Outspoken human rights activist Cleve Jones has been on the front lines of LGBT liberation and equality fights since the early 1970s, when he arrived in San Francisco as a young man and quickly became an acolyte of burgeoning local politician Harvey Milk. Later, he would experience first-hand the horrors of the HIV/AIDS epidemic here, become infected himself, lose virtually all of his friends to the disease, and become a co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Jones turned 61 in October, and never having imagined he would live this long he believes he was infected with HIV around the winter of 1978/79, and remarkably lived with the virus for a full 10 years before any treatment options were even available he's facing another potential battle that's becoming a tragically common one in San Francisco, the fight to stay in a rental apartment near the community to which he played a pivotal role in giving a voice, and which he and friends helped create.
The forces of gentrification weigh heavily on many San Franciscans as a real estate frenzy and a tech-fueled economic boom are causing properties to change hands all over the city, and causing new owners to find ways to oust rent-controlled tenants. But Jones worries specifically about the people who are in his cohort aging gay men and LGBT seniors for whom decamping to the suburbs could mean a far more tragic fate than for their heterosexual counterparts. And he's equally worried about the young and often disenfranchised gay and trans people who come to the Castro District knowing it to be a legendary safe haven where they might be able to start their lives.
"There's this weird notion among young gay people that all of our problems are solved and the war was won," Jones says. "But HIV infections are still increasing among young people ages 18 to 24, and they're still killing themselves either with drinking or drugs or with bullets."
He gave an interview, parts of which were published in the British-owned Guardian last week, in which he gave a quote about being horrified one night to find a bunch of straight "tech bros" taking over the pool table and patio at one of his longtime neighborhood gay bars, The Mix, on the 18th Street. The internet reacted loudly, both on the side of Jones and those who might be worried that the Castro is becoming less gay, and from conservative outlets like Breitbart who mocked Jones's distaste for straight people on his turf. Here at SFist I called him out on the quote because not only did it seem like an isolated incident (The Mix is in no danger of becoming straight), but it also seemed like an arguable, anecdotal point were these "bros" definitely straight? Were they not there with any gay friends?
But Jones responded by saying I was right to call bullshit, and his quote had been taken out of context within a much larger and more important conversation.
"Fucking Breitbart..." he said in a telephone interview with SFist last week. "That's enough to ruin anyone's day, getting quoted on Breitbart."
"This isn't about straight people in gay bars, or the Castro being ruined," he clarified. "This has to do with the extraordinary, profound change in what cities are today compared to what they were before. Cities were once refuges for immigrants, bohemians, and gay people where affordable, sometimes sub-standard housing was plentiful. Gayborhoods like the Castro tend to spring up in marginalized areas and gay people didn't force out the early inhabitants of the Castro as a lot people have it. The population in the neighborhood had been steadily declining throughout the 1960s, and when I got to the Castro there was an abundance of affordable housing because the Scandinavians and Irish and Italians who had all built the neighborhood were all moving out to the suburbs and just scrambling to find tenants to fill these buildings. That was happening all over the country, White flight as it's called."
Jones says that he arrived just as Polk Street which was then the center of the gay universe and home to many bars, businesses, and hustlers, catering to the gay community was beginning to wane, and there was momentum among gays to move to the Castro where a few bars had sprung up, where the microclimate's weather tended to be a bit nicer, and where by the mid-70s there was underground mass transit (Muni) connecting it to downtown. "The same thing happened in New York around the same time and into the 80's. You heard people who'd been living the Village talking about moving to Chelsea, and then later it was Hell's Kitchen."
The problem now is that these gay neighborhoods that were once the only safe places to be openly gay are becoming more like tourist attractions than they are lifelines. And while wealthier gay property owners may still hold a stake in each of these places whether it's Boys' Town in Chicago, West Hollywood, Chelsea, or Lavender Heights in Sacramento changes in the broader culture are causing apathy among both LGBT and liberal straight allies alike as parts of the community become, increasingly, dispersed and these neighborhoods increasingly mixed.
Gayborhoods, though, still play a vital role in the lives of people like himself, especially, and the lives of anyone who can't afford to own property and therefore protect their place nearby the institutions that make contemporary life for LGBT people so much better, and easier, than it was two or three decades ago.
"It's really not about bars," Jones insists. "It's about people living in close proximity to each other. When you look at the things we in the LGBT community have created for ourselves the singing groups, film festivals, health care clinics, social organizations the gayborhoods of this country, especially the Castro, were incubators for this stuff. We don't have a situation where we're asking where is the scene moving to, we have a situation where people are being dispersed at a really rapid rate. And I'm talking about this issue because it's an issue that hurts people."
Jones gets teary as he says he's lost multiple friends "too many" in the last year to suicide, and he's alarmed at the number of people he's heard talking about suicide, and he says this has been directly a result of their losing housing or their longtime homes being potentially threatened.
