Visiting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and
Transgendered San Diego’s Past and Present
San Diego has a vibrant, visible, and vocal lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. For a taste of it, Hillcrest is a great place to start. For 40 years Hillcrest has been an epicenter of social activism as well as a safe harbor for those pressing against accepted social norms.
A great reference point is the historical landmark red and white “Hillcrest” sign on the corner of Fifth and University Avenues. One block south, past several bookstores, sits the Brass Rail at Fifth and Robinson. The Brass Rail, once located downtown, was straight by day but gay by night. In the 1960s the Brass Rail moved to Hillcrest as a gay bar and kick-started the transformation of Hillcrest into San Diego’s preeminent “gayborhood.”
From the Brass Rail, one block east to Sixth Avenue and a bit more than a quarter mile south along the western edge of Balboa Park is a lush green space. This area, just before Laurel Street, is affectionately known as the “Fruit Loop.” Most days you’ll find queer sunbathers, gay volleyball players, and dog walkers of all types. Just past Laurel Street and one block into the park stands a bronze statue honoring Kate Sessions, a woman-identified woman who left teaching to pursue her passion in horticulture in the late 1800s. Sessions transformed the once arid plateau into Balboa Park.
Skirting the southern boundaries of Balboa Park and just beyond the park is Villa Montezuma (1925 K St.) in Golden Hill. The San Diego Historical Society described the historic home, which prominently features a stained glass window of Sappho, as “one of the most interesting and imaginatively designed Victorian houses still standing in San Diego.” Villa Montezuma was home to Jesse Shepard, who is fondly remembered in San Diego for his legendary musical improvisations. In the 1880s, before the term homosexual was used in the United States, Shepard was known for his commitment to his longtime same-sex assistant.
Nearby in Golden Hill is the house that in 1973 became San Diego’s first Gay Center (2250 B St.). B Street was also home to the Wing Café (2753 B St.), which boasted a feminist restaurant, gallery, and performance space in the early 1980s. Just around the corner, the Women’s History Museum and Education Center (2323 Broadway, Suite 107, www.whmec.org) is a treasure trove of primary sources, special collections, and exhibits. Finally, a not-to-be missed spot is the legendary “Judy the Beauty’s” Big Kitchen (3003 Grape St.), where great food and social activism are still on the menu. Judy Foreman, a social worker and activist turned entrepreneur, credits the success of the Big Kitchen to the artists, activists, and community members who “volunteered” over the years, often trading meals for work—Whoopi Goldberg among them. Bon Appétit nominated it as “one of the best places for breakfast in America.”
Hop up north to North Park via 30th Street, and just north of University Avenue you’ll pass what was the Indian Human Resource Center (4040 30th St.). It was home to Nations of the Four Directions, where San Diego’s queer Native Americans forged a modern day LGBT* community. Go east to 4003 Wabash Avenue, just north of University past the 805 freeway, where the powerful and vibrant Las Hermanas Women’s Cultural Center flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s, a vortex of energy and art at the apex of the women’s movement in San Diego. A hair salon occupies the space today.
Further east (by car) at College Avenue, past 55th Street, go left to San Diego State University. It claims the first Women’s Studies Department in the nation, established in 1969. The relevant historical papers are housed at Special Collections and University Archives (scua.sdsu.edu) in Love Library.
East of the Hillcrest sign on University Avenue is Obelisk bookstore (1029 University), a well-stocked LGBT community resource. Continuing down University Avenue is Rich’s (1051 University Ave.) a longtime-favorite queer dance club. From 1968 to 1982 the space was home to San Diego’s first female-impersonation club. The Show Biz Supper Club entertained tourists three times a day. Several blocks east and one block north of University on Centre Street is the beautiful, community-owned LGBT Center (3909 Centre St.). One of the earliest in the nation, it formed under the name “The Center for Social Services,” when “gay” in its name was reason enough to get its nonprofit status questioned. It is fitting that the center also houses a welcoming Latino/a Center.
One block east and south of University on Park Boulevard is The Flame (3780 Park Blvd.), a refuge for lesbians from 1984 until 2004. Head north on Park to find two institutions nurtured by the internationally known bisexual pioneer, the late Fritz Klein: Diversionary Theatre (4545 Park Ave.) is the nation’s third oldest LGBT theater. Upstairs in Suite 205 is the Lambda Archives of San Diego (www.lambdaarchives.org), known during its early days as the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of San Diego. Lambda Archives has significant holdings that provide researchers with a wealth of personal and organizational collections as well as periodicals, films, and more. Unique collections of wide import include the national records of the Gay Academic Union, the first national queer organization of academics; the collections of Bridget Wilson and Gary Reese, who organized the first systematic national help for gays in the military; and the huge international, national, and local Pride Collection of Doug Moore.
For a jaunt to the upper edge of the city, take Interstate 5 north to La Jolla Village Drive exit west, where the University of California at San Diego is home to one of the leading student LGBT Resource Centers in the nation. To the west, just down the cliffs from the Salk Institute and San Diego’s glider port, is Blacks Beach. This internationally famous, clothing-optional beach was and is popular with queers. The bisexual beach is at the foot of the stairs while the gay beach is down to the right—though all mix politely. Note: clothing is required where the gay beach ends and the State Beach begins (north of the rocks that jut out to the water). This historic beach has drawn visitors from around the world since its heyday in the 1970s and is enjoyable even on a pleasant day in January.
Elle Van Dermark is an instructor of American history at Grossmont College.
Frank Nobiletti is president of Lambda Archives of San Diego and a lecturer in the history of sexuality at San Diego State University.
* In the original print version the term "two-spirit" was used here instead of LGBT. However we have changed this in the online version at the request of the Nations of the 4 Directions (LGBT Native organization), due to the fact that "2 spirit reflects that people are a third gender or dead in some tribal cultures."Last Updated: October 20, 2010 2:58 PM