One of the world’s most openly queer cities is a buzzing, colourful and heritage-rich destination full of party nights, live music, film festivals, street events and nightlife that offers something for everyone
The City by the Bay has a long and varied history of artists, activists, and eccentrics, and was a key location in the rise of the early LGBT rights movements with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966 (the first large-scale rebellion against police violence by trans and queer people), the annual pride parade beginning in 1970, and the historic election of Harvey Milk in 1977 – the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. The city also boasts the US’s original gaybourhood: the Castro.
Today, the Castro has a flourishing bar and nightlife scene and plenty to offer in the art and history departments, too, such as the GLBT History Museum and Castro Theatre, which hosts the annual LGBTQ film festival, special screening events, and drag-inspired parodies of classic and cult films.
However, the Castro is not the only place you’ll find LGBT people congregating: the South of Market (SoMa) neighbourhood in particular has long been a stronghold for the leather and bear communities. And, despite San Francisco’s rapid transformation during the recent tech boom, many gay and gay-friendly institutions are keeping queer creativity alive in SF. Among them are the literary-inclined RADAR Productions, CounterPulse, a theatre, gallery and community centre, the SF Queer Open Mic, the community-focused arts organisation Galería De La Raza, SOMArts and the Center for Sex and Culture. In fact, you can find a strong queer presence throughout the city, it’s just a case of knowing where to look. So …
Colourful, interior shot of Oasis, a cabaret and club space in San Francisco, California, US Facebook Twitter Pinterest
New on the block … the recently opened Oasis cabaret club. Photograph: Gareth Gooch By drag performer LOL McFiercen, co-hostess of Lilith Bear
San Francisco is exploding with drag amazingness! You can find a show any night of the week. But there are a few performers and events that you need to experience in your trip to the “Gay Mecca”. The newest cabaret and club space, Oasis is co-owned by SF drag legends Heklina and D’Arcy Drollinger, and hosts a plethora of dragtastic events, including solo-performer shows, storytelling, pageants, parties and, of course, Heklina’s weekly Saturday night show, Mother (formerly Trannyshack). The stage is perfect for big production numbers with video, choreography, and reveal after reveal! Oasis also creates its own shows and, in 2015, Drollinger helmed drag parodies of Star Trek, Sex and the City and Facts of Life, as well as staging 70s exploitation-inspired comedies about exotic dancer Champagne White.
If you’re looking for more of an arty edge, then check out The Stud’s weekly Friday night show, Club Some Thing. It’s a great mix of traditional drag and experimental performance art curated by VivvyAnne ForeverMORE. Catch newbies strutting their stuff at Try Some Thing at 10pm(ish), give all your dollars to the queens in the 11pm(ish) show, and stay late for the after-hours dancing.
Exterior shot of the illuminated 'coming soon' sign on the front of the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, California, US Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Castro Theatre. Photograph: Alamy
Start your weekend early with Thursday’s The Monster Show at Castro’s Edge Bar. Founded by another SF drag legend, Cookie Dough (may she rest in peace) and MC2, the eclectic performers always audiences. The show starts at 10.30pm but get there early to get a good seat. You might even catch me hostessing with regulars Sue Casa and Sugah Betes.
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Another quintessential San Francisco experience is anything involving film connoisseur Peaches Christ. She creates elaborate stage shows at the Castro Theatre for cult movies, and her annual Showgirls tribute (in August) features an army of drag queen lap dancers. If that’s not enough for you, here’s a list that’s worth your time, and money. #MyNameIs movement leader Sister Roma and the community efforts of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Mahogany Mondays at Midnight Sun with SF’s only RuPaul girl Honey Mahogany, High Fantasy (Tuesday) and Hot Boxxx Girls (Friday, Saturday) at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the Broni Mitchell Show at The Lookout, and the drag and vintage store Retro Fit.
The brightly lit interior of The Hole in the Wall saloon, San Francisco, California, US Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Hole in the Wall saloon
By Kevin Seaman, artist, cultural worker and long-time San Francisco resident
The first stop should be quintessential bear bar The Lone Star Saloon in the historic leather neighbourhood of SoMa. The Lone Star never charges a cover but has many great events where you can meet like-minded hirsute men, such as Cubcake (second Friday of the month) and great Saturday night parties, including Leader of the Pack (50s music night). Also be sure to get a pulled pork sandwich if you’re there for Friday happy hour: place your order with bar/food guru Charlie. Another favourite SoMa hangout is the Eagle, which has a cruise-y atmosphere. Make sure to check out its Sunday beer bust (3-6pm), DJ Bus Station John’s Disco Daddy (regular Sundays) and Pound Puppy (second Saturdays).
