SoMa Nights: Photo exhibit juxtaposes joyous queer nightlife with AIDS epidemic

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Melissa Hawkins’ middle school photography teacher told her years ago never to get rid of her negatives. It’s a good thing she didn’t. What she unearthed is now the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the GLBT Historical Society focused on San Francisco queer nightlife during the height of the AIDS crisis. 

She’s not doing photography anymore, but still lives in San Francisco’s Mission District after having spent her late twenties—specifically shooting the South of Market neighborhood’s vibrant and visual nightlife from the late ’80s to mid ‘90s.%INLINE%

She took some of the photos when she was a freelancer for the now-defunct weekly gay publication, The Sentinel. For her, this was not only a way of earning her social ‘cred’, but a way to partake and observe the joy that people experienced when going out for a night on the town in SoMa.%INLINE% 

“There were way more bars then. Many of [them] were walking distance,” she said recalling an exciting scene that embraced a philosophy of sorts, one that said: “We’re young and still alive and we’re going to celebrate.”

This sashay down memory lane includes hot spots of gay yore like; Dekadance, Pleasuredome, Colossus, The Rawhide, and bars like The Stud, The Eagle and The Endup, which are still thriving.  

“That was just a way to socialize. You’d find your tribe. The Rawhide was country and western, or you’d find a leather bar or drag. So many choices in one night.”%INLINE% 

With her “social butterfly” Sentinel colleague, Mike Everaert, hitting up three of these bars a night was not out of the ordinary. “It was a creative enclave. Punk rock and drag were coexisting with one another.” 

Being behind the lens was a fun perspective for her. “When I went out, I wasn’t there to participate.” Although she did partake in free drink tickets and not waiting in line; just some of her press perks. 

“Being female, I got to go to a lot of places that I normally wouldn’t be able to experience. ‘Let’s go the Powerhouse!’” they’d cheer. “The leather events were very serious in their competitions—vying for sashes and titles. It was such a fantastic subculture of self-expression. You’d go to the thrift store and buy or make your own outfit.” 

But old feelings resurface as she spends time with these long forgotten, now rediscovered photos. What are they doing now? Are they still alive? 

“I got to know a lot of these people. I’m just incredibly grateful to have this opportunity. It gives some who aren’t around anymore to give them another moment.” 

She apologized for the sudden unexpected emotion in her voice over the phone. She recalled peoples’ entire “chosen families” being devastated, blindsided by the disease.  

“You would see people clearly suffering,” Hawkins said, describing those who had aged before their time, looking emaciated on the sidewalks during the AIDS/HIV epidemic. 

The sense of urgency has lessened through advances in medicine, education and awareness.

“Everyone was involved in activism one way or another. It was such a main part of the gay world—keeping protests visible. There’d be all kinds of visual protests. If you had stickers, you’d wear them all over your leather jacket. I don’t see it in the streets the way it was,” she said.  

Hawkins said the scene and even the Castro have changed (partly due to hook-up app technology), but also blames San Francisco’s shifting demographics. %INLINE%

The contrast of Hawkins’ black and white photos are apparent; visible through images of iconic personalities like Chi Chi LaRue, Linda Perry, and Justin Vivian Bond, but the sheer joy of her subjects’ over-the-top euphoria during a night out in SoMa is in stark juxtaposition to the death and despair that was also lurking.

SoMa Nights: The Queer Club Photography of Melissa Hawkins 1986-1994 opens this Friday at the GLBT Historical Society in the Castro.