Questioning Connection, Community and Culture
Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
April 24, 2007
O.K. Picture this. It is a beautiful spring morning in San Francisco,
sun is shining, sky is blue, and I'm standing in front of the Castro Cheesery
with a triple hazelnut soy machiato in my hand. I'm feeling good, I'm
looking good, the machiato was perfectly prepared, and I'm completely
out of my element.
Like a tourist on an exotic holiday, equal parts Travel Channel, Animal
Planet and the Twilight Zone, I knew I was a visitor, that I was not “of” this
place. Which is weird, considering Southern California and Northern California
are part of the same “California.”
The Castro is a community within a community, with a history important
to a much larger GLBT community. I have spent many a madcap moment shopping
and spiriting in the Castro District. For years it has been a routine
pilgrimage for me. I'm no stranger to the city.
So why did I feel so out of place?
Being a left-wing non-breeding progressive Californian, you would think
I would feel at ease in the city by the bay. I didn't. Not that I felt
threatened, San Francisco is a great place to visit, and I will again.
But I don't belong there. Had the city changed or had I?
This could have been anywhere in Southern California, yet it wasn't.
Here the leather crowd hangs out at the Starbucks, and gentlemen of a
certain age, sip morning cocktails at the Twin Peaks. Couples stroll,
people scurry about, and other than didoes in the store windows and a
proliferation of rainbows, sexual orientation was hardly at issue on a
beautiful Sunday afternoon.
Why did I feel like a social anthropologist studying a different culture?
Why couldn't I just relax and enjoy the weekend? Looking for clues, I
noticed the Castro is a microcosm of North American culture. After
several moments standing on the sidewalk watching the people of the Castro
I saw a many layered social strata, ranging from the homeless tweakers
to Rolex wearing success junkies, it was here I found answers.
I felt like a foreigner because I was. Even if the majority of the men
that I encountered on the street and in the shops were gay, they weren't
my people. No matter how much we had in common, they were not my people.
My people, my tribe, gay, straight and all points in between, are of the
San Diego coastal community variety. So it should be no surprise if I
felt like a tourist.
California is a big place. A diverse collection of ecosystems and habitats
set within an arrangement of arbitrary borders, it's also a collection
of cultures and subcultures. These cultures are as distinct as the ecosystems
they inhabit. Communities within the GLBT community are no different.
As mammals it is our nature to seek safe and supportive habitats, be it
in San Diego or San Francisco, San Marcos or Santa Monica.
To test my theory we hiked down to the Lone Star Bar down on Harrison
St.. As chance would have it our visit coincided with a fund raiser for
the San Francisco bears association, and the place was packed with furry
festive men. Facial hair was the rule, burly were the boys, and marijuana
was being smoked freely without any sense of shame.
Like Jane Goodall I could take note. Studying the mating ritual of San
Francisco Bears, I was completely enthralled by their behavior, while
contemplating how this would never occur in San Diego.
Unpoised and unapologetic, this gathering of bears, were just dudes
being dudes. They were a community. And I was just a tourist enjoying
San Diego is not big on social diversity or protecting the view, nor
is Encinitas. Still it's good to be home after time spent away experiencing
another state of being.
Now, where does one find a beach bear?