Supporters worry Castro is losing its LGBTQ neighborhood identity

The beginning of June ushered in Pride month, with some in-person events returning to San Francisco. But, members of the LGBTQ community are worried that the city's Castro District, long the cultural center for gays and lesbians in San Francisco is becoming less queer. There are concerns that decline could accelerate coming out of the pandemic.

The Castro District is a thriving neighborhood, with clear cultural ties to the LGBTQ community. But, long-time residents say the area is losing some of its LGBTQ members, making way for straight families. 

"I like playing with the kids and chalk drawing on the sidewalks," said Maria Powers from San Francisco's Community Clinic Consortium. "But… I'm just looking around at my own friends and who are also gay and lesbian and they're leaving the neighborhood,"

The Castro's roots with the gay rights movement began after World War II, when working class families moved out and gay men moved in. The LGBTQ population continued to grow through the 1970's and into the 1980's when the AIDS crisis hit.

 Historian Terry Beswick from the GLBT historical society, says as gay men died non-gays began moving in. That displacement continued and accelerated over the decades as housing prices in the area increased. 

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"We've been seeing gayborhoods being lost in major cities all across the country," said Terry Beswick Executive Director for GLBT Historical Society. "And so The Castro as a gay identified neighborhood is definitely under threat."

Beswick is worried that the Castro could diminish as a destination for LGBTQ youth as it was when he came to the city in the early 1980's. 

"Other young people like me, we were able to find a cheap place to stay, we were able to go to school, become activists, all on a salary of busing tables. Nowadays, that's not really a possibility," said Beswick.

Lyric is a non-profit serving nearly 1,000 LGBTQ youth, and only about 2% come from the Castro District. The organization says that means the Castro needs to be preserved as a safe place LGBTQ youth. 

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"I think it's important that young people still come to the Castro and see role models and what they could be as adults, as positive health adults," said Rui Bing Zheng, Lyric's Development and Communications Director.

The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is dedicated to preserving the cultural identity of the neighborhood. Part of that means studying demographic trends, especially now as the pandemic draws to an end, to get a idea of who's moving out and who's moving in. 

"The data, it needs to get updated," said Tina Aguirre from the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District. "What I'm aware of, there were many evictions and many vacancies in the Castro in terms of businesses and residents."

Supporters of keeping the Castro gay say bringing people together in one area is empowering, economically and politically. 

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District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mendelman says it's important to strike a balance between maintaining the Castro's cultural identity while welcoming non-gays and straight families. 

"But I do believe that it is important to remember the history of the place, to be there for people who still need a gayborhood to meet people, to gather, to organize politically," said Mendelman.

The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is planning on conducting a study for the city to identify the needs of the community around housing, land use and arts and culture to try to preserve the area's identity.