The Castro district
& GLBT History Museum
The Castro District (or simply “the Castro”) in San Francisco
, California, USA
, is one of the epicentres of the gay rights movement. In the 1960s and 70s The Castro earned San Francisco the epithet “gay capital of the world”.
But the story naturally also has its dark aspects, in particular the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected into a government office in the US … only to be murdered shortly afterwards at the City Hall.
The district today celebrates the legacy of Harvey Milk and other campaigners for equal rights in a variety of plaques, monuments and murals. There's also a dedicated museum about the history of the LGBT movement, which includes powerful exhibits on the Harvey Milk murder as well.
More background info:
The Castro District was originally a working-class area in the Eureka Valley of San Francisco
, and at one time it was known as Little Scandinavia, due to its immigrant population's main places of origin. Its former name Eureka only changed to Castro in the 1970s. The name was taken from the historic Castro Theatre on the street of the same name.
The district began transforming into a gay neighbourhood in the 1960s, partially influenced by the general counter-cultural movements of the hippie era that characterized the city at the time, and to a degree still do.
While gay residents had already been coming to the Castro during the 1950s and 60s, as well as to the areas between the Tenderloin and south of Market Street, it was the “free love” mood of the hippie movement, especially with the “Summer of Love” in 1967 in the neighbouring Haight-Ashbury district, that acted as a significant catalyst for a more openly gay community to form in the Castro.
By the early 1970s, the gay village of Castro was becoming firmly established. In 1973, a certain Harvey Milk, a gay former New Yorker, arrived in San Francisco and opened a camera shop on Castro Street. He was to become the most famous member of the community and a key activist for gay rights. His camera shop turned into something like the headquarters of the campaign for gay rights, which he conducted from his flat above the shop.
Milk himself transformed into a key figure and leader of the movement, which not only involved campaigning against discrimination and police harassment of homosexuals (whose bars and other meeting places were still the target of frequent raids) but also for wider issues of equality. All this earned him the unofficial title of “Mayor of Castro”.
But he also pursued serious participation in official politics. In 1977 he was elected a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors – as the first openly gay man to obtain a public office in California. This made national headlines.
In office he brought many a political change in favour of the gay community on its way. But his career was cut short in the most tragic way: in November 1978 he was murdered.
The perpetrator was Dan White, another Supervisor, who was rather hostile to the gay movement in the city and who had briefly resigned from office on 10 November, only to come back days later to plead with the mayor, George Moscone, to take him back. Partly on Milk's advice, Moscone refused. On 27 November White secretly entered City Hall (through a window) and first shot Moscone dead, after he repeated his refusal to reinstate White in his job, and then went to Milk's office where he assassinated him too, finishing with two shots to the head at point-blank range.
In the subsequent trial White got away with a charge of manslaughter (on counts of depression at the time of committing the killings) and was released after serving only five years in prison. He moved back to San Francisco but committed suicide just a couple of years later.
For the gay community Milk's murder was a shock. Yet despite his short career in office, he became an icon of gay politics and the foremost martyr for the movement (even though he was far from the only one to have lost his life in the struggle for gay rights). He can arguably be ranked as the most famous gay politician in the US ever.
His legacy lives on in the Castro still today. His former camera shop has become a pilgrimage site, which caters on a large scale to the LGBT tourism that the district enjoys these days. His story also forms a key part of the district's GLBT History Museum.
Incidentally, the terminology seems a bit confusing at times. GLBT stands for 'gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual', in the more commonly found acronym LGBT the order of the same four elements is just arranged differently. Whether there are reasons for the difference and what significance there may be attached to it, I cannot say. What does seem to be clear these days is that simply using the term 'gay' to cover the whole movement is no longer really “p.c.”, the 'L', 'B' and 'T' have to be included overtly too.
However, even that range is sometimes seen as too limited and not inclusive enough of all forms of non-heterosexuality, so sometimes it is expanded by an “I”, for 'intersex', and/or also a “Q”, for either 'queer' or even just 'questioning'. So in the longer form you get LGBTIQ, at which point it is beginning to stretch the limits of pronounceability.
On the other hand, the inclusion of the “T” has been criticized too, on the grounds that the issues that have to do with gender identity are distinct from those of sexual orientation/attraction. So the shorter LGB is another competing acronym. And there are even more ...
… it is all very complicated.
But politics and terminological squabbles aside, what is unquestionable is that as a minority, LGB(T(I/Q),(…?...)) people have faced discrimination and repression throughout history, often even violent persecution, including murders and culminating in the systematic removal of this group of people from society in the Nazi
era in Germany
(and its conquered lands), when they, too, were sent to concentration camps
Thus the topic also qualifies for inclusion under the umbrella term dark tourism, and the Castro does pay attention to these dark aspects. And that has to be recognized. Just in case anyone is wondering what a chapter about a gay community is doing on this website.
What there is to see: Even before you get to Castro Street itself, if you are walking in, you can't help but notice you are entering a gay community. Countless murals are overt testimony to this.
Once on Castro Street
, the gay (or should I say LGBT) character becomes even more overt, and is in particular expressed though various incarnations of the rainbow colours as the international logo of the movement. Not only can you see more rainbow flags
than you could count (I even saw one that incorporated it into the US
stars-and-stripes!), the colour pattern also features on displays in shop windows, on house facades and, most prominently even at pedestrian crossings
where the coloured stripes replace the usual zebra pattern.
The pavements (or 'sidewalks', as they would say in the US) along Castro Street feature large bronze plaques in honour of famous people associated with the gay rights movement or, more generally, equality issues and campaigns for liberty or counter-cultural literature and art.
It's like a special niche LGBT Walk of Fame. Amongst prominent names that I saw featured were Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsberg and many more.
