SF, beacon for queer tourists, battles bad perceptions

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday June 20, 2023
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Kathy Amendola points to the murals at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy during a recent Cruisin' The Castro Walking Tours. Photo: John Ferrannini
Kathy Amendola points to the murals at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy during a recent Cruisin' The Castro Walking Tours. Photo: John Ferrannini

They came from Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Japan, and Australia — on almost any given weekday at 10 a.m. they can be found at the rainbow flag pole at Castro and Market streets, ready for a two-hour walking tour of the crossroads of the queer world.

Or is it, still?

Kathy Amendola, a lesbian who has been running Cruisin' The Castro Walking Tours for the past 18 years, told the Bay Area Reporter she will have to cut back on tours because of dangerous San Francisco street conditions.

"My tour members are appalled that outdoor drug use is acceptable," Amendola said. "One member of my tour group said, 'This would never happen in my city.' It shouldn't happen in any city."

Amendola's business is the city's first and only legacy business tour company. Now, she's announced she's leaving the Castro Merchants Association for what she sees as a reluctance to be tough enough with the police and public officials.

"They have no vision of what we can be and it is frustrating for myself, knowing how great we can be, how we can be a heritage site," Amendola said.

The news comes just as San Francisco works to restore its reputation, lowered by rampant property crime, open-air drug use and sales, and business woes. According to a report from the Institute of Governmental Studies released in the spring, downtown San Francisco ranked last among 62 North American cities in recovering from the COVID pandemic.

The pandemic exacerbated issues that had already been salient in the Castro neighborhood — particularly empty storefronts, onerous regulation, and blight. And while progress has been made on the latter two in recent years, even boosters of the city concede the needle has only moved so much.

The city that for decades was the gay Oz now asks how much more of its rainbow will fade.

Snapshot of SF tourism

Jane Natoli, a trans woman who's on the commission that oversees San Francisco International Airport, told the B.A.R. that the dour public perception of the city can make it difficult to boost it.

"Our reputation matters," Natoli said.

"It's certainly a challenge — I don't want to degenerate that, but I think what we're seeing — is we're still seeing strong travel, people who are coming here and seeing that's not the entire story, but certainly when you're thinking about and planning a trip from far away, it has an impact and that's something we need to work on."

Nonetheless, the city remains "a great place to come if you're an LGBTQ+ traveler," Natoli said. Between the site of Harvey Milk's historic camera store, the GLBT Historical Society Museum, and the bars and clubs of the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood and South of Market, the city can offer visitors a unique opportunity to learn about the queer community's past and present.

Indeed, LawnStarter just ranked the City-by-the-Bay as the most friendly in the country to LGBTQ travelers. Oakland, No. 9, was the only other California city in the top 10.

Natoli said she doesn't know how many travelers to SFO are LGBTQ because "that's not necessarily something we seek or collect, in terms of information." The San Francisco Travel Association puts the figure at 7.5% of the total number of 21.9 million visitors the city saw in 2022.

SFO triumphantly announced May 15 that it expects 14.9 million travelers this summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which would put it at 85% of summer 2019 numbers before the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020.

"We are certainly seeing strong recovery on flights, and considering the predominant drivers of what we saw prior to COVID — business travel and tourism — I think it has largely recovered," Natoli said. "We still haven't gotten all the way back to where we were, but we're very close, actually, and in my personal experience we've seen an uptick."

Natoli said she has queer friends coming for Pride this weekend.

"Looking ahead to Pride, anecdotally, I know a lot of people are coming to San Francisco soon and are planning to be here for it in a way I hadn't heard for five years," Natoli said.

Daniel Schwartz, a straight man who is the director of global tourism development for the Americas with San Francisco Travel, said that the LGBTQ traveler is "an important pillar for us."

"Pride Month has always been an opportunity for us to push out an important message," he said, adding that the association likes to highlight the "diversity in terms of entertainment we have here," including nightlife.

Lynn Bruni-Perkins, a straight woman who is the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for San Francisco Travel, agreed that "from a marketing perspective, the LGBTQ visitor has always been an important segment of our target demographic."

