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San Francisco makes bid to save gay bars

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Community argues that bars are cultural institutions rather than just businesses

Headlines across America have it that the friendly neighborhood gay bar is on the verge of becoming an endangered species.

Such critiques are probably as old as the gay bar scene itself, but these days the alarm feels more pointed, as the continued plight of the Stud ratchets everyone’s anxiety up and more and more venerable venues turn out the lights for good.

In response, San Francisco City Hall has started prodding the sluggish process that’s theoretically supposed to provide an extra layer of assistance for such institutions, but so far never has.

Lawmakers approved an LGBT Historical District (similar to the Latino Historical District in the Mission) back in 2012. Since then the idea has been sitting on the books but not moving forward. Which is particularly bad timing, since the last four years have been tough for small businesses all over, and particularly on LGBT bars and clubs.

"Four years and it’s still not happened," Scott Wiener, supervisor for the district that includes the Castro, reminded everyone at a City Hall hearing on Monday (coming as close to directly perturbed as the usually unflappable Wiener ever manages). "We need to step in on this."

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Every person at the podium on Monday testified that City Hall should step in to shield places like the Hole In the Wall and Aunt Charlie’s from the specter of new development. A few literally pleaded.

Why should the city single out one particular sort of business for aid? After all, if gay bars are in trouble, it’s only because almost every small business in San Francisco is feeling the squeeze. The city can't save them all—nor should it, since some businesses close up for good reasons (borderline criminal rent hikes notwithstanding).

The argument for saving the Stud and company hinges on the notion that gay bars and clubs are both cultural institutions on top of businesses.

"San Francisco is the primary location where sexuality became the basis for mobilizing for community rights and cultural recognition," a Planning Department paper from 2004 points out.

In short, we’re famous for it, so we can’t afford to lose it. More importantly, you would have a hard time finding an LGBT San Franciscan over the age of 35 who won’t testify to the importance of clubs and bars as safe spaces.

Wiener noted on Monday, "I still remember the first time I snuck into a club as a 19 year old [still] closeted. For the first time I felt like I was safe and with people like me."

Although that’s also part of the present predicament. On top of technology and landlord pressure, the owners of the embattled Lone Star Saloon note that social progress and the more widespread acceptance of LGBT rights in recent years diminishes the need for specific gay-friendly gathering places. A particularly pointed irony.

Today’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting includes legislation to form a group specifically for lending a helping hand to struggling nightlife venues, and for finally nudging the community district plan to life.