Harvey Milk (see background
!) is additionally commemorated through two plaques opposite the location of his former camera shop at 575 Castro Street as well as at “Harvey Milk Plaza
”, a small area outside the Castro Street Muni Metro station (see San Francisco
>getting around). While this area is rather overwhelmed by a brutalist concrete design, it does have a few more elaborate informational text-and-photo panels that provide a brief account of the history involved in the name.
Furthermore, Milk's former camera shop has been turned into a Human Rights Campaign Centre. This amounts to a large shop selling various items from T-shirts and hoodies to caps and smaller souvenir trinkets. Above all that merchandise, though, are several photo-and-text panels that provide insights into the history of the movement in general, and of the Castro in particular.
Near the Castro Muni Station at the intersection of Market Street and 17th Street is another memorial that recalls some of the darkest aspects of LGBT history: the intense persecution during the Third Reich
when homosexuals were sent to concentration camps
by Nazi Germany
during the Holocaust
. The memorial is called Pink Triangle Park
(after the markings that the Nazis made camp inmates of this category wear) and consists of a set of 15 triangular stelae painted pink at the top, a small plaque explaining its significance, and a landscaped garden around it, parts of which also recreate the triangle theme.
By far the most significant location in the area, at least as far as comprehensive commodification
is concerned, has to be the district's very own GLBT History Museum
, just a block from Castro Street on 18th Street.
This museum, which opened in December 2010, is the first and so far only stand-alone museum on this subject in the USA
(and apparently only the second in the world after the “Schwules Museum”, or 'Gay Museum', which was founded in Berlin
The main gallery has a wealth of artefacts and documents collected over many decades – in particular from the mid-1980s onwards when the GLBT Historical Society formed amidst the height of the AIDS crisis that was beginning to threaten the scene's own memory keeping.
Physical artefacts include photos and personal items pertaining to individual stories, old specialist publications (such as the very first Lesbian newsletter publications by the Daughters of Bilitis organization from the 1950s and 60s), admission tickets to gay clubs, and such like. At audio-visual stations you can listen e.g. to stories of the shadowy life and constant persecution transsexuals had to endure in the Tenderloin District.
And on the particularly dark side, the topic of AIDS and how it drastically affected the gay scene and the whole movement is covered in some detail too.
And then there is the Harvey Milk assassination section. This is easily the most powerful part of the museum. Not only do they have several artefacts from his campaigns, personal photos and so on, but they also have on display his suit and if you press a button you can listen to excerpts from an audio recording Milk made just days before his assassination. In this he expressed a premonition that he would be the target of anti-gay violence and what would happen in case he got shot. It sent shivers down my spine.
In addition to the main gallery the museum also has various LGBT-related artwork on display as well as space for changing temporary exhibitions. At the ticket desk you can also purchase a few souvenirs (but nothing like on the scale as at the Human Rights Campaign Centre).
Finally, in case some readers are wondering: The museum, or the Castro at large, do not just cater for their own clientele but also welcome straight visitors, as I found when I visited together with my wife in August 2015. Both the shop assistant in the Human Rights Campaign Centre and the museum attendant at the GLBT History Museum were very friendly and forthcoming with extra information and further tips for exploring the area. In fact it was the former who alerted us to the existence of the museum in the first place. So there is no reason to hesitate about visiting the area. And if you are part of the Castro's main LBGT tourism attraction target group, then it is a must-see in any case.
in the southern part of the city of San Francisco
, California, USA
, between the districts of Haight-Ashbury to the north, the Mission District to the east and Twin Peaks to the south-west.
Google maps locators:
Harvey Milk Plaza:
Pink Triangle Park:
Former camera shop, now Human Rights Campaign Centre:
GLBT History Museum:
Access and costs: easy to get to; free, except for the museum, which charges a moderate admission fee.
To get to the Castro you can take the Muni Metro, lines K, L or M to Castro Station, or use the historic streetcar line F that runs from Fisherman's Wharf, and along the Embarcadero and Market Street to its terminus at Castro and 17th Street – see also under San Francisco
>access & costs
From downtown you can even walk it, e.g. from Union Square along the length of Market Street it takes about 45 minutes. This part of San Francisco is unusually flat (compared to the many hills to the north and west of the Castro!) so it's an easy walk. However, on some stretches, especially closer to the Tenderloin District, the presence of relatively large numbers of druggies, weirdos and homeless people might be disconcerting to some tourist.
Walking around the area, up and down Castro Street's LGBT Walk of Fame, the Harvey Milk Plaza as well as visiting the Human Rights Campaign Centre (at 575 Castro St) are all free of charge.
The GLBT History Museum is located at 4127 18th Street, less then a block west of Castro Street.
The Museum has the following opening times: daily except Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Sundays when it opens from noon and closes at 5.
Admission: 5 USD. Free on the first Wednesday of the month.
Time required: an hour or so for just walking around the district's heart at Castro Street and for popping into the Human Rights Campaign Centre for a look. Add to that at least another hour at the GLBT History Museum. If you really want to dig deep and read everything and go through all the audio-visual material provided, you can probably spend a lot longer here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under San Francisco
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under San Francisco
- Castro 01 - Castro Street
- Castro 02 - Castro Theater
- Castro 03 - pedestrian crossings in rainbow colours
- Castro 04 - Oscar Wilde plaque in the pavement
- Castro 05 - former camera shop of Harvey Milk
- Castro 06 - plaque
- Castro 07 - Harvey Milk Plaza
- Castro 08 - memorial mural
- Castro 09 - LGBT museum
- Castro 10 - Harvey Milk assassination section
- Castro 11 - another dark side
- Castro 12 - even the Stars and Stripes get the rainbow treatment here
- Castro 13 - for a better world