She said the association put a video online during the 2020 Pride season to highlight the community even though official, in-person Pride events did not happen that year, and that the association has an annual Pride sweepstakes.

Bruni-Perkins said that this year, the city is projecting two million more visitors total than last, putting the figure at 23.9 million.

"In 2019 we had a record-breaking year," Bruni-Perkins said. "We had 26.2 million visitors. The recovery is somewhat being delayed because of visitation from China. China is one of our key feeder markets for international travelers but, because of travel restrictions, that has been slower to recover. We are projecting we will be closer to 2019 numbers in 2024-25."

Thirty percent of the city's visitors are international, Bruni-Perkins said. The top international markets are Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany. Before the pandemic China had been No. 1.

Bruni-Perkins said the association doesn't have data on the nationality of LGBTQ travelers, specifically.

"We don't really cross-tabulate that against the LGBTQ audience," she said. "A couple of things from our study of pre-pandemic versus post is our demographic has gotten a bit younger, and the household income has also increased."

Schwartz was on the same page as Natoli in terms of the city's space in the tourism market — a strong presence, but with a tarnished reputation in need of restoration.

"We still have a really strong brand, and that brand continues to be enhanced by people's experiences, but absolutely it's a challenge," he said, about being a booster for the city in 2023. "It's something we are trying to combat and we are doing a number of things on the tourism team, as well to have people showcase the great experiences you can have in San Francisco, whether that's working with influencers — because people trust their peers — or other tactics, to provide positive exposure to San Francisco."

Bruni-Perkins said that the association's media team pitches "positive stories about San Francisco" to both domestic and international media outlets outside the region to "counteract and reclaim that narrative."

Lady Camden of "RuPaul's Drag Race" is featured in SF Travel's first television commercial promoting the city as a destination. Photo: Courtesy SF Travel  

The association took a step in that direction recently — a $6 million ad campaign with the city's first-ever commercial for tourism. It features Lady Camden of "RuPaul's Drag Race" fame, the Castro Theatre, and a 21st century rendition of "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate."

Cruisin' The Castro
It's the open Golden Gate that still beckons those millions here, and to get up early on a vacation day for Amendola's regular tours of the Castro.

This reporter attended a May 2 tour, which was attended by about a dozen people, most of whom were domestic travelers, though there were also tourists from the U.K. and Germany. (This reporter announced his presence and openness to interviews on several occasions, but none of the travelers took up the offer.)

Amendola began the tour with a few lines about the city's interlocking homelessness and drug abuse crises, telling people to be aware that "this is San Francisco — we have a lot of unhoused individuals, unfortunately. We have a drug problem." She then spoke about the history of her company, which started in 1989 and which she acquired in 2005 after the retirement of founder Trevor Hailey, who died in 2007.

Along the tour, Amendola discussed the hanky code (a non-verbal way for gay men to communicate), wearing an earring on the left earlobe (an early way to signify that they're gay though it's largely lost its sexual significance), the history of the rainbow flag — co-created by Gilbert Baker — the persecution of homosexuals in Germany during the Nazi era, the rise of Milk and his assassination, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

She also took the tourists to the Eureka Valley branch of the city's public library, so they can learn about the many amenities libraries have to offer, and discussed in-depth the anti-LGBTQ backlash going on around the country, as well as the fact that LGBTQ people are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience "stress, anxiety, and depression, because of social oppression."

Amendola told the B.A.R. she hopes people take that political message home with them when they vote.

"I utilize my tours to advance for positive social change," she said. "Americans in particular have no idea that not all Americans are equal. I refer to it as the big white lie. So I try to inspire and educate people."

And her tour company has only grown, with last year being her best, she said. She conducts tours people can sign up for online (https://cruisinthecastro.com/book-a-tour/) and also tours for private and corporate groups.

'Post-traumatic stress'
But Amendola joins the growing chorus of people fed up with the city's seemingly intractable status quo.

