As a queer guy who grew up in the Midwest, I had never seen anything like it. Rainbow flags. Rainbow crosswalks. Gay couples everywhere holding hands.
I had never seen a gayer place.
But our question asker Bob Girard had a different experience the last time he was in the Castro. He lives in Ventura County with his partner and has visited the Castro a lot over the years.
“The last time we were there it just really seemed to have changed a lot,” Girard said. “Doesn't seem to be quite the same old Castro as in years past.”
So what has changed?
“Well, it just didn't seem to be as gay as it used to be,” he said.
Which raises the question: Is the Castro getting less gay?
While the Castro might look as gay as ever, the rainbow explosion on the streets covers up a changing neighborhood that’s home to fewer and fewer gay people.
“It's gone from being a gay village to being a tourist destination for people around the world who want to come here and experience a little bit of the gay,” says Don Romesburg, an LGBTQ historian who moved to the Castro in the 1990s after college.
San Francisco has long had neighborhoods where LGBTQ people concentrated — North Beach, the Tenderloin, the Polk. But Romesburg says the rise of the Castro in the 1970s was different.
The Castro and the gay liberation movement gained speed together, creating a more fully realized neighborhood than any of its predecessors. There weren’t just gay bars and bathhouses in the Castro. There were gay barbers and gay doctors and opportunities to do gay activism with gay nonprofits.
“To have a place in San Francisco, in the world, where gay people can come together as a community and feel like they truly belong and that there's no real sense of stigma, that's what made the Castro very special for me as a young guy in my 20s,” Romesburg says.
But in a country where gay marriage is legal and acceptance of LGBTQ people is greater than ever, some argue that “gayborhoods” aren’t necessary anymore.
Romesburg agrees that this “post-gay thesis” is part of the reason why there are fewer gay people living in the Castro today.
But it’s not the whole story.
“I think that's a little too optimistic,” he says. “I think it's too shiny and progress-y.”
Instead, Romesburg points the finger at a more familiar culprit: gentrification.
According to Romesburg, the mostly gay white men who moved into the Castro in the 1970s transformed the working-class neighborhood. They rebuilt old Victorian homes that lined the streets and opened popular restaurants and shops.
By the mid-to-late 1990s, the Castro had become an attractive place to live for queer and straight people alike. Romesburg says this led to a second wave of gentrification that pushed older LGBTQ people — including many older gay men with HIV and AIDS — out of the neighborhood. It also raised costs to the point where young LGBTQ people couldn’t afford to move in.
Romesburg was renting an apartment in the Castro with his partner and their young daughter when they were forced out a few years ago and couldn’t afford to rent anywhere else in the neighborhood. They stayed in San Francisco, moving to the city’s west side, but Romesburg knows of men who have left the Bay Area, moving to Southern California and even out of state after being priced out of the Castro.
“A community is woven together like a tapestry, and as you pull out the threads of it, the community becomes much more frayed,” Romesburg says. “I think of the Castro in that way. I feel like, as it becomes more of a global tourist destination and less of a community, it loses some of its heart and some of its soul.”
So where is everyone moving?
If fewer LGBTQ people are living in the Castro, where are they living?
Bob Girard and his partner are looking at moving to the Bay Area, but they don’t want to live in San Francisco. They do, however, want to make sure they end up somewhere where they’re not the only gay couple around.
“It's not necessary that it needs to be a high percentage,” Girard says of where they’d like to move. “I'd just like to see other gay people out in public once in a while and to have more social opportunities than exist where we live now.”
Real estate agents say they’ve seen an exodus of LGBTQ people out of San Francisco and into Oakland. Taylor Sublett, an agent who works with a lot of gay clients, says they’re moving to Oakland for the same reason that everyone else is moving to Oakland: affordability, proximity to San Francisco and more space.
But unlike the Castro, there’s no one neighborhood in Oakland where gay people are concentrating.
“It’s the same places you see people concentrating from San Francisco period,” Sublett says. “They want to be able to walk to a coffee or be somewhere with that neighborhood-y feel that they've been priced out of in San Francisco.”
Myles Downes is one of those people. He’s a therapist who has been trying to get out of San Francisco for years.
He says many of his gay friends have moved out of the city, and it’s become harder to maintain those relationships. He’d love to find a place in Oakland where he’s surrounded by other gay people, but like a lot of people making that move, it’s not his top priority.
“There was a time when we needed ghettoization because it was safer,” Downes says. “Now we don't really need that as much. We can go and live in the middle of a predominantly straight community, and people are pretty cool with it and it's no big deal.”
But other places in the Bay Area with growing queer communities are trying to be a little more purposeful.
Sonoma and Alameda counties have the highest proportion of same-sex couples in the Bay Area (and in the state, along with Riverside and Santa Cruz) after San Francisco, according to the 2016 American Community Survey.
“Sonoma County is so spread out. I think if we all got together in one place, it would really show how many folks are here,” says Alisse Cottle.
When the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage was legal in 2015, Cottle and her partner, Jess Borrayo, put a rainbow flag outside Brew Coffee and Beer House, the cafe they run in downtown Santa Rosa.
They opened the restaurant at the beginning of the year without any political agenda. But with the flag now waving proudly outside, Brew started becoming a hub for the area’s growing queer community.
“It just started fitting a need that clearly people wanted it,” Cottle said. “And we didn't really have to do much of anything but just be open to it and be willing.”
Transgender people are a big part of Santa Rosa’s LGBTQ community. The city hosts an annual transgender conference, and Brew hosted a party for a group of transgender kids in October.
Cordelia Southworth, a trans woman, has been living in Santa Rosa for more than 20 years. She has been looking to move to San Francisco recently to be a part of a more active queer community.
“But I'm really enjoying seeing what's happening up here now that it's starting to come together and be more visible,” she says. “So I don't know. It might liven up around here.”
This post has been updated with the newest data from the American Community Survey.