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Other SoMa venues that bears frequent include everyone’s favourite biker bar, the Hole In The Wall Saloon, Powerhouse and men-only “social” club Blow Buddies.
You may have been to one of its international events, but be sure to check out SF’s homegrown bear party Bearracuda while you’re here. There’s always a great mix of people, sexy go-go bears and plenty of eye-candy!
Try an evening bar hopping in the Castro. There’s not an official event, but Friday happy hour at Midnight Sun usually gets packed with thick-set men and the two-for-one drink specials keep everyone pretty well (socially) lubricated. You can check out dudes at 440 Castro (Monday Underwear Nights, $2 Beer Tuesdays), and Moby Dick. Fora nightcap, head to Last Call, where you can play your favourite songs on the jukebox.
And if it’s not on your mobile device already, be sure to download Growlr to hear about other great local parties and annual events such as SF Bear Pride and Lazy Bear.
Awaken Cafe, in downtown Oakland Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Awaken Cafe, in downtown Oakland
A lot of great queer- and women-focused events occur across the Bay bridge in Oakland (a quick train ride away), including Queer Sphere Happy Hour on the second Friday of the month at Club BnB. Folks should also check out Queer Leather Happy Hour at SF Eagle on the first Friday of the month, from 6pm to 9pm. And if you’re looking to relax a little and step away from the dancefloor try Karoake With Dana at Club OMG in downtown San Francisco and the Awaken Cafe in downtown Oakland.
This is a city that loves technology, so go ahead and make yourself a profile on Fetlife to see what events are going on, check out GirlPages and follow @SFQueer on Twitter.
The bar area at Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco, California, US Facebook Twitter Pinterest
By drag queen, artist and musician Tamale Ringwald. Ringwald delivers a mix of pop art, outlaw fashion, and 21st-century Chola realism (Cholas are a subculture of Chicanos that originated in southern California)
Long-running venues such as The Eagle, El Rio, The Stud, the Make Out Room, Hemlock Tavern, and newer venues such as Beatbox and Oasis, provide live music. Whether you like hard rock, electronic, indie, drag punk, hip-hop, bounce, or straight-up pop, these queer bands will bring the SF scene straight to your ears …
Muñecas mixes punk rock and dark wave musical styles with postcolonial drag, a drag representation of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism and its exploitation of a native people. It’s also a drag reaction to gentrification.
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Queen Crescent are four hard rockers who’ll make your ears bleed. Equal parts Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull, Andrea, Amy, Melissa and Eden shred, beat, and belt out like no other. Zbörnak are led by sexy glitter bear Greg DerAnanian – their catchy riffs and pop-punk singalongs will kick your ass into high gear. “We vow to liberate the universe through cheesecake and rock,” they say.
Adonisaurus explores electronic sounds in pop music. The duo pushes their songs into unexpected territories, not at all concerned with fitting into one box, while Double Duchess (Krylon Superstar and davO) have been keeping SF crowds on their feet for years with their raw and campy electronic sound.
Four women pose for the camera at an event at Cockblock, San Francisco, California. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Revellers at Cockblock. Photograph: Lyra Lopez-Kamoku
By Jimmy Swear, DJ, musician and performer
Tubesteak Connection is on every Thursday night at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in the Tenderloin. Get into SF’s disco time machine in one of the most authentic spots in town and enjoy the queer friendly mash-up dance party. If you’re into goth/industrial, Dark Room is a must on the last Saturday of the month at The Stud, hosted by local drag luminary Suppositori Spelling and DJ Le Perv.
Are you a furry? Or just love a good costume? Check out Frolic every second Saturday at The Stud, with DJ Neon Bunny. Veteran music aficionados Hoku Mama Swamp and Jess Cuevas throw Smooth Operator at QBar every second Saturday – get your slow jam dedications done right.
Some of the best music in town is at Swagger Like Us a monthly queer hip-hop party (with an amazing light show) from Kelly Lovemonster and davO (third Friday’s at Oasis, first Sunday’s at El Rio), the latter attracting a lot of national talent in the hip-hop scene. Honorable mentions include Juanita More’s Beatpig every third Saturday at the Powerhouse, Pound Puppy (dates vary), and Mango (fabulous salsa/hip-hop dyke party) fourth Saturdays at El Rio and Bootie at DNA Lounge on Saturday nights.
We are lucky enough to have institutions such as Honey Soundsystem, Cockblock and Hard French, all of which pack people in every time they open their doors. Keep an eye out for gems such as Studio 5’4”, San Francisco’s pocket disco for short men and their admirers, or Riotgrrr, a tribute night to the riot grrrl scene.
Take in everything the city has to offer while you’re here – save the safe-bet for your hometown.