Carol Queen is the founder of San Francisco's Center for Sex and Culture, a space that provided "judgment-free education, cultural events, a library/media archive, and other resources to audiences across the sexual and gender spectrum." It recently closed due to rent hikes in the city.
Queen has lived in San Francisco since 1981 and has witnessed San Francisco's growth and change over the past 40 years. I met with her to talk about the history and evolution of the LGBTQ activism and community in the city, the lasting influence of the AIDS epidemic, and what parts of the sex-positivity and queer movement we still need to work on.
Amanda Machado: What brought you to San Francisco to begin with?
Carol Queen: My origin story parallels the stories of many young queers that travel to find somewhere they can feel safe. I'm from Oregon, and after I graduated from college in Eugene, I decided to get my master's degree in Sexology at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. These days, there's a master's program in two other places in the Bay -- San Francisco State and California Institute of Integral Studies. But in those days, there was only this tiny, weird little graduate program that had a really interesting queer history. The man who ran it wasn't queer, but he was one of the pastors who did work in the '60s to cut down state-sponsored homophobia. I came to the city to do that program but always knew I would stay.
When I met Joani Blank at Good Vibrations, I got my first job there -- a job that ended up sustaining me for 30 years. I started the Center for Sex and Culture in 2001.
My friend used to talk about San Francisco as a place that was the end of the pilgrimage. People had to go there to live the best life they could, particularly if they were queer. If you would have told us about Silicon Valley then and told us it's going to move in and take over, crawl up Highway 101 and grow, I'm not sure we would have even understood what that could even look like.
AM: What memories do you have of San Francisco when you first moved here that were really telling for you?
CQ: One important memory was attending Pride in the 1970s before I moved here permanently. This was my first huge Pride after living in Eugene, where our Pride had like 37 people. It was also right before Harvey Milk was shot, and things were looking up for a minute.
The thing that had the biggest impression on me were these enormous drag queens that still had their beards, and their beards were full of glitter. They were like six feet tall, and they had like three or four wigs on, so they were even taller, and some were wearing roller skates. They were just these hippie drag queens or radical faeries -- although that language hadn't quite emerged yet.
One of them was holding a sign that said, "U.S. out of San Francisco." Of course, across the country, some other protestor's sign was saying, "U.S. out of Nicaragua." But, "U.S. out of San Francisco," to me, was saying, "No, this is our home, right here." That's what made me know I had to come back to this place. There was just no question.
Everything we think of as progressive values today had something going on here in the past; someone here already had their eyes on it. It's been so meaningful for me to land in a place where everything that needed to be talked about eventually would be -- with its own organization, with its own community, with at the very least its own discourse.
AM: Sometimes as millennial queers living in the Bay Area, I think there's a lot we take for granted. Of course there are still struggles, but there are also things that we never had to experience. I'm curious what you think is being forgotten?
CQ: It was essentially illegal to be a queer human back then. You couldn't legally gather as a group of queer people, it was illegal to wear more than three articles of clothing of the so-called opposite sex, it was illegal to have sex. This was before the Consenting Adults Bill.
AM: What about AIDS specifically? I also feel like as millennials, we haven't fully grasped how significant this was. When I talk with queer elders, I feel like many are trying to get across to us, "This was way bigger than you have internalized."
CQ: Health care was so bad back then for queer people, trans people, people of color. Not being taken seriously in a health care context can happen to anybody, but it's a lot more likely to happen to people who are other-able in some way. Of course, if you've been in the Bay Area now, and visit a health center -- they're teeming with queers. And that's partially because of HIV.
That's not that there weren't queer people in health care before. There were. But was it one of the places where people thought they could make an enormous difference in the life of their community? Not in the same way at all.
But it didn't just take people in the medical world to get engaged. People seriously laid their life down on the line in a bunch of different ways. Queers and allies had to stand up to a political establishment that said, "Honestly, this isn't a big priority for us ... what do you expect if you're going to live like that?"
AM: Yes, there was a lot of conversation about that reaction from government once George H. W. Bush died.
CQ: Yes. And Reagan was also horrific on this. That whole group of homophobic Republicans -- not unlike the group of homophobic Republicans we have there now, 30 years later -- basically just said, "This is not our problem. Not going to talk about it, not going to normalize it."
Rock Hudson dying of AIDS did more to move the needle on AIDS in the 1980s than the president.
