A Haven’s Sex and Sensibility
Brody Paul and his kid brother Zander are making their after-school rounds in this city’s Castro district -- one of the most openly gay neighborhoods in America.
Brody, 12, shops for mouthwash and Clearasil. His brother wants No. 2 pencils. Veterans of tolerant San Francisco, they’re unfazed by the two women holding hands and the graffiti etched into the sidewalk: “Nick Loves Olaf.”
But along Castro Street, the main business drag just two blocks from their home, the boys encounter images more difficult for children to digest. A video store where they regularly rent Disney films stocks triple-X gay porn flicks in plain view. Across the street, next to their favorite pizza joint, the front window of a gay sex shop called Rock Hard displays a large Day-Glo purple sex toy, leather trusses and graphic manuals.
“It’s scary. It kind of makes you shudder,” says Zander, who just turned 8.
“It’s not scary,” Brody corrects, offering a typical child’s view of anything sexual. “It’s just gross.”
Although the Castro has long been called Boys Town, that moniker has assumed an ironic new meaning: The gay bastion is now an unlikely hub for families with children.
For more than a decade, heterosexual parents have been drawn to the quarter-mile-square Castro to raise their families in its quaint Victorian homes and small-town atmosphere. In recent years, the Castro’s same-sex couples have also increasingly chosen to become parents, a revolution that has brought even more children.
In the Castro, restaurants oriented toward gay singles now offer child-size portions and even highchairs. One coffee shop features a hot chocolate “Castro Kids Special,” a popular item during the morning rush that the owners call the “stroller hour.”
At Cliff’s Variety store, children shop for toy unicorns and jasmine-scented clay putty alongside cross-dressers perusing feather boas and rhinestone tiaras. And at this year’s Gay Pride Parade in June, one float will celebrate gay families, featuring kids clad in construction-worker outfits and singing Village People songs.
But this new Castro has not emerged without tensions.
The racy storefront displays have pitted protective parents against equally militant gay residents. Many parents -- both heterosexual and gay -- say the suggestive ads are inappropriate for children. Gay activists want to preserve a sexually liberated atmosphere that embraces such gay-themed holidays as “Leather Day” and -- in celebration of hairy men -- “Bear Day.”
Some complain that gay culture itself, which has long celebrated free sexual expression, is under attack -- not just by straights, but by gays and lesbians as well.
Last year, a lesbian mother of two, now 6 and 2, complained about a sadomasochistic tableau in a clothing shop window that featured a male mannequin chained to a toilet. “As an adult I find this disgusting,” she wrote in an e-mail to city officials. “As a parent I find it unconscionable.”
After failing to persuade merchants to post suggestive ads above the line of sight of small children, the mother, who asked not to be identified, said she plans to move from the Castro.
Another parent complained when an antiques store displayed a kitschy life-size statue of an aroused naked man. Owner Robert Hedric said he reluctantly covered the offending portion after police intervened.
Hedric, who is gay and said he moved from Germany to the Castro for its lively gay culture, worries that family-friendly sensibilities will quash the neighborhood’s spirit. “What surprise is next? Are they going to outlaw the Gay Pride Parade?” he asked. “This is the Castro, not the Vatican.”
Jeremy Paul, the father of Brody and Zander, doesn’t expect Castro Street to be St. Peter’s Square. But he was offended by syphilis-prevention ads posted around the neighborhood that featured a happy, tune-whistling cartoon penis. He was particularly incensed when a flier was left on the windshield of the family car, where his children found it.
“I’m happy people can enjoy a lifestyle that’s denied to them back home in Kansas, but there are appropriate standards of behavior, regardless of your sexual orientation,” said Paul, a building permit consultant.
Mark Welsh, the gay manager of Rock Hard, has toned down his displays -- but is now drawing a line. “I have always pushed the envelope to show what I can because if there’s one place on the planet to flaunt sex, it’s here,” he said. “There’s a place for these ads. Sex is why the Castro was founded.”
Welsh, 50, who favors leather vests and form-fitting jeans, was once married and has an 18-year-old daughter who lived with him in the Castro for a decade. He said he never stopped her from wandering the neighborhood out of fear she might see a lurid window display -- even his own. “I raised her to know that it was OK for men to kiss and hold hands in public,” he said.
He said parents calling for change are a minority -- and that “nobody, whether gay or straight, is going to tell me what to wear, what to say, how to act or what to display in my own shop. Gay culture will survive.”
In the middle is Supervisor Bevan Dufty, whose district includes the Castro. Dufty, who is gay, wants to start a neighborhood gay family resource center. But he also supports merchants who want to feature racy displays. He wants to keep the Castro “sustainably gay.”
Dufty, a 51-year-old New York native who sometimes models underwear for gay fundraisers, sees both sides of the issue.
For two years he’s been trying to become a parent; he recently used in-vitro fertilization with a longtime lesbian friend, who is pregnant. After the birth, the pair plan to live together but lead separate romantic lives. “I think bringing a child into this world is one of the most fulfilling things you can do in a lifetime -- I’m ready,” Dufty said. “Ours will be one of the many nontraditional families peopling the Castro.”
