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Questioning Connection, Community and Culture

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Buzz Publications
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 the view.

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?

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