San Francisco Pride: Staving Off The Comedown
A San Francisco Pride Experience
Judging by looks alone, San Francisco was more than ready to party. An LED rainbow beamed up Market Street from a scissor-lift platform stationed in front of the Ferry Building. The leeward hillside below Sutro Tower bore an inverted, bright-fuschia triangle. It shone hot-pink at night, shrouding the sinister history of the symbol for queer identity in darkness. This year’s Pride celebrations occurred amid a political storm that ripped Roe V. Wade from its constitutional foundation. Although it dampened the spirits of some, for many it served as a solemn reminder of Pride’s anti-authoritarian roots. The very first Pride was a riot after all.
It’s changed since then. Nowadays it costs money to show your Pride. My work-around for this was always to work for people throwing those events in exchange for free entry. I didn’t have time to volunteer this year, and in true Broke-Ass fashion, I was too strapped for cash to live loud and proud. True, I could’ve spent last week’s tips on an event ticket, but who wants to party on empty? The plan was to stay home avoiding the news, testing my tolerance for edibles. But the queer gods intervened, and a good friend bequeathed his Afterglo pass unto me (gaymen).
Afterglo was a star-studded party hosted by Burning Man camp Comfort & Joy. Raja of Drag Race royalty attended in shimmering metallics, her flawless makeup almost chemiluminescent. Comedian and actor Joel Kim Booster, whose hit film Fire Island debuted on Hulu earlier this month, was also present. The shirtless producer thanked me kindly for my flood of awkward compliments before retreating into a diamond of Weho gays. Circuit-party house music thumped loudly from an ultraviolet pink and green paradise indoors. Better house competed with the overbearing tribal beat from another room. The sweaty, stuffy venue echoed the 90s warehouse scene but with three working bars, medical staff on-site, and legitimate restrooms inside. My, how far we’ve come.
Why I Wrote This List
It was fun while it lasted but the parties are over. Insta posts are emerging, debit charges pending. Diseases are incubating. Meanwhile you may find yourself dealing with a post-Pride comedown, a depressive return to the “new normal” in which we reluctantly live. Too cool for San Francisco Pride, your friends are back in town from New York, Berlin, Puerto Vallarta. They’re all talking about how much better it is to be practically anywhere else right now. Quotidian America has yet to browbeat them. Soon enough, they’ll be just like you again.
In the meantime, I recommend these seven spots around town as the perfect places to drag your fellow crabs back into the bucket.
The Mix: According to one customer, The Mix doesn’t feel like a “gay” bar, but “a bar filled with a lot of really awesome people who just happen to be gay.” What is a gay bar? Or better yet, what is a gay bar for? Not every queer space needs to scream sex, yet neither should they all tone it down. At The Mix, you can speak freely about the orgy you attended at Beck’s, that friend who fell out on G at Juanita More’s rooftop party, or the couple who split because only one of them wished to be open.
The Mix is a partially-outdoor space popular among tourists and locals alike. Bartenders pour heavily from stations in both sections on weekends, after drag shows, or events at Castro Theater. Packed with twinks whose muscles you could do your washing on, little dogs leashed to rich daddies, fag hag initiates, and blasting Britney Spears, this bar is emblematic of the community. It’s not the place for drunken drama and ugly-crying to Dua Lipa. For that experience, prance across 18th to Midnight Sun.
Toad Hall: A downside of The Mix is its limited space. If you linger, the staff will politely ask you to vacate your table for new customers. Don’t worry. There’s a solution to your big-crowd problems, whether you’re escaping one or directing it. Toad Hall offers a large house with a busy karaoke stage and a lengthy, well-stocked bar. Vibes are calmer, the air less laden with four-four beats. You and your straight-girl friends are safe here. I rarely see gym bunnies holding court within. They like to be seen at 440 Castro and Q-Bar. Toad Hall usually maintains a cool atmosphere (whereas The Mix turns up at night). It too features a heated albeit somewhat larger patio, which likewise boasts a second bar to handle overflow. You’ll find doors to additional restrooms as well. Rumor has it the urinals are popular with those who flag yellow. No cover charge.
Moby Dick: I’ve met some incredible queens at this Melville-themed drag bar. If you didn’t think Melville was queer, read this quote from Chapter 94 of the bar’s namesake book:
“Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally, as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
Open since 1979, it’s been correctly described as an intimate space. On Wednesday nights specifically, it doesn’t take long to reach capacity. The stage is cozy, the seating limited, bartenders nice and generous with their pours. Moby Dick offers a pocket-friendly alternative to Oasis and Beaux for fans of drag, as well as the opportunity to see local talent deliver stunning entertainment. My cheap ass can’t help but feel grateful to have witnessed a mysterious stranger leap from the stage and land on the floor in splits.
