Racism in the Castro: Race and sexuality in the queer community


The famous LGBT neighborhood in San Francisco, the Castro District, is often perceived as an inclusive space that welcomes individuals from all walks of life. In many ways it reflects values of progressivism and social justice usually associated with the queer community. 

However, University of New Mexico graduate student and Bay Area native, Brandon Johnson, believes that perhaps the Castro is not as welcoming as previously thought.

“I know a time in the Castro, I heard about this,” he told 429Magazine, “that some of the bars wouldn’t let minorities in.”

The time Johnson is referring to is in 2005, when Les Natali, the owner of Badlands, a popular dance bar, was accused of implementing discriminatory door policies to discourage minority patrons. The Human Rights Commission reported that Natali asked African-Americans and latinos for multiple forms of ID, and unfairly denied them entry through a “no bag” policy that was rarely enforced against white patrons.

The accusations of racist bar policies sparked outrage in the Castro community, especially since Natali had recently purchased “The Pendulum,” a gay bar for African-Americans. The California Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control conducted an investigation, but determined there was not enough evidence to revoke Badland’s liquor license.

In 2006, a settlement was reached between Natali and the complainants, and the San Francisco LGBT Center launched an initiative to combat racism in the Castro.

According to a current bar owner in the Castro, who asked to remain anonymous, race relations have improved since the Badlands incident.

“Given its history you see a predominant number of white people in the Castro,” he told 429Magazine, “but there is an increasing number of other groups coming in, reflecting the growing cross-sections in the city. You see more immigration and more integration every year.”

Adam Daniel, a Research Assistant at U.C. Berkeley, heard racial slurs being used during a drunken fight in the district, but thinks racial tensions are “miniscule” in the overall spectrum of the LGBT community.

“Most of my experiences in the LGBT community are about maintaining a sense of safety, community, and approval,” he told 429Magazine. “There aren’t a lot of times I find a member of the community that also has an aversion to the liberal persuasions of acceptance.”

Terry Dyer, Recruitment Coordinator at the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality, offered a different perspective. Dyer said he knows many LGBT African-Americans who feel “ostracized” and “unwelcomed” in the Castro District and therefore do not frequent.

“[The neighborhood] is not as welcoming and inclusive as the community would like to perceive,” he told 429Magazine. “It has that reputation, but it’s not always the case.

Johnson, an African-American, gay male, expressed a similar point of view. “A white person might have a different experience in the Castro. They don’t have to worry about race, but minorities are more aware.”

He recalled one alleged incident of racism at a Castro bar. “I put my arm on the armrest behind me and all the white people in that booth moved their jackets.”

Johnson added that racial prejudice within the LGBT community is not surprising since “no Asians, Latinos, or blacks,” are sometimes listed as preferences on Grindr, a popular gay dating site. He believes that racial issues in the queer community only reflect what happens in the dominant society.

Some believe that disconnection between racial and sexual minorities has already manifested on a macro level.

Raymond Johnson, Guide to Gay Writer on About.com, said that the majority support of Proposition 8 from Latinos, Blacks, and Asians could be attributed to the lack of visibility of racial minorities in modern representations of and discourses about the LGBT community.

“There are thousands of same-sex couples of color, but very few were in advertisements for No on 8,” he said. “The opponents soliciting support, very few of them went to people of color; the Yes on 8 people did. It’s not really a surprise. As long the LGBT community of color remains invisible within the LGBT community, so does the heterosexual community of color.”

Daniel himself has wondered, “Why is it so hard to mix communities, especially when we exist in the larger queer community?”

Whether or not race and sexuality will be wholly rectified is an open question, and if one even thinks a pressing dissonance exists varies from person to person. However, what is known is sexual and racial minorities share a common goal of equality, and such a goal would be served best with collaboration and inclusiveness—from the Castro District and beyond.


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