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What I learnt from doing Pride in San Francisco, the queerest city in the US

Clarion Alley is a colorful street covered in murals in the Mission district of San Francisco.

At the beginning of 2019, I dreamt this would finally be the year where I dipped my feet into the sparkling ocean and soaked up the Californian sun in San Francisco.

But then life punched me in the guts – harder than it ever did before – when my dad unexpectedly passed away in February.

I spent months barely making it out of bed. I would show up to work, hang out with friends, go on boring, mediocre dates. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I worked hard to project the usual image of myself. Except there wasn’t anything usual about my life.

Everything was new and painful; it still is.

I go through horrible days where this paralyzing grief hits me like a wave and better days where I feel I can eat the world and should make the most of my time.

On one of those brighter days, I got on a plane to San Francisco to cover Pride.

The northern Californian bay city with its cool, chill, queer vibe was going to be the perfect door to the States. Where everything is bigger but not necessarily better. The destination I dreamt about when things still made sense. 

And Maanvi was there.

A quest for self-love in San Francisco

Maanvi lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

She is one of the most brilliant, interesting, coffee-addicted people I know. Whenever you’re down, she presents you with this hip coffee blend potion to cheer you up. And it usually works.

Just like me, she’s bisexual. We met during our journalism Masters in London and immediately hit it off. 

Journalism and being queer were just tiny specks in the multitudes of conversations we’ve had ever since we first talked about dating apps over average sushi years ago.

When she moved back to the US, we both thought it was going to be for two weeks. It ended up being for good.

We were forced to adjust to long-distance – the sort of situation where you maybe talk properly once a week and wake up to a pile of messages.

But San Francisco wasn’t that sort of romantic love quest. Maanvi and I are friends.

San Francisco was more of a self-love quest. And shouldn’t every good trip be one?

Sweet nothing 38,000 feet above ground

Self-care started on Virgin Atlantic’s eleven-hour flight. I had flown long haul before, and mostly on cheap, uncomfortable seats, even for my 5’3”. But not this time.

Before the week of Pride-related madness in San Francisco, I appreciated some time by myself. 

Nowhere to go, no one to talk to. Just a wide yet questionable selection of movies to catch up on and an incredible service, which included a delightful afternoon tea. Hands down, the highest I’ve ever been for tea and scones.

Is San Francisco the queerest city in the US?

San Francisco immediately struck me as an emboldening, free place. 

As the city was getting ready to celebrate Pride – which took place on 30 June this year – all the streets shined bright with rainbow flags. 

Everyone – from the guy at the coffee shop down the road to the hotel manager to whoever you chat with at a bar – seemed to be excited about Pride. It doesn’t matter if they are LGBTI or an ally.

The city hummed with queer magic.

My first stop was the rock, rebellious à la Home Alone Zeppelin on Post Street, where I would spend the next couple of days. A stone’s throw away from my hotel, there was the most unapologetically childish place in the city.

The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) on Grant Avenue is the only permanent one of its kind in the US. Their whole Pride-themed display in June was all a part of the Pride magic. They even hosted a same-sex wedding earlier this year, raising the bar for wedding reception goals.

I immediately forgot my age and ate so much ice cream I got the most delightful brain freeze. I shamelessly rode a slide into a sprinkle pool while more sensible kids schooled their parents on Pride month.

A bumpy ride

But life isn’t all ice cream and lollies, I thought as I went to a more institutional museum on the other side of Market Street. 

At the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Arts (SFMOMA), several queer artists are on display, with a temp exhibit on Andy Warhol that’ll make you want to get an instant camera stat.

My ticket was part of the San Francisco CityPASS. If you only do one incredibly touristy yet essential thing there, brave the queue and board an iconic cable car for the bumpiest ride of your life.

It helped that the terminal was a few minutes away from my second hotel, the artsy, cosy Tilden on Taylor Street.

Go to the stop on Powell Street after 6pm when most morning tourists are gone. The line for cable cars is much shorter then and you get to see the sun dipping into the bay from SF’s most scenic place, Lombard Street.

San Francisco and its gayborhoods

San Francisco’s queer undertone shouldn’t surprise me as the city was the epicenter of the hippie movement, the summer of love and the fight for LGBTI rights in the US.

As you walk, you know you’re walking those same roads others have paved so that you could stand proud and tall. 

It’s Harvey Milk and Gilbert Baker I’m talking about. But also the brave trans women of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, one of the very first LGBTI uprisings in the US – three years before Stonewall.

These LGBTI heroic figures are associated with San Francisco’s hottest gayborhoods.

The Castro is the bold, bright, buzzing LGBTI district of San Francisco. Milk lived there ever since he moved from New York and until his assassination in 1978. 

Today it’s home to a number of gay clubs, LGBTI businesses and the GLBT Historical Society, a rather small yet precious museum crammed with LGBTI memorabilia.

If you’re a movie geek, this district hosts the oldest LGBTI movie festival in the world.

Frameline Film Festival spreads several movie theaters across town. I went to the historic and absolutely lovely Castro Theater for the premiere of thought-provoking LGBTI comedy Straight Up. And for the longest queue for a concession stand that I’ve ever seen in my entire movie buff’s life. Seriously, bring a folding chair.