"I'm a renter, and I'm not a wealthy man," Jones says. "When the inevitable eviction comes, I'll have to leave, and I don't know where I'll go. I'm getting old, and I hear horror stories about seniors ending up in senior facilities where they aren't treated with any dignity and may even suffer special abuse for being LGBT. I know someone who was one of the first people to transition from female to male, and he's being abused in one of these homes. It's awful."
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the Castro and has lived there almost 20 years, says he's been extremely aware of the issue of struggling LGBT seniors for a number of years. "This isn’t a recent phenomenon," he says. "As long as I can recall, and going back to the 90s, gay men have struggled with housing in the Castro, and there’s been too much displacement." He says that while young gay and trans people continue to move into the area, older LGBT people, especially older gay male renters and a significant number of long-term HIV survivors on private disability insurance are dealing with widespread housing instability, especially as they hit age 65. "At that age, they will transition to social security, and many will see a drop in income."
Wiener says he has helped author legislation to streamline the development of affordable housing, and allow for people to give neighborhood preference in applying for it, and aided in the construction of 55 Laguna a purportedly LGBT-focused senior housing complex where it remains to be seen whether LGBT seniors will be able to get any preference but, "We need more affordable housing in the Castro and surrounding neighborhoods, and we need it yesterday." He adds, "There’s no silver bullet to ending the displacement of our older LGBT renters, but there are steps we are taking and need to take to slow and reduce this trend."
But Jones points to a broader-reaching issue than just what's affecting his cohort, who are aging, HIV-positive gay men. "I'm happy that gay people feel like they can live nearly anywhere, and among communities where they didn't used to be welcomed. But what happens when these geographic concentrations of LGBT people get dispersed? The first thing we lose is political power. You lose votes and you lose gay politicians. But perhaps less obvious is the loss of cultural vitality. There's no replacement for what happens when a bunch of artists and photographers and performers and like-minded people all congregate in one place."
"I got a lot of comments and backlash after that Guardian piece went up," he says. "One of the dumbest responses I heard was 'Cities change, things change.' What a deep response! But let's talk about what those changes mean. What does it mean to the transgender individual, or a single mother, or anyone who relies on the support system they might have in their immediate neighborhood? What about the men in their 60s who have HIV and are being forced not only to leave our friends and support systems, but also the sensitive and knowledgable medical care that they've known. Do you know how hard it is to find HIV specialists out in the suburbs? What about trans people how are they going to get the medical and emotional support they need if they're living in Benecia? No offense to Benecia."
Jones says that, though perhaps to a lesser extent, the situation facing the Castro and other gay ghettos around the country is not unlike what happened to the African-American community in San Francisco. Due to the forces of "urban renewal" and the actions of San Francisco's redevelopment agency in the 60's and 70's, what was a vibrant and large African-American community in the Fillmore district was systematically destroyed, "dispersing them to the winds, and they never came back."
"This is not part of some natural cycle it's an upending of the role that cities play in the lives of many, many people," Jones says, acknowledging that more and more wealthier people want to live and work in urban centers, driving up the price of real estate, and acknowledging that social media has completely transformed the way LGBT people find each other and interact.
But, naturally, this is personal for Jones, and the personal is political. There are plenty of wealthy gay men and lesbians who will lay claim to their corners of the gayborhood because they could afford to buy them. "Older gay men like me were the ones who came here and created the places and social organizations that the next generations of LGBT people now have to enjoy. Most of us spent the years when we should have been amassing wealth and building our 401Ks on the front lines of a war for our freedoms, and then for our lives during the AIDS crisis. So there went a good decade and a half."
"And we're not talking about 'safe space'," he says. "That conversation is weird to me and comes from politically correct college campuses. But I do think we need places where we can go and be ourselves, and there are still plenty of places in San Francisco where you could get beat up for touching your significant other, or for being trans." (By way of example, you could just note yesterday's story about a gay bashing that did not occur in the Castro.)
In conclusion, too, Jones wanted to apologize for singling out The Mix. Jones says that as long as he can remember, going back decades, that bar has always been a place where an eclectic mixture of young and old, racially diverse gay people have hung out together. "But I will also say that that night it felt like the Marina took over. And on nights when I walk by Twin Peaks which in my impertinent youth I too called the Glass Coffin and I see a bunch of young heterosexuals sitting at the tables, I feel a pang. There are so few places in the world where old gay men are welcome, and those people, they can hang out anywhere they want."
Much like members of the Latino community who have long laid claim to the streets of the Mission District and now are loudly protesting development happening there, perhaps the LGBT community would do well to raise some alarm bells as Jones is trying to do, before the essential elements of the Castro that everyone take for granted are lost whether to Airbnb, as Jones claims he's seen happen to several buildings on 18th Street that are now full-time tourist rentals, or just to apathy and trite conversations among people privileged enough not to have to worry about the problem themselves. At least not yet.
"I'm worried about maintaining and building these institutions we've created, and our political power," he says, noting that he doesn't want to see the Castro go the way of New York's Little Italy, or even North Beach in SF, where there are barely any Italian-Americans left and it's just like a living museum to something that once existed.
"As dispersal begins," he says, "I wonder what happens next."