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    Queer Life in the Best Little Neighborhood You’ve Never Heard of: SF’s Portola District

    LewisGaffneyBy John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney

    We’ve all heard of San Francisco’s famous LGBT neighborhoods such as the Castro and Polk Street, right? But how about the Portola? The “Portowhat?” you might be asking. If so, you’d be like us before we discovered, and then moved to, this wonderfully diverse and down to earth village with a vibrant LGBT presence in the southeast quadrant of the city.

    For years, LGBT people in the Bay Area have lived in neighborhoods outside of the Castro and other known enclaves, but generally with less visibility. When we moved to the Portola seven years ago, we were delighted to learn that not only were we the sixth LGBT household on our immediate block, but also that our block sported a radical faerie house and that two of our neighbors hosted an annual Walt Whitman party to celebrate the iconic queer poet’s birthday.

    The Portola is also home to a longstanding lesbian community, including our real estate agent, who helped us. Many other LGBT and community-minded residents make a home in the neighborhood. We have tremendous straight ally neighbors too, many of whom have marched with us in the Pride Parade and joined in the Portola Pride Picnic, held in nearby McLaren Park.  A gay couple who moved in a couple years ago took the direct approach to raising queer visibility when they realized that drivers on the nearby 101 Freeway had a perfect view of the back of their house that stood atop one of the neighborhood’s many hills.  They painted the entire rear of the house in the colors of the rainbow flag, earning their home the nickname Chateau Rainbeau.

    Queer Life
    A Diverse Community

    The area, which is now the Portola, was originally inhabited by Native Americans, with the first settlers being Eastern European Jewish immigrants, some of whom termed the community “Little Jerusalem.” Many Italian and Maltese immigrants also came and cultivated numerous rose and other flower nurseries that supplied most of San Francisco’s cut flowers. With last century’s baby boom, the nurseries gave way to housing, and the neighborhood is now home to a diverse spectrum of residents with large numbers of Latinx and Asian Americans. In our immediate area alone, we feel fortunate to have Italian, Maltese, El Salvadoran, Chinese, Filipino, Greek, Irish, African American, European American, Malaysian, Indian, and Iranian American neighbors.

    For years, LGBT people have been a vital part of the life of the neighborhood, both taking an active role as community leaders and creating queer-themed events open to everyone. One of the striking things about the Portola is how many neighbors actually know each other and spend time together both to have fun and to make the neighborhood a better place. When we moved in, we were charmed to learn that LGBT and other residents had created a very popular come-one, come-all style holiday party where neighbors can catch up with each other at the nearby Italian American Social Club of San Francisco.

    The new queer-friendly microbrewery—Ferment, Drink, Repeat (FDR)—will feature a specially formulated LGBT Pride brew this June and is located on the Portola’s main commercial street, San Bruno Avenue, which boasts a bounty of Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, and El Salvadoran restaurants and food stores.

    Of course, all is not bliss in the Portola, and creating a community in which diverse people overcome barriers to live in harmony and connection with one another is not always easy.  On the morning of September 7, 2015, the neighborhood was rudely awakened to the sight of graffiti reading “No More Chinese” in multiple locations. The neighborhood reacted swiftly, powerfully, and creatively. Within hours, residents transformed the graffiti to read “[heart sign] more Chinese.” A few days later, a large and diverse group of residents came together for a public rally at one of the spots where the graffiti was painted and together denounced racism and stood up for inclusion and community solidarity. Former Supervisor David Campos, himself a Latino gay man, and Portola Neighborhood Association President Chris Waddling, an immigrant gay man whose husband is Chinese American, were among the community leaders who spearheaded the rally. The man who painted the graffiti turned out to be a long-time resident, and was prosecuted and convicted of multiple counts of vandalism and hate crimes. No such incidents have occurred since.

    Drag Queen Bingo, Portolove, and the Goettingen Cascade Project

    Nothing embodies the increasing queer visibility in the Portola more than the neighborhood’s semi-annual Drag Queen Bingo fundraisers that support local community projects. They are held at El Toro, San Bruno Avenue’s Latin music and dance club—the former location of Fucile’s Bar, where local legend has it that Frank Sinatra once sang. Anyone LGBT or otherwise interested in experimenting with a bit of gender bending, trying out some flamboyant self-expression, or just plain hanging out and playing bingo with those who do, is welcome to attend. It’s a family friendly event that attracts people of all ages, and last time included both fabulous drag queens dressed to the nines and stylishly handsome drag kings.

    The next drag queen bingo—called “Portolove” and hosted by drag queen Van Detta—is coming soon on Thursday, February 9.  It will benefit the Goettingen Cascade Project, an innovative art and greening project that will employ state or the art materials to transform a formerly dilapidated outdoor staircase atop one of the neighborhood’s hills into the appearance of a glowing nighttime waterfall that will also function practically to illuminate the staircase at night for pedestrians. Phillip Hua, an internationally recognized queer artist who lives in the neighborhood with his husband, is the designer of the installation, which is part of the Goettingen Neighbors Group’s years’ long efforts to create beautiful gardens aside the previously neglected passageway. The group is one of many in the neighborhood taking a proactive approach to greening, celebrating gardens, and preserving the area’s historic nurseries. In recognition of these efforts and the neighborhood’s proximity to McLaren Park, the city named the Portola, “San Francisco’s Garden District,” last year.

    Last drag queen bingo, we decided that it was time for us to do drag ourselves. But what should marriage equality activist grooms wear? The answer was obvious, and John adorned himself in one of famous marriage equality activist Molly McKay’s historic wedding dresses, while Stuart presented as a dashing butch bride. As John exited El Toro at the end of the evening, a passerby making a bee line to the bus suddenly stopped as she encountered John on the sidewalk. Her mouth agape, she audibly gasped and exclaimed: “How beautiful! Your wedding day!” John smiled and thanked her in the best falsetto he could muster, and she and he both had huge smiles on their faces as she made her way to the bus. Yet another reason we love this diverse, queer thriving, “can do” and “do it yourself” neighborhood we call home: The Portola.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.