Documentary explores hidden history of San Diego’s gay bars

If you think gay bars are just places for dancing, drinking and flirty fun, think again.

A new documentary being filmed now in San Diego and set to air on KPBS next summer argues that the bars have a complex cultural, political and historical significance.

In dozens of interviews with LGBTQ San Diegans - activists, bartenders and bar owners - filmmakers Paul Detwiler and Chris Cashman are asking people about their memories of the city’s gay bars. Along the way, they’re hoping to understand the role of these bars from a cultural and historical standpoint.

“This project really is a reflection of gay social history in the United States,” said Detwiler, the film’s director.

The interviews will continue into the fall, and to complete production on the $38,000 project, Cashman and Detwiler are raising money by crowdsourcing. Media Arts San Diego is a partner, and KPBS has also funded the project. The documentary was one of the finalists chosen out of a pool of 180 submissions for KPBS Explore, designed to develop programming by local filmmakers.

What the filmmakers have found, so far, is that establishments that catered to San Diego’s LGBTQ populations have a complicated history - one that was shaped by the local military presence, anti-gay bias in places outside San Diego, political activism and civil rights battles of decades past, the AIDS crisis, San Diego’s beach culture and, more recently, surging real estate values and the rise of online dating.

It’s also a hidden history, Detwiler said.

“The stories and voices that come out of this community have often been repressed and suppressed,” he said, adding that studying the bars is worthwhile because they are part of America’s and San Diego’s history.

Gay bars had a different meaning for each generation, Detwiler said. After World War II, LGBTQ members of the armed forces settled in San Diego and other cities that were relatively liberal.

“These port cities were foci for high concentrations of queer people,” he said. In those days, there weren’t gay bars per se. Instead, bars had straight patrons during the day, and at night, gays weren’t excluded.

“The bars tolerated gay people to an extent,” he said, adding that bars in those days were the only spaces where gay people could be themselves in a public setting.

In the mid- to late 1950s, when McCarthyism loomed, things again became harsher for gay bars and their patrons. (In the late 1950s, The Brass Rail, founded in 1934 at a different location from where it is now in Hillcrest, was bought by a straight man who didn’t mind gay patrons - and it gradually started being more gay-friendly, Detwiler said.)

In the 1970s, things shifted.

“It was the blossoming of gay culture,” Detwiler said, following civil rights movements across the U.S. and the pro-gay-rights Stonewall riots, in the summer of 1969, in New York.

In San Diego, gay bars suddenly took off.

The early and mid-1980s marked the beginning another chapter, with the rise of HIV and AIDS. Bars took on a new function, also serving as centers of public health learning as people traded information and anguish about the disease’s spread and raised funds to combat the epidemic, he said.

The disease remained “a big cultural stressor” until the launch of the more effective combination HIV therapies, known as drug cocktails, in the 1990s.

Detwiler, a biology professor who moonlights as a filmmaker, sounded wary about the title “director” in this case, since the project reflects what his sources are telling him rather than his own artistic vision.

Detwiler and Cashman, the producer, met almost a decade ago at the San Diego Film Festival. A few years later, Detwiler pitched his idea. Cashman, who has made four documentaries, most recently about the Tijuana soccer club known as the Xolos, was immediately hooked. He knew nothing about gay bars, and that was the draw. Later, as the token “straight man in the room” during interviews, he acted as a stand-in for the film’s audience.

Cashman was surprised to learn about the bars’ multifaceted history, including from a business and economic point of view. “I never knew the backstory,” he said.

Detwiler and Cashman both elaborated: They used to be hard to operate back when there were “no touch” rules, a homophobic police presence and unwelcoming city policies.

These days, it’s getting harder to bring in customers - