7 Historic Things to Do in the Castro District of San Francisco
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a city with more historic LGBT sites than San Francisco. The Castro District alone has dozens of historic things to do and see for the history-minded traveler. After visiting the area, I wanted to get a full list with some of the Castro’s most prominent gay landmarks. Best of all, you can see everything on this list with a couple of hours in a few city blocks.
1. Harvey Milk’s Home
575 Castro St.
In 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco’s Castro District, a 42-year-old, unemployed, Vietnam veteran. Five years later he was the first openly gay man to win an election* in U.S. history. Later that year, a political opponent entered San Francisco City Hall and shot Milk five times. Dan White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the lightest possible conviction, and served five years in prison. An outraged Castro community engaged in massive, destructive protests, the most consequential since New York City’s Stonewall Riots a few years prior.
Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the highest honor a US citizen can receive. He is an enormous figure in the Castro area and around the world. His home, business and campaign headquarters still stand today, now housing a Human Rights Campaign store. Next to a second-floor window is a portrait of Harvey Milk, along with one of his more famous campaign quotes. At the time of this writing, the biopic Milk is on Netflix – it’s worth a watch.
*Technically, the first non-incumbent to win an election.
2. Leonard Matlovich Mural
Corner of 18th & Castro St.
Thirty-six years before the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” a highly-awarded, Vietnam veteran, appeared on the cover of Time under four words, “I Am a Homosexual.” This man, Leonard Matlovich, became the first gay service member to publically out himself and the first openly gay person to appear on the cover of a US news magazine.
Despite a sterling military record, three tours in Vietnam, and high-performance evaluations, Matlovich was forced out of the military. After appearing on the Time cover, he refused the military’s request to sign a document pledging to, “never practice homosexuality again” and was discharged.
As soon as the story went public, Matlovich became a face for LGBT rights and went on to become heavily involved in San Francisco’s gay rights causes. In 1986, thirteen years after appearing on the cover of Time, and less than a month before his 45th birthday, Matlovich died of AIDS. A large rainbow flag mural frames the outside of his former apartment.
I had a chance to see his grave in Washington, D.C.’s congressional cemetery. It reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.” For many of us, Matlovich lacks the name recognition of Harvey Milk. But in the same era, in the same place, Matlovich started a revolution just as consequential as Milk’s.
3. Star Pharmacy (now Walgreens)
498 Castro St.
AIDS arrived in the Americas sometime around 1966, slowly spreading until exploding into the public’s awareness years later. And by the late 1980s, the Castro community faced total annihilation. Nearly half of the city’s gay population was wiped out. Thousands of men went from healthy lives to death beds – sometimes in a matter of day or weeks. It would be over a decade before an effective treatment was developed.
But in 1981, before the epidemic began, Bobbi Campbell sent a shockwave through the Castro. On the window of a local pharmacy, he posted a flyer titled, “Gay Cancer.” It went on to describe, in visceral detail, Campbell’s diagnoses with a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Nearly a dozen local gay men had contracted the disease within months of each other. Later, it was discovered that Kaposi’s sarcoma developed as a result of AIDS-weakened immune systems.
That pharmacy window is where the fear of AIDS shot through San Francisco for the first time.
4. AIDs Memorial Quilt Building
2362 Market St.
In the deepest throes of the AIDS epidemic, Cleve Jones found an outlet of creative expression. He envisioned a large fabric display with panels representing the lives lost to AIDS. At first, the idea of a community quilt was met with eye-rolls and sneers. Then, it became the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
When Jones began organizing the quilt at 2362 Market Street, 40 men were memorialized – each with a painted panel the size of a grave. By the time the quilt made its first appearance on the National Mall, it had numbered 2,000 panels. Today, it has grown to nearly 1.3 million square feet or 48,000 panels. It’s so big it can’t fit in the National Mall anymore – it can’t be fully displayed anywhere.
5. GLBT History Museum
4127 18th St.
This new addition to the Castro is the first museum in America dedicated to LGBT history, and one of just three such museums in the world. Despite its small size (my visit lasted less than an hour), the museum gained international attention when it opened in 2010, with coverage in nearly 40 languages and in over 75 countries.
The gallery has rotating exhibitions. During my visit, civil rights activist Angela Davis was featured along with history on the infamous San Francisco leather scene. A perfect primer for my trip to Folsom just a few hours later.
And at $5, the GLBT History Museum is as cheap as entertainment gets in SF.
6. Pink Triangle Park
2454 Market St.
In the years before Adolf Hitler, Germany had an extraordinary history of acceptance for gay and lesbian people:
- 1919: The non-profit Institute for Sex Research is founded, building an extensive library of same-sex friendly literature before its destruction in the 1933 Nazi book burnings.
- 1919: The first pro-gay film in the world is released, Different from the Others. It depicts a violinist who falls in love with a male student.
- 1929: A Reichstag committee votes to repeal a law banning gay sex, but the bill gets stuck in the legislature as the Nazis rise to power.
- 1931: Girls in Uniform, the world’s first pro-lesbian film, is released in Germany.
- 1933: Hitler takes control of Germany.
- 1933: Queer people are sent to concentration camps for the first time.
- 1937: The pink triangle is introduced as a symbol for gay men.
- 1945: Concentration camps are liberated by Allied forces, but those guilty of “homosexuality” are placed back in prison to finish their sentences.
Thousands of queer people were targeted and systematically murdered during the Holocaust. In concentration camps, gay men suffered some of the worst forms of torture and execution. Their labor tasks were among the most dangerous, and the pink triangles sewn on their outfits were used for target practice by SS soldiers.
The fifteen granite pylons in Pink Triangle Park represent the estimated 15,000 gay men murdered in the Holocaust. This is the first permanent, free-standing memorial in the United States dedicated to queer people targeted during the Nazi era.
7. Twin Peaks
401 Castro St.
During World War I, the U.S. Navy began kicking gay men out of the service as part of a not-at-all-badly-named “blue discharge.” This led to the emergence of large gay communities in the port city of San Francisco. Bars sprung up to serve this clientele, but all kept a low profile, attempting to avoid harassment and raids from local police.
That changed in 1972 when Twin Peaks Tavern stripped the windows of their coverings to reveal glass underneath. From that point forward, patrons and passerby could see one another – there was no hiding anymore. Twin Peaks has the distinction of being one of the last, few pieces of living history in the Castro. During your next visit, grab a drink and consider the struggle and sacrifice previous generations made to get us here. But, the work continues.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, as history is very close to my heart. Check out my map of the Castro’s historical landmarks or for something completely different my 48-hour guide to Springfield, MO.