A new Netflix series has generated major buzz for its compelling and nuanced portrayal of queer life in San Francisco. The series revisits characters from an early 1990s television miniseries based on novels by Armistead Maupin. From Rolling Stone to CNN, reviewers offer praise for the stories portrayed in Tales of the City. Some suggest a sense of hope in these precarious times that things will continue to improve for LGBTQ folk. Others are glad to see the past honoured, while being updated to reflect changing attitudes.
But something is missing, especially in how the show grapples with the lesbian community: history. The current show astutely portrays a contemporary community intermixed with gay men, lesbians, queer and trans people, but only tangentially draws on the historical legacy of lesbian communities in San Francisco, the show's setting. Critically, the show overlooks the lesbian bars and social networks, consciousness-raising groups about sexuality and gender identity and political activism that were the heartbeat of the '70s.
Reclaiming this history matters. Sure, it would provide necessary depth to ground the show's characters. But, more significantly, it also would provide much-needed role models for younger queer women today by challenging the narrow stereotypes that still pervade portrayals of lesbians. Lesbians in the '70s were a diverse group from different backgrounds, ethnicities and classes. Through their activism and everyday lives in San Francisco, they gave future generations the freedom, space and language to be out and visible as lesbian women. By transforming the very meanings of sisterhood and womanhood, they started a revolution that empowers queer communities today.
Women in the 1970s came together in San Francisco to create a new world. There was palpable excitement in the air as new energy and ideas poured out to create the foundations for lesbian communities — in bars, cafes, households, consciousness-raising groups, on the softball field and in burgeoning political action groups, newsletters and marches. Lesbians formed collective households to build solidarity and support for each other, a radical act of survival. Disenchanted with the heteronormative model of family, they created new families with their lovers, ex-lovers and friends.
In Berkeley, California, in 1969, poet Judy Grahn described a spirited and energised lesbian activist collective: "There were a lot of women running in and out at all hours, and yes, some of us sat on the front porch without our shirts on. We were just so enthusiastic, feeling so free!"
Lesbian bars such as Maud's, opened by Rikki Streicher in 1966 in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, provided a place for this community to flourish. Maud's was open every day of the year so that lesbians who were alone for the holidays, or were broke or had been kicked out by their families, could have a place to be. By the end of the 1970s, Maud's was semi-famous for a troupe of women who performed on special occasions, singing parodies of show tunes to entertain their fans.
Maud's was one of seven lesbian bars fostering community in San Francisco at the time. The Jubilee, which opened the same year as Maud's, was a lesbian-owned bar across the bay in Oakland. It had the luxury of two floors, featuring a downstairs bar that was the hangout of the mostly white old-timers and an upstairs bar that vibrated to the sounds of disco and all-night dancing of a younger, more diverse crowd of women.
San Francisco lesbian bars also supported sports like pool, bowling and softball. The Bay Area Women's Softball League, which was composed of teams from bars around the Bay Area, lasted through the 1970s and existed independently of the gay men's bar league. On Sunday mornings, a wooden bleacher full of rowdy female fans cheered on the energetic and eager ballplayers. The bars and the sports they supported allowed lesbian women to congregate in public spaces unlike ever before.
Bars and social networks frequently translated into political activism. For example, the Gay Women's Liberation, which developed out of a lesbian collective household, hand-published two lesbian feminist anthologies between 1970 and 1972, and in the process, helped to broadcast new ideas about gender and sexuality.
The Women's Switchboard, founded in the early '70s, was a lifeline for lesbians who just arrived in the city, including myself. It helped women find housing and provided information on local resources and lesbian bars, ensuring that women could easily find the larger community of lesbians. In the East Bay, a black women's consciousness-raising group connected with several black lesbian households to form an extensive social network of activists, musicians and poets.
As time went on during the '70s, women's newsletters across the Bay Area became essential outlets of news and information on issues affecting the lesbian and gay communities. They also gave voice to newly emerging lesbian writers and poets. Lesbians who were unhappy working in low-paid jobs organised groups, such as Women in the Trades, to help women learn so-called nontraditional skills usually held by men. Women began working as carpenters and car mechanics, and were encouraged by community support to apply for jobs in the police and fire departments in the Bay Area. By the early 1980s, some of the first lesbian firefighters and police officers had joined the ranks, although they could not be open about their sexual orientation.
In the 1970s, lesbians in San Francisco fought openly for the right to exist in private and public spaces. They created new spaces, organisations, communities and social networks that enabled future generations to be out and proud. By resisting gender norms of proper womanhood, they moved the dial on gender normativity and the second-class status of women that persisted even in queer spaces.
A show like Tales of the City is a contemporary product of the community organising and activism that lesbian women pursued for decades. But its plot ignores the very history on which its success depends.
Consider, for example, the character Shawna, an unhappy queer bartender trying to come to terms with her past and her identity. Her chosen family at 58 Barbary Lane is her support and solace, but what she needs is a sense of history. Rejection, hate and abandonment were common for many in lesbian communities before her — if Shawna knew their histories, she would see that it empowered them to come together, to build their own communities and define their own lives. Understanding the paths they crafted before her could allow her to walk her own path now.
Seeing a show focused on queer life in San Francisco generating broad attention and critical acclaim is a testament to the success of 1970s lesbian activism. Their historic role in changing attitudes and making it possible for lesbians to see their own stories reflected on screen should be a part of the series too.
Evelyn Blackwood, professor emeritus at Purdue University, is an anthropologist and ethnohistorian. This piece draws from her upcoming book, Dreams of a New World: Bay Area Lesbian Histories.