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SF’s queer nightlife grasps for a return to normalcy

SF’s queer nightlife grasps for a return to normalcy

Esta Noche, Trocerdo Transfer, Lexington, Universe, Pendulum — uttering these names of shuttered venues among queer circles in San Francisco is to uncan the history of a storied nightlife that began dwindling before COVID-19 arrived.

As more queer venues parish, SF State alum D’Arcy Drollinger, owner of drag-show nightclub and cabaret Oasis, is among those who have become defacto stewards of both the myth of nightlife past and authors of its future. Without them, the tapestry of queer SF culture stands to lose more than it has in recent decades. From 1960 to 1980, scores of queer venues once stretched all the way from Ocean Beach to the piers. Today, they are largely relegated to the Castro and SOMA Districts — an erosion of culture and presence within a city known around the world as a gay mecca.        

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For Drollinger, the hope was to keep the scene alive beyond the last call of the pandemic, which is why Oasis, hosted a fundraising event on Saturday to shore up mounting financial losses. It raised over $250,000 — more than double the original goal. The haul is a huge win for Oasis and will help Drollinger stay afloat until more relief becomes available. 

“For me, it costs about $1,000 a day for the club [Oasis] to exist closed,” Drollinger said. “I know that other venues have similar bills to pay.”

In contrast to Oasis — a venue that has the advantage of an established digital media platform loaded with content it can broadcast directly to its customer base, as well as a volunteer production team — there are smaller venues that must make do while they wait for bureaucratic gridlock to release relief funds.   

With the new mandate Martuni’s is only allowed to sell alcoholic beverages, but not make them. In order to provide customer with the full effect, they would need to sell food. Right now, it only has an option called “Pick Your Poison” where customers choose what they want, and they mix their drink on their own. Photo: Emily Curiel / Golden Gate Xpress

Oasis is among venues that applied and received assistance at the federal and state level, but those funds were only enough to get through the first few months of the pandemic. As more funding is made available, Drollinger said that challenges persist within relief programs, which further slow the process.

In one instance, Oasis was denied a California $25,000 grant. In another relief program, from which “the money is coming,” Drollinger said that allocation details have not been decided.

“We’re all sitting here in this limbo just waiting,” Drollinger said.

The irony of club and bar owners waiting in line for access is not lost on SF State alum Alfredo Kuri De Labra. De Labra atavistically shared his off-campus undergraduate escapades in the early 2000s — when venues such as Esta Noche, Lexington and Pendulum still existed. 

A fan of venues that catered to queer people of color, De Labra did not mind “both waiting in line or finding a friend to cut in line with.” Today, he laments their absence from the Castro District.

“Where people of color used to be is where I liked to go,” De Labra said. “I feel like the places that catered to people of color went away. I think that’s why I’m so out of touch right now, because the places I used to go to no longer exist.”

“I feel like the places that catered to people of color went away. I think that’s why I’m so out of touch right now, because the places I used to go to no longer exist.”

Alfredo Kuri De Labra

According to a map created by Bay Area Reporter Richard Walters, several dozen venues have been gobbled up by time. A study conducted by Greggor Mattson, associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College and Conservatory, showed that as many as 37% of gay bars in the U.S. shut down from 2007 to 2019.

Scott Peterson, manager of SOMA’s leather bar the Powerhouse, said that the hardest hitting closure in recent memory is SF’s oldest queer bar — The Stud, which closed in Summer 2020.    

For Peterson, the health of queer nightlife in his neighborhood is interdependant between the venues. At one point, SOMA was home to a hodge podge of cruisy leather bars, dance clubs and sex clubs. Changes in norms such as those in Mattson’s study, but more heavily the pandemic, have contributed to a sharp decline that is “most apparent” to Peterson in his district. 

“The sex venues [closure] have adversely affected Powerhouse,” Peterson said. “If The Stud had a line, that was good for Powerhouse. If Powerhouse had a line, that was good for Hole in the Wall. It was all working together.”

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According to Peterson, the state of queer nightlife is still changing. Until “vaccination worldwide” is achieved, it will remain difficult to find anything close to a pre-pandemic groove.  

“It’s kind of up in the air right now isn’t it. We are all restaurants. We’re not cruise bars anymore. It [the pandemic] has changed everything,” Peterson said.  

Jose Guevara, a bartender at the Powerhouse, said change is also on the minds of patrons whom he has seen recently. The consensus  of the crowds he has been tending to since restrictions on outdoor dining were lifted is that they are ready to enliven SOMA once again.

(Left to right) D’Arcy Drollinger, owner of Oasis and Elsa Touche, a local drag-queen, host the Oasis telethon on Saturday March 6, 2021 from 12PM – 12AM to help the club from closing down. The goal that needed to be met $200,000. Photo: Emily Curiel / Golden Gate Xpress

“People want to go out. They want to come back. They want to hang out,” Guevara said.

Guevara lamented the loss of The Stud. The iconic walls of which were painted with the zodiac calendar at its inception in 1966 have seen visitors such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former mayor of the city.  For him, history was literally painted over.

“The building and the art had historical value, and they just painted over it — white washed it over,” Guevara said. “That’s the biggest shame.”

Still, stewards such as Drollinger, Peterson and Guevara — who are among those on the front lines of the fight to keep queer nightlife from getting the ultime bounce — are optimistic that things are turning around. To them, it’s not even close to last call.

“It is going to get better,” Peterson said. “We’ve got to jump through the hoops until everybody gets vaccinated. I do see the horizon is getting brighter. Let’s be optimistic and hope for the best.”

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