"Let it be known, that no other Castro business has been in direct interaction with the daily drug psychosis that has allowed vagrants to illegally block sidewalks, literally shit on historical LGBTQ sites, spit on me, throw things, scream at my tour members or openly smoke meth in front of my clients which include many schoolchildren," she stated in a letter explaining her reasons for leaving the merchants group, which she said her company has been a member of for decades. "Most business owners are safely behind their storefronts and can protect themselves and their customers. Mine are in the direct line of fire. Of course, I'm going to be vocal about advocating for my safety as well as my clients by holding useless politicians, mental health agencies and yes, SFPD [the San Francisco Police Department] responsible for their failure to successfully protect and serve."

Amendola said that "many LGBTQ Castro business owners and employees suffer from secondary post-traumatic stress as again, the daily trauma imposed upon us by drug addicts and mentally unstable people who refuse services or upholding viable public health and safety codes are allowed to willingly break laws without any consequences. LGBTQ people suffer 2.5 times MORE from stress, anxiety and depression than heterosexuals. This alone is a community wide health crisis and should be treated as one."

Amendola was up for election to the merchants' group's board last month, but was not among those selected.

The B.A.R. reported last year that Amendola stated in July 2022, a group of "five individuals — crazy, drug-infused junkies — walked up and stood with my tour group while belligerent, barefoot, smelly; one guy was taking a hit off his meth pipe and another was screaming bloody murder and pulling his pants down and mooning traffic. ... I had my finger on my pepper spray each incident. Over the past few years, it's been very dangerous for me to operate walking tours, no matter what time of day it is."

The Lunar New Year parade is featured in SF Travel's television ad campaign aimed at bringing tourists to the city. Photo: Courtesy SF Travel  

As the B.A.R. reported last week, Amendola disagrees with the assessment of gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and straight ally SFPD public safety liaison Dave Burke that street conditions are improving.

"If you stand at Castro and Market [streets] at 9-10 in the morning, just watch the psychosis going on all over the corners," she said. "As a business owner, I am the only company exposed to drag my tour members through illegal drug encampments and psychosis and mental illness."

Burke said he understands Amendola's concerns.

"I know how Kathy feels and I respect that," Burke said. He reiterated the responsibility of neighbors, landlords, and businesses to look out for each other.

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is the president of the merchants association and co-owner of Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, responded to Amendola's concerns in a statement to the B.A.R.

"We acknowledge the challenges faced by our community, including the ongoing issues related to public safety, vacant storefronts, and the impact of the drug and crime crisis," Asten Bennett stated. "The Castro Merchants board is committed to taking proactive measures to address these concerns (such as our vacant storefront grant program, which has already successfully helped one business open with more on the way). We work with our district's supervisor to relay our members' concerns, and our local police captain attends our monthly member meetings."

Asten Bennett recommended a number of proposed solutions.

With regard to the SFPD, she stated, "While we do not have direct control over the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), we actively advocate for enhanced public safety measures. This is a concern for all of us. We will continue to work with the appropriate authorities to ensure that our neighborhood receives the attention and enforcement it deserves."

With regard to vacancies, Asten Bennett wrote, "The Castro Merchants support the implementation of the new law imposing fines on landlords who fail to fill vacant storefronts when there is interest from potential businesses. We have actively courted new potential tenants and businesses with our vacant storefront grant program. Forty applicants took the time to apply, and a committee is in the progress of review at this time.

"Kathy, your passionate advocacy for positive social change is commendable, and we encourage continued collaboration and open dialogue," Asten Bennett concluded. "This board would love to welcome you back into membership and community as we work together toward solutions to our problems as a business association. While we acknowledge that there are serious systemic issues in our community, we are committed to continuing to address the challenges we face and build a stronger, safer, and more vibrant Castro."

When asked if any other merchants have left, Asten Bennett stated that since she took over last month, nine merchants have returned to the association.

Burke told the B.A.R. recently that although things are improving from his perspective, other neighborhoods, such as the Lower Haight, are thriving, while the Castro — like downtown, which in recent weeks has seen a round of major store closures in the Union Square area — lags behind. The aforementioned Institute of Governmental Studies study puts downtown at 30% of pre-pandemic activity, which is unchanged from 2020.

Mandelman and the SFPD did not return requests for comment for this report.

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