As always, remember to tip your queens and your bar staff. They rarely charge a cover, but they do accept donations at the door. Crack open that wallet, stingy. They’re giving their night up for you.
The Cinch is the city’s oldest operating gay bar. Rarely charging cover, it is worthy of your business and your dollar. Even on weeknights it draws a respectable crowd. Unlike the bumping Castro clubs however, this Polk Street holdout on the back of Nob Hill is for everyone. It’s ideal for those wishing to be around queer family without necessarily having to party. It’s for daddies, trans folk, fags and hags. Drag queens, bull dykes and neighborhood staples. Twenty-year regulars, out-of-towners; people like you and me.
The Cinch offers a little bit of everything. On a wall by the bar hangs a framed print of Richard Roesener’s illustration of a lion dominating a muscular male, titled Animals Love Maneaters. A kaleidoscopic ceiling of multicolored streamers and silver tinsel glints in the low yellow light. I remember hearing the heartbeat of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” when I first popped in twelve years ago. A handsome bartender looked up at me and said, “Oh, I’ll definitely need to see some ID.”
It was the first gay bar I went to, where I subsequently met my very first daddy. This was San Francisco Pride 2013. He led me indoors from the tiny heated patio to a pool table beneath a turning disco ball. I rolled a cue across the green velvet to reveal any warping. We racked up, and he slid his heavy arms down mine as if to show me how to shoot. Though I already knew, I let him teach anyway.
Walk into Aunt Charlie’s Lounge and you’re instantly transported to the smoky mid-70s. It has everything: wooden accents, upholstered chairs, infrared light, questionable carpeting, and cash-only service at the bar. Like Moby Dick, this too is an “intimate” space. Following the closure of Diva’s and Gangway, Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is the Tenderloin’s last bar for trans women and performers. It’s a sacred space to survivors of the AIDS crisis, and therefore rich with queer heritage. The $5 cover is admittance to a landmark, and necessary in order to keep it going.
“The neighborhood holds a poignant place in LGBTQ+ history,” wrote Peter Astrid-Kane for the SF Gate when Aunt Charlie’s reopened, “in particular, trans history. Compton’s Cafeteria, where an August 1966 uprising by transgender women against police harassment essentially launched the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, was across the street.”
I once took some Australian friends to this hallowed institution. Pressed against the very back, we watched one queen after another strut the length of the red-lit club to music. We were there for three stiff, affordable drinks before someone got the drunchies. If an Australian tells you the drinks are strong, believe them.
Soma: Where San Francisco Pride is always on
SF Eagle is where the leather flag soars high above South of Market, visible from the freeway. The Eagle is a great place to take and make lifelong friends, be it on karaoke nights, queer leather happy hour, or a kink-specific training session. The bar offers service from three different stations on their busiest nights. It’s where you go to pick up rough trade and biker daddies, innocent-seeming gentlemen that want you to crush their nuts with your feet. Piss queens marvel at your stream in the trough if you let them, and fetish gear nights happen often. SF Eagle boasts one of the largest heated patio spaces, so you’re safe to frolic wearing next-to-nothing.
Powerhouse is not for the faint of heart. It is South of Market’s sexual epicenter, parked on the corner of Dore Alley and Folsom Street. Remember the nuance of the gay bar: what is it for? Bosco said it perfectly on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14 when she spoke of the Folsom Street Fair, calling it “a crazy fever dream of bears, cubs, and any other gay subspecies,” adding that “anything goes.”
“There is always a family-friendly version of Pride, but I don’t necessarily think every gay space needs to be family-friendly. There’s some grit there, and there needs to be space for that grit.”
Powerhouse is a bowl of grit. Queers of every flavor find their way to it. I first visited in 2018 on an Underwear Night, an event held each Thursday night in which people compete for the title of sexiest package. The infamous back room, described online as “a great show-and-tell zone where all the magic happens,” was dim, smoky, and underpopulated. By midnight however, so many men, transfolk, and drag queens were smoking cigarettes, my clothes hamper stank of nicotine. I loved it. I had a wonderful night building community, as the bar’s “‘Folsom-style’ remains festive year-round.”
The music is usually great, the dance floor frequently packed with leather queens, Heather gays and, like Bosco said, any other queer subtype in between. So when you’re done cruising Buena Vista Park, amble on down to Powerhouse after dark. San Francisco Pride is always on somewhere.
This list is but a meager handful of San Francisco’s queer bars and spaces. I’ve merely listed a few of my favorites. If you know a spot that deserves a shout-out, email firstname.lastname@example.org