AM: What important progress have you seen in the LGBTQ community in this city?
CQ: I think what I was most shocked by when I first came here and entered the queer community was also the separation. Coming from a little college town meant I had a gender-mixed queer community: men and women and the few trans folk that identified that way. That's not what I found when I got to San Francisco. It was very separated between gay men and lesbian women.
If there was anything we didn't have enough access to 40 years ago, it was not just understanding and supporting our trans community, but also the understanding that it didn't have to be binary for any of us. And the pieces of gender and identity and behavior can be collaged if that's who you are. That wasn't the message back then. Even in queer community, for the most part.
I mentioned the radical faeries before -- the bearded guys with glitter in their beards. Those were forebearers in a way. That someone may identify as male or female but doesn't show me any of the markers of traditional masculinity and femalehood -- that's gotta be OK too. It's all got to be OK. And I'm not sure we're all the way at that place yet.
AM: I'm not sure how you identify, but I'm curious what it was like navigating that separation.
CQ: I still identify as bisexual, because I think there is still sufficient biphobia to use that term. Queer and pansexual are valuable terms -- particularly queer, which helps us say we don't have to narrow it down, that there are lots of ways to identify around an alternative to heteronormativity. I call myself queer a lot. But I still use "bisexual," because I still hear a bunch of biphobic shit all the time, so I just say "bisexual" from time to time and let it land.
I had a period of living in pretty exclusively lesbian communities. A part of that was because, in my small-town roots, I couldn't have my lesbian community as a bisexual. I couldn't get with any guy and still have those women say, "We embrace you as much as we ever did." So that made me be a lesbian-identified bisexual for about a decade.
And with my queer male friends, they were gay and didn't want to hang out with me. And even if they did, biphobia was such that they didn't admit it, and I didn't either. I can think back to a lot of men that might have been dear lovers of mine. But I didn't hit on them, they didn't hit on me ... and we ended up just dancing real dirty if we met at the bar.
AM (laughing): This is still kind of happening right now.
CQ: I totally believe it. You've probably also seen the studies on health outcomes for bisexual people: higher rates of depression, worst mental health outcomes in general.
AM: A friend of mine told me about a recent study that showed that unlike others in the LGBTQ community, being out in a romantic relationship does not improve outcomes for bisexual people either.
CQ: And that's down to the fact that biphobia is more intractable than internalized homophobia, in many cases. That doesn't mean there isn't a rainbow on the other side for bi people too, because there is. But only when someone has enough access to enough support and community.
I've seen this with sex workers too. The people who have the gnarliest outcome in sex work -- besides the people that have no control over their situation at all, those having survival sex -- are those that can't tell people what they're doing. That's another "coming out" insight that we don't talk about enough. We don't think of sex workers as an identity politics thing, except when their sets of issues deal with the same internalized homophobia and shame and lack of understanding from the outside. It lands on them similarly, even though they're living a different life.
This is where sex positivity comes in for all of this. What I believe sex-positivity should still evoke for people is this: In a world where we have what we need -- in terms of our sex information, health services, availability of appropriate partners, and consent in our behaviors -- we shouldn't have an overlay of shame. That shame business is from a different, sexphobic, and homophobic world. It's from a "Make America Great Again" world, in a way. And it's why we're having all these fucking problems right now.
AM: A lot of stories of San Francisco now focus on gentrification of the city and how it's changed for the worse. What is something that gives you hope about San Francisco and the LGBTQ community here?
CQ: Everybody moving in now -- there are still going to be a lot of people who are queer. And on some level, if they look around and they don't find what they expected, some percentage of them are going to set about creating it all over again. Just like we've had to do, one decade after another.
Rebirths of queer spaces happen over and over again. Because you can't just plough it all out, put sod on the ground, and have it all come up straight. That's not how it works. We used to say, "We're everywhere." And we are. We're everywhere. And that's an enormous strength, and a fascinating challenge.
Even if a whole tide went all the way out, and a whole new tide came all the way in, the same thing would happen. And the fact is the whole tide didn't go out. Some people are gone. Some people went somewhere where it's easier to pay your bills. But some of us have rent control, some of us are retired, some of us have community that pulls us up and helps us with space, some of us are living under a bridge right now, but we're still here. And plenty of people still source their activism and art from queer energies and possibilities here.
The next phase will start to rise. It's already happening.