Column: New KPBS documentary is a toast to San Diego’s gay bar history


For the pioneering members of San Diego’s LGBTQ community, the local gay bar was not necessarily a place where everyone knew your name. But it was a place where people knew the real you, and that was all that mattered.

Haven. Club. Community space. Safe house. Beginning in the closeted 1950s and continuing through the activist ’70s, the AIDS-shadowed ’80s and the Gay Pride ’90s, San Diego’s gay bars have been so much more than a place to drink and dance.

In San Diego’s gay and lesbian bars, people could be themselves. And in the new KPBS documentary, “San Diego’s Gay Bar History,” these storied spaces are being celebrated for all the things they were to their patrons, and for all of the things they had to be.

“To hear the older generation describe the experience, before there were gay centers or gay community organizations, everything happened in the bar,” filmmaker Paul Detwiler said of his documentary, which debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. on KPBS-TV. “It was the place where people in the community took care of each other.”

In “San Diego’s Gay Bar History,” which is part of the KPBS Explore Local Content program, the personal illuminates the historical. The documentary starts with gay life in post World War II San Diego and ends with the bittersweet closing of the Numbers bar in 2017. In between, the hour-long documentary remembers how places like the Circus Room, the Apartment, the Flame, and the West Coast Production Company kept their patrons afloat when the cultural tide was running against them.

“In the 1950s, people thought gay people were sick,” World War II veteran and Hoover High School graduate George McGuire says in the film, remembering with wonder tales of a bar in Los Angeles called the Canyon Club, where men could actually dance together.

There wasn’t a lot of same-sex dancing going on in San Diego’s gay bars, where the vice squad could pop in at any time. If you were arrested, your name, address and occupation could end up in the pages of the San Diego Union or the Tribune. And if you were a woman, your children could be taken away.

In one interview, native San Diegan Jill McCall settles into a comfortable couch to tell the story of going to a gay bar with some friends to celebrate a promotion, when she and some of her fellow celebrants were arrested and thrown in jail. But the charges were dropped, and the next night, McCall and her friends went back to the club because there was nowhere else they wanted to be.

“We were popular then,” McCall says with a laugh.

Later, the bars became a place to organize and strategize. In the post-Stonewall 1970s, the gay-rights movement was born in the bars. During the AIDS epidemic of 1980s, bars became the sites for meetings, fundraisers and way too many memorials.

In one of the documentary’s most moving sections, survivors pay tribute to the friends they lost and to the spirit that helped hold their fractured world together.

“Out of a community of 30 to 40 friends, I’m the only survivor. It’s very difficult for me to talk about,” says “Papa” Tony Lindsey, a tribal elder in San Diego’s leather community.

“It was a nonstop 24/7 battle for seven or eight years,” says Susan Jester, founder of the San Diego AIDS Walk. “It was a difficult time, but it was a time when the community rose to the occasion.”

The documentary ends with a long goodbye and a lingering debate. September of 2017 marked the closing of Numbers, a bar on the edge of Hillcrest that had been the home of Pride parties, drag shows and the Club Sabbat goth night. In the documentary, Numbers owner Nick Moede chalks it up to a changing market, where LGBTQ people feel more widely accepted, and having their own space isn’t as important as it used to be.

“That’s progress,” he says. “And that’s good.”

Not everyone agrees. For some members of the community, havens are still important. Just because the mainstream bar scene is more welcoming than it used to be doesn’t mean everyone feels welcome there. The history of San Diego’s gay bars may still have a few chapters to go.

“If you are too femme as a guy or too butchy as a girl, you are still not going to be comfortable,” filmmaker Detwiler said. “There are a lot of people who can’t assimilate, especially transgender kids. They still have to have places where they are safe and where there are other people like them.”

“San Diego’s Gay Bar History” premieres Thursday, June 14 at 9 p.m. on KPBS-TV, with encores airing at 9 pm. Monday, June 18, on KPBS 2; 10 p.m. Monday, June 18 on KPBS; and 8 p.m. Thursday, July 5 on KPBS2.

Twitter: @karla_peterson