The Battle to Save San Francisco's Queer Spaces from Gentrification

The Stud has stood for a half decade as one of San Francisco's most subversive queer bars; the unconventional means proposed to save it are the last resort of a nightlife community forced to the city's edges.

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Jul 19 2016, 9:40pm

Brigitte Bidet performs at the STUD at Club Some Thing on June 24th. All photos by Matthew Terrell

Queer bars come and go. It's a reality of the nightlife industry: Running any bar or club demands enormous time and manpower; success or failure is often a matter of luck. For queer spaces in particular, cultural shifts—from the rise of Grindr to gay assimilation and the gentrification of historic gayborhoods—have beleaguered establishments that often take on extra political and social significance for marginalized LGBTQ communities.

That makes it all the more remarkable that the Stud, a gay bar in San Francisco's South of Market (SoMa) district, has stuck around for half a century, even as it becomes harder and harder for the city's queer spaces to survive. Since it opened in 1966, the Stud has outlasted the shuttering of at least 159 other San Francisco bars, according to the crowdsourced map "Lost Gay Bars of San Francisco." It is the rare bar that has generated a legacy and reputation far greater than the sum of its parts, which is one reason why its July 3rd announcement that it may soon close, facing a 300 percent spike in rent, was as tragic as it was portentous for the state of the city's nightlife.

It's become an all-too-common fate for queer bars in San Francisco, where the past decade of fast and loose Silicon Valley venture capital has created a real estate crisis of unseen scope in urban America. The last five years, in particular, have brought hell for the city's queer spaces: 2012 brought the shuttering of drag dive Deco Lounge and gay cocktail lounge Club Eight; 2013 saw the demise of "infamous SoMa leather den" Kok; Latino drag mecca Esta Noche closed in 2014; last year, bear bar Truck and lesbian bar the Lexington Club shut down, and this July, gay nightclub Beatbox also shut its doors.

What set the Stud apart from its peers was a decades-long commitment to nurturing cutting-edge music, dance, drag, and style. To preserve that heritage, the Stud's current crop of resident art-makers has created an advocacy group called Save Our Stud (SOS.) City Commercial Investments, LLC, who purchased the building, has not announced any plans for the property, but SOS dread the possibility of more tech condos in the SoMa tech corridor where the bar sits.

Glamamore performs at Club Some Thing at the Stud.

SOS and other figures in queer nightlife are floating the idea of establishing "cooperative bars" in the face of a savage real estate market—bars that are owned by several establishments, promoters, and proprietors, who would each program the space on different nights of any given week. Their cooperative vision extends to co-ownership, as well—all employees of the bar, from drag queens to barbacks, would own a stake. It's an unconventional idea, but the Stud has always fostered a radical queer community, from bikers and miscreants to working-class drag artists and performers like Janis Joplin and Etta James. That community, likewise, is no stranger to radical thinking.

Michael McElhaney, 49, has owned the Stud since 1996, and has worked to carry on the bar's legacy since. Its signature kitschy décor—Boston ferns in macrame hangers, faceless mannequins, and thrift store-chic pleather booths—has remained for years. The bar is still cash-only after all these years, and you may notice the $1 bill you receive in change from the coat check has been stamped to say "Drag Saves Lives."

"It's always an interesting mix of humans here," says McElhaney. "It was always 'come as you are.' But since the recession, it's been hard. I've had to pay for rent out of my pocket. My business partner died of AIDS in 2011. I've been trying to put the old girl back together ever since."

Drag queen Phatima Rude at the Stud

In the 1980s, the Stud was among the first gay bars in San Francisco to play punk and new wave music. Trannyshack, a drag show by legendary local drag queen Heklina, premiered in 1996, lasting 12 years as a weekly event. The show pushed boundaries of subversive drag, complete with fire, fake blood, and performances that were more political than pretty. In 2008, Lady Gaga used the night to introduce herself to gay San Francisco, performing songs from just-released The Fame.

Currently, one of the Stud's most popular events is a weekly high-concept drag show called Club Some Thing, which features local artists Fauxnique, Glamamore, and Rahni NothingMORE.

VivvyAnne ForeverMORE performs at the Stud.

Mica Sigourney, a drag personality who performs as VivvyAnne ForeverMORE, co-founded Club Some Thing and is a driving force behind SOS. "By creating a co-op, we're capitalizing on the notoriety of the individual nightlife personalities [who perform at the Stud,]" he said, "and creating an environment where employees are owners, which hopefully means higher job investment and satisfaction."

Monique Jenkinson first began patronizing the Stud in the 90s, during the Trannyshack era. As a dancer, she became fascinated with the dedication drag queens brought to their performance; she eventually took the stage herself as Fauxnique. Her work at the Stud has given her a space and audience to develop her work; without it, she may have been unable to develop work like the F-Word, a traveling drag show that deconstructs feminism. "I credit Trannyshack with giving me an art practice," she says. "I found my audience at the Stud."

Jocelyn Kane, the executive director of San Francisco Entertainment Commission, says that the Stud's impending $9,000 rent is in line with market trends for local bars and restaurants. She notes that a bar like the Stud relies solely on nighttime events to survive; without daytime customers, Kane says that keeping these spaces alive will require active community investment.

"Nightlife customers go into spaces that used to be cheap, dirty, and dangerous and make them attractive," says Kane. "Then restaurants and housing move in, and they go out of business. It's a natural cycle, but it can be changed; people need to patronize these historic venues if they want to keep them alive."

Rahni Nothingmore at the Stud

Other San Francisco queer bar owners say they are unsure their businesses will continue to be viable without legislative protection from the city. In 2015, voters approved the establishment of a Legacy Business Registry to preserve historic venues from redevelopment. The program has had trouble launching; although voters approved the measure, the city didn't move quickly enough to dedicate funding or staff to it, and businesses have been slow to complete the intensive application process. As a result, it has only provided nominal support to local businesses thus far. The Stud, for its part, is currently in the process of applying for the Legacy Business Registry.

"Anyone with a commercial lease in San Francisco is in danger," says Lela Thierkfield, the former owner of the Lexington Club. "Bars. Restaurants. Art galleries. And queer spaces are in particular danger, because the businesses that suffer most are minority-driven." Thirkield currently owns Virgil's Sea Room, a mainstream bar with queer influences in the Mission.

Signature kitsch style: A mannequin at the Stud

"Your rent can go up incredible amounts overnight and blow up your entire business model," Thierkfield continued. "For commercial leasing, there's no law beyond your contract to protect tenancy. I'm worried about San Francisco. I'm hopeful because people are doing queer nights at other spaces, but we're still losing our queer spaces."

It's a cruel cycle: The avant-garde creative energy that thrives in spaces like the Stud is what entices real estate developers and techies looking to mine magic from the city. The tech boom exacerbating the San Francisco real estate crisis lauds "disruptive innovations" as an inextricable part of good business. The sad irony? If there were ever a time and place for a radical idea to save San Francisco's historic, politically necessary spaces, it is here and now, at the Stud.

Follow Matthew Terrell on Twitter.