Historical Society's latest walking tour, "Unspeakable Vice," takes participants back in time to the old Barbary Coast era to see where the city's first LGBTQ bars once stood. Before the city's Castro neighborhood became known as an international beacon for queer activism, North Beach was home to an active LGBTQ community.

Tours will take place February 18 and March 25.

The program was developed by gay San Francisco designer Shawn Sprockett, who leads the tour through more than a dozen former LGBTQ bars in what experts consider the city's original "gayborhood."

Sprockett began researching North Beach's LGBTQ history after moving to the neighborhood from the Castro following a breakup a few years ago. He said he was heartened to learn his new home has its own rich queer history. In 2018, he created the "Queer North Beach (Gay SF Before the Castro)" walking tour.

"I thought I was leaving behind the gayborhood and all connection to the community," he said in a recent phone interview. "I was surprised to learn there was a lot of gay history and connection in North Beach."

Sprockett said he continued his research at the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archives and was aided by Nan Alamilla Boyd's 2005 book "Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965" (University of California Press).

The tour covers a period in the city from roughly the 1840s to 1965, predating the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement and the Stonewall riots, which took place in 1969, as well as the Compton's Cafeteria riots that took place in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood in 1966. The 90-minute walk includes a stop at what was once the Black Cat Cafe on Montgomery Street, considered one of the first gay bars in California. As a hangout for artists, bohemians, and LGBTQ people, the bar was often raided by police. But in 1951 its straight owner Sol Stoumen scored one of the first legal wins for gay rights when the state supreme court ruled it wasn't illegal to serve homosexual patrons.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted in a story last week on the late San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, the legal victory was short-lived as it led to the formation of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which then began raids on gay and lesbian bars, often with the help of local police.

Among the notable LGBTQ historical figures mentioned on the tour includes José Julio Sarria, a well-known Latino veteran and drag performer in San Francisco who founded the Imperial Court System, a charitable organization that continues today. Sarria, who died in 2013 at the age of 90, was also the first out gay candidate for public office in the United States. He ran unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. There is currently an effort underway to see Sarria inducted into the California Hall of Fame, as the B.A.R. has reported. Additionally, there is a campaign to have Sarria's image included on a U.S. postage stamp as one of several drag icons along with the late Marsha P. Johnson and the late Sylvia Rivera.

Sarria was honored in December with a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, as the B.A.R. noted.

"I think Harvey Milk is an amazing figure in gay rights history, but he is not the beginning. It is important to see there were people, and a lot of people of color, who came before him," Sprockett said, referring to the first gay elected official in California who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for 11 months until his assassination in November 1978. "When you see the life of José Sarria or straight allies or lesbian bar owners, their stories were hard fought battles, and for them to disappear from history would be a tragedy."

The tour will begin at the San Francisco Historical Society Museum, at 608 Commercial Street, and end with a complimentary drink at Maggy McGary's pub, at 1353 Grant Avenue, which was once an "infamous lesbian hook-up spot," according to Sprockett.

The tour, which first started last fall, will run from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. February 18 and March 25. Tour tickets are $30 ($10 for current SFHS members) and participants must register at least a day in advance. Tours are limited to 15 people and open to all ages, but only those age 21 and over can enter the final stop for a drink.

For more information contact the San Francisco Historical Society Museum at 415-537-1105 or visit its website.

The San Francisco Historical Society Museum is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.