There’s nothing a vulva-shaped cookie can’t fix

At night, and even more so during Pride week, the Castro transforms into an open-air LGBTI festival where you don’t simply walk to the club. You slay on your way to it.

The ticking sound of guys and queens in high heels hitting the pavement is your soundtrack. It doesn’t matter how long the line is, nothing can kill your vibe.

However, my vibe sustained a couple of minor injuries when I realized clubs were filled with gay guys and straight people. Which, don’t get me wrong, is great, but where are all the queer women at?

Once at The Mix, a random guy spilled my Moscow Mule without apologizing and a drunk, pushy straight dude hit on me and acted all surprised when I told him I wasn’t looking for a man. 

‘Really? But you don’t look like…,’ he started, intercepting my eyebrows quickly reaching for the ceiling.

He then looked at an equally pissed off Maanvi seeking a sign that would confirm what I had just told him. 

Fuck off dude, it’s Pride eve: we’re not out of place, you are.

Maanvi and I were both a bit disappointed. After trying to get into two other places, we decided to fix our night with a vulva-shaped cookie at Hot Cookie. 

Whoever told you that a coconut and chocolate sweet treat in an equally sweet shape won’t make you feel better was lying.

Gentrification 1 – San Francisco 0

The Lexington, San Francisco’s most popular bar for queer women in The Mission, closed its doors for good in 2015.

Saying goodbye to The Lex was hard for all SF’s women and enbies and it looks like no other club has been able to replace it yet.

SF’s gayborhoods aren’t the only historical areas struggling with the expansion of tech companies all over the city and the Bay Area.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest in the US, is slowly suffering the same fate. 

Rents have been skyrocketing and businesses are being pushed out of this hub, as I learnt while tucking into mouthwatering dim sums and moon cakes during my Local Tastes of the City Tours food tour.

If the landlords get their way, the fragrant scent of freshly made fortune cookies filling the air from the tiny kitchen of Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory will soon be replaced by the stench of pretentiousness of a block of luxury, minimalist apartments that no real people could afford to live in.

Luckily, some local gems are still alive and kicking. The iconic City Lights Bookstore right at the border between Chinatown and the Italian district, North Beach, is thriving.

This is a must-go for anyone wishing to follow in the footsteps of the Beat Generation poets (and for sensorial bookworms with a penchant for the distinctive smell of old and new pages ready to be turned).

Founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti faced a trial for obscenity for publishing gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s influential, sexually explicit collection Howl and Other Poems in 1956 – which I obviously bought a copy of. And, my god, it smelled amazing.

If you don’t sweat, you’re doing it wrong

Gentrification also explains the number of people living in the streets. This is a rather upsetting sight, even for someone who lives in London where homelessness is a real issue.

The city center – including Union Square, the main site of Pride – pullulated with groups of people drinking, doing drugs and casually interacting with mainly unbothered passers-by.

I was probably most appalled at how locals seemed not to notice, or care.

On my way to my third and last hotel, I couldn’t help but check my privilege. As I stepped into the luxurious lobby of San Francisco Proper, located in a picturesque corner building, the contrast with what happens on its doorstep couldn’t be any more jarring. 

Design pieces and intriguing artworks, the hotel seemed a world apart. 

As I learnt there, many LGBTI people book this hotel facing Market Street to be able to watch the parade from your room.

Comfortable, sure. But also dismissive of the legacy of Pride protests: grassroots, defiant, community-focused festivities. If you don’t sweat in the crowd, you’re doing it wrong.

San Francisco Pride

I, for once, went for the sweat and wasn’t disappointed.

San Francisco Pride is the biggest LGBTI celebration I’ve ever attended. Despite its size, it has managed to stay free and provide everyone with a genuine sense of belonging.

California-born Democratic senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris was there, sporting a sequinned rainbow jacket that gave my pastel rainbow dress a hard time. 

Harris gave a powerful, politically charged speech on how crucial is to push to finally pass the Equality Act in the US.

As she spoke, you could spot the City Hall behind her. 

The same building where Harvey Milk was gunned down in 1978. The same building where, in 2019, Maanvi and I would be dancing till our feet hurt at the Pride Party a few hours later, just before parting ways again the next day.

My personal struggles aside for just one night, I was tired but genuinely happy. My mind went back to the majestic, hazy sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the freezing ocean water I tiptoed into, to Maanvi’s smile and my own. 

There’ll still be days where I’ll barely make it out of bed, where grief will get the best of me. But for a moment there, it was a pure, shameless celebration, both personal and of the community I belong to. 

How far I’ve come. How far we all have.

All pictures: Stefania Sarrubba

Virgin Atlantic flies twice daily from London Heathrow direct to San Francisco with return fares from £325 per person, including complimentary food, drink and inflight entertainment. For further information visit www.virginatlantic.com or call 0344 8747 747. This fare is available for selected departures during 2019/20.

See also

When is Pride? Check out our International Pride Calendar

Protestors bring San Francisco pride to a halt

This is why I wish LGBTI comedy Booksmart had come out when I was 17

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Author: Stefania Sarrubba