The iconic Golden Gate Bridge towers over San Francisco Bay. Credit: James Wharton

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge towers over San Francisco Bay. Credit: James Wharton

LGBTQ

How Military History was Central To San Francisco Becoming The Gay Capital Of The World

The story behind San Francisco's iconic gay heritage has a surprising direct link to the military...

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge towers over San Francisco Bay. Credit: James Wharton

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge towers over San Francisco Bay. Credit: James Wharton

San Francisco is considered to be the gay capital of the world. The Californian city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and iconic Cable-Car system, has been a Mecca to LGBTs for decades. But, have you ever stopped and wondered how this association between gay people and San Francisco came to be what it is today?

The answer, believe it or not, lies within the pages of military history. Let’s take a look …

The first thing to note about San Francisco is its geography.

The city, which by American standards is relatively small, sits on a natural deep-water harbour on the Pacific-West Coast. In fact, San Fran, as it’s known, is notable for its numerous piers that run the length of the central bay area where, if ever you visit, you can find a colony of Sea Lions happily basking on the wooden structures.

Sea Lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Jwharton
Sea Lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Jwharton

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, the US government expedited its plans to increase naval capacity which included the need to create more homeland Navy bases. This resulted in the creation of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay, purchased in 1940 and operational just ahead of the attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, in December 1941.

This meant that by the time the Empire of Japan attacked the US Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, an act that resulted in the USA declaring war on it, the United States had a fully operational naval base strategically well-positioned on the Pacific edge of mainland America.

As the war unfolded, the city became dramatically populated by servicemen heading to war in the South Pacific.  

Those servicemen were for the most part newly conscripted to the military. Like the quick building of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard based around the anticipation that war was coming to Americans one way or the other, in 1940 the US hurriedly passed the Selective Training and Service Act.

This new law demanded men over the age of 21, but under the age of 36, to register with local draft boards. When the declaration of war was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1941 – the day after Pearl Harbour – the Act was altered, widening out to include all men from the ages of 18 to 45.

However, the newly enacted law allowed exemptions to mandatory military service.

Reasons for exemption included being a conscientious objector, although if a claim was upheld by draft boards the person would still be required to work for the national effort, perhaps on a farm or in a factory.

Some professions also allowed for exemption.

Those included occupations like being a Doctor, or a “Minister of Religion”. You could also be classed as exempt if you were a public official, or if you had been refused military service at any other time in your life before 1940.

But you could also be registered unfit if you were a found to be a homosexual. At the time, this was classed as being rejected for reasons based on a moral fitness to serve.

Exemptions, expulsions and deferrals aside, the Selective Training and Service Act paved the way for an incredible 36 million Americans to be registered for active service, resulting in 16 million men drafted and onto war in either the European or South Pacific theatres, including Guadalcanal and the Philippines.

This was the biggest mass-conscription in history.

Alcatraz sits on a island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Credit: Jwharton
Alcatraz sits on a island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Credit: Jwharton

In the book, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk: The Mayor of Castro Street, author Randy Shilts discusses how, even with the exemption placed on gay men serving their country as part of the draft, tens of thousands of homosexual men were still able to get through vetting processes:

“The Second World War marked the first conflict in which the armed services tried to systematically identify and then exclude homosexuals.

"In the process of examining the nearly 36 million men eligible for service, thousands were found to be homosexual and classified as such by the draft boards.

"The tens of thousands more who escaped this earlier classification faced a tougher fate in service. Purge after purge of gays in various branches condemned thousands to the 'blue discharge,' named for the blue paper upon which homosexual discharges were written.”

When gay soldiers operating in the South Pacific were found out to be homosexual, like the fate described by Shilts, those men had to be processed out of theatre, returned to mainland America and then be “blue discharged” into society. Shilts continues:

“The discharge was stamped by a large ‘H’ and guaranteed the bearer the status of persona non grata, especially during the patriotic war years.

"The Department of Defense (sic) still refuses to say how many were subjected to this ignominy.

"The action, however, created an entire class of social outcasts who were public homosexuals.

"Some committed suicide, but most tried to start quiet new lives. Returning home was an unprobable option, with all the messy questions it would raise. Most of the men discharged from the Pacific theatre were processed out of San Francisco, and that’s where they stayed.

“By the end of World War II, the military establishment had given San Francisco a disproportionately large number of identifiable gays.”

While Shilts’ description of life for gay American soldiers in the early 1940s, “purged” from service while fighting in some of the most ferocious battles of the 20th Century, paints a bleak picture, it also provides a glimmer of defiance in the face of the institutionalised homophobia they fell victim to.

When those “blue discharged” veterans returned home, instead of being held up as heroes like their straight counterparts, or like fellow gay GIs that had remained undetected, they were shunned from any public favour, and so they formed their own community in the place their professional livelihoods had come to an end: San Francisco.

US Soldiers Fighting in the South Pacific. Credit: (image from ‘The Thompson Submachine Gun’ by Martin Pegler © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
Many draftees found themselves fighting in the South Pacific after being shipped to theatre from San Francisco (image from ‘The Thompson Submachine Gun’ by Martin Pegler © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

This chapter of military history is also credited with being responsible for the creation of the recognisable modern-day gay bar.

The places homosexual men had had to meet prior to the war, and therefore before the mass outing thanks to wide-scale conscription, had always been clandestine, backstreet speakeasies where nobody gave their real name for fear of undercover police stings.

Now that these men had been stamped with a capital H on their blue discharge papers - documents that would be seen by everybody from potential employers, to bank tellers and doctors as they attempted to carve out new lives for themselves - everybody in San Francisco soon knew who and what these men were.

Because of that, there was no point in going underground with regards to any gay scene movement.

The shame had literally been taken away, out of their own hands, and as a result of ths, the gay bar as we know it today was born.

The city of San Francisco and its gay and lesbian history has many more important chapters to its name, and as the years progressed from the end of World War Two the military became less and less central to its story and eventual cementing as the gay capital of the world.

In the 1950s, Beat culture emerged across the States which was by and large an act of defiance in the face of middle-class Americanism, something the gay community could easily align with.

In the 1970s, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay politician in Californian history before his untimely assassination in 1978. And of course, in the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS pandemic placed San Francisco firmly in the centre of its terrible destruction.

Castro is home to hundreds of gay businesses and thousands of LGBT people. Credit: Jwharton
Castro is home to hundreds of gay businesses and thousands of LGBT people. Credit: Jwharton

It should also be noted that San Francisco had an LGBT past before the outbreak of WWII and the building of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard; the culturally significant lesbian bar, Mona’s, in the 1930’s and even during the Goldrush years of the late 19th century, drawings and etchings have been discovered depicting men-only dances and underground venues.

But in terms of transforming the city into the gay community’s global base – as it is today - the influx of tens of thousands of gay men during the war years, and the conscription of 16 million American men to them, was pivotal.

The US Military continued to outlaw LGBT people from its ranks until 2012.

San Francisco is now home to approximately a quarter of a million LGBT people, and millions more visit every year.

The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, by Randy Shilts, was published in 1982 by Atlantic Books and is available on Amazon. It was also turned into an Oscar winning film by Dustin Lance Black in 2008.

Image of American marines fighting in the South Pacific from the book 'The Thompson Submachine Gun' by Martin Pegler, published by Osprey Publishing. Visit Osprey Publishing's website for more military history titles.