San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ Community Spaces Fight to Survive

Illustration by Manon Cadenaule/ The Guardsman. Instagram: @cadenaulem

By Samya Brohmi

sbrohmi@gmail.com

San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community has been hard hit by the possible and actual loss of iconic community spaces and education programs according to LGBT studies department Chair Dr. Ardel Thomas. 

It began when The Stud closed its doors after 33 years in SoMa in May of 2020. The famed nightclub was owned by the Stud Collective, a group of friends that includes former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Honey Mahogany. The club was a historic pillar of SoMa’s LGBTQ+ community, known for throwing experimental drag parties and rallying against what the collective saw as the growing consumerism that threatened to redefine LGBTQ+ culture. The co-owners promised a reincarnation of the club’s concept in the near future and to contribute to rebuilding San Francisco’s once-bustling party scene. 

Virgil’s Sea Room in the Mission was next to shut down this past February. Owner Lila Thirkield attributed the closing to the impossibility of running a sustainable business while 

keeping employees safe in a recent interview with 48Hills. Virgil’s attracted a diverse crowd where both LGBTQ+ and straight partygoers came together to bond over drinks, games, and conversation. 

For spaces that have managed to stay open, crowdfunding has provided a necessary lifeline. At Oasis, a SoMa-based nightclub and cabaret, tightened restrictions meant “not only laying off our bar staff, but our actors, drag performers, DJs, security, all lost work,” Oasis’ front of house manager and drag performer Snaxx said. “Us, along with many other queer spaces, have turned to online events and shows.” 

Snaxx admitted switching to virtual performances was “a completely different beast than being in person. It’s also been very scary to see other local bars or venues close. Not knowing how long it will be until we can resume ‘life as normal’ definitely made us so anxious because, what will still be standing when we can come back?”

Still, Oasis was able to raise more than $250,000 in a 12-hour telethon earlier last month. The event aired on the club’s streaming service OasisTV and was hosted by owner and acclaimed performer D’Arcy Dollinger. The money raised will help Dollinger pay the accrued back rent and bills until additional funds from the city become available. 

Despite the event’s proven success, Snaxx initially had doubts going into the event, feeling nervous to ask the performers to donate their time and believed that viewers would be burnt out from donating to previous fundraisers. Snaxx’s apprehension quickly resolved when she saw donations and emotional support pour in from viewers. 

“Everything that happened at the telethon blew me away,” Snaxx said. “It reaffirmed how important this place is to so many people, people local and halfway around the world. And obviously, with all the money we were able to raise, we felt a weight lifted that had been building for months and months. We now feel like we have a newfound motivation and drive to keep working hard and be a space for the community.”

Illustration by Manon Cadenaule/ The Guardsman. Instagram: @cadenaulem

In addition to crowdfunding, Snaxx called for the city to prioritize financial support for small businesses. “I know that there’s a major demand for funding, vaccines, and accessibility across the board right now, but the delays in funding becoming available is part of what forced us to hold this telethon. There also should be more city officials dedicated to helping businesses reopen safely,” she said. 

“Rules are changing all the time and information is not easily accessible or clear and we get so much information looming over our heads about fines and closures if things are implemented incorrectly,” she added. Snaxx believes the city should provide liaisons to assist vulnerable businesses to stay up to date on regulations. 

LGBTQ+ organizations are also implementing innovative ways to serve their communities in a time of crisis. The San Francisco LGBT Center is collaborating with other community centers around the country to combat LGTBQ+ youth homelessness. LGBTQ+ youth have been made especially vulnerable by the pandemic, due to decreased access to safe and permanent housing situations. 

The center is participating in the Host Homes Program, where eligible candidates aged 18-24 can be temporarily paired with a community host and receive case management services to help them secure stable housing. The program is currently in its pilot stage with additional support from Point Source Youth and San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. 

The LGBT Center has also made its Employment Services Program, which assists in finding and retaining employment, available to continuing and new clients during the pandemic. Program leader Cheryl Lala has been in talks with Thomas and the Queer Resource Center’s coordinator Juan Fernandez to offer the same resources on campus. 

Thomas, who uses they/them pronouns, said that while employers may have a bias against hiring gender non-conforming students, the LGBT Center has begun to partner with companies like Macy’s for client employment opportunities and to train current employees in LGBTQ+ cultural competency for the workplace. 

At City College, the majority of campus services have moved online. “It’s been incredibly challenging for everybody,” Thomas said. “Students who were employed are busier than before than pandemic and there has been confusion with City College designating what’s online and what’s on campus.” Having extensive training and experience in teaching LGBT studies online courses, Thomas made the conscious decision to keep all courses asynchronous and eliminated late penalties. 

As a result, Thomas says students have found success in their courses and appreciated the flexibility while balancing other responsibilities. “The disability community has benefitted when given internet access and no physical barriers included,” Thomas said. 

Thomas also noted that several of their students might be struggling with issues like housing, food insecurity, and mental health all while attending school. “We’re all trying to support students as much as we can,” they said. LGBT studies courses will continue to be remote this upcoming fall, giving instructors the time to prepare for teaching in person for future semesters.

However, the LBGT studies department is no stranger to the possibility of faculty layoffs, as three out of the department’s four instructors have received pink slips. Thomas described how disgusted and upset they felt because “the Board of Trustees failed to listen to people on the ground.” 

“If the layoffs proceed, several queer-identified and/or instructors of color are at risk of losing their positions. This delegitimizes the college’s promise to continue hiring and supporting careers of instructors who belong to these groups,” Thomas said. 

The Queer Resource Center has shifted to using Zoom for their regular spring programs and events. This past February, it hosted “Queerceañera,” a virtual celebration of the center’s 15th anniversary. The event included a presentation on accessing student resources, drag performances, and an opportunity for LGBTQ+ identified students to socialize with one another. 

T-House, a community space within the Queer Resource Center, has also pivoted its events to Zoom. The T-House acts as a community gathering space and hosts an event series for students who identify as transmasculine and/or masculine of center people, regardless of their gender identity or orientation. 

Those interested in participating in its event series can fill out an interest form and subscribe to its email list. T-House’s coordinators are mindful of participants’ varied needs, posting content warnings for potential triggers during presentations and working to secure access to live captioning and/or ASL interpreting for spoken portions of future events.