At a Castro coffee shop, he was recently approached by parents who knew of his quest to become a father. “Am I doing this right?” he asked as he held a squirming infant. “Am I holding his head right?”
The Castro has always been evolving. In the 1970s, the former Irish-Catholic enclave saw the arrival of gay-owned bars such as Toad Hall and the Missouri Mule. The neighborhood soon became a haven for gays who were attracted by a buzzing new counterculture that was defiantly outside the mainstream. In the 1980s, the Castro endured the AIDS epidemic, struggling to remain a bohemian stronghold for gay bartenders, artists and musicians. But rising rents in the 1990s drove out blue-collar veterans, leaving only the wealthiest. Then came young families.
Twelve years ago, Jeremy Paul and his wife, Lyssa Kaye Paul, were among a wave of heterosexual parents to colonize the Castro. They embraced the neighborhood’s flair. But sometimes they didn’t feel welcome. Gay waiters scowled while taking their order. Men sneered at them on the street.
The cold shoulder got considerably warmer a few years ago as more gay couples had their own children, part of the so-called Gayby Boom.
Now more than 250,000 children nationwide -- 47,000 in California -- are being raised by same-sex parents. “Many gay people once referred to couples with children as ‘breeders,’ a term with considerable bite to it,” said Thom Lynch, executive director of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. “It’s rarely used anymore. Now many gays are breeders as well.”
But the gay civic leader says the Castro’s parenting trend still irritates some. Asked if he wanted to become a father, Lynch responded icily: “I had the urge once. But it passed like gas.”
Sande Leigh, principal of the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a public school named in honor of the slain gay supervisor, recalled how during her first year at the school, in 1997, she rerouted the Halloween Parade: “We had to move the children to the other side of Castro Street because of the suggestive posters.”
Despite the Castro’s sexual edge, Leigh calls the neighborhood a perfect spot for her school, which attracts many gay volunteers. Welsh, the Rock Hard manager, raises money for toys and supplies.
“We’re not about censoring the Castro,” Leigh said, “and the Castro is not about censoring us as a place for kids.”
The editor of a publication aimed at gay mothers and fathers thinks Castro parents should accommodate the neighborhood, not the other way around. “That culture existed long before they arrived,” said Angeline Acain, a New Yorker who’s editor and publisher of Gay Parent, a nationally circulated magazine. “If you see a window display you find offensive, don’t take your kid down that block.”
Parents counter that the Castro should be sensitive to the needs of children. They say bouncy castles have a place -- just like gay bars.
“Our kids need a place in the community,” said July Appel, executive director of the nonprofit Our Family Coalition and a lesbian mother of two. “The Castro is big enough for everyone. Gay cruising has its place. But so do playgrounds.”
Fred Kirkbride, who owns a Castro Street antiques store, said that a community that has for years argued for tolerance by heterosexuals should be more accepting. “Isn’t it amazing how long we fought to be accepted by straight society? Now we want to keep straights and their children out of here,” he said.
Kirkbride agreed that many store displays have gone too far. “I used to keep my parents away from those windows,” he said. “I didn’t want them to think all gays were into animal bestiality.”
Slowly, both sides have shown compromise. Because children often accompany their parents to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, the facility now forbids nudity in the hallways -- requiring the center’s bondage classes to stay behind closed doors. “Twenty years ago we couldn’t have had such a rule,” said center director Lynch. “People would have fought it.”
Nancy Koch, a lesbian mother, noted that a clothing store manager recently warned her about taking her 12-year-old daughter into a back room where suggestive leather outfits were displayed. As more families move in, she said, businesses that accommodate the sensibilities of families will survive, while those that are less child-friendly will not.
The mother maintained that exposure to the racy ads has not harmed her daughter. “There’s not much to shock her,” Koch said. “Sex has been in her peripheral vision for a long time.”
Organizers of the two-day gay pride event near City Hall, the nation’s most prominent gay celebration, now provide a children’s area with licensed day care. They also encourage families to attend on Saturday, which they have arranged to feature fewer risque events than Sunday. “It’s important that the gay community has this place to express itself,” said event organizer Lindsey Jones. “We don’t want to put too many parameters around that.”
But Jeremy Paul says the Castro still has a way to go. His younger son, Zander, recoils at seeing men wearing leather chaps and little else at a local gay-oriented street fair: “He’ll say, ‘Dad, do I have to see those flabby butts again?’ "
Welsh winces when he hears that. He says children have no place at the fair anyway: “It’s an adult event. It’s for us. Kids should stay home.”
For now, many men will remain annoyed each time they spot another baby stroller invading their beloved gay mecca.
“We’re not going to neuter ourselves for anybody,” said Joe Gallagher, a gay barber who often runs raunchy ads featuring muscular men in the local gay press. “We’re not going to jump just because these people complain. The rest of the country isn’t big enough? They’ve got to try and take over the Castro as well?”
Zander Paul says he is comfortable with his Castro childhood. “I’m not bothered by living near gay people. It’s natural,” he said. “For me, the word ‘gay’ has two meanings. One is you’re happy. The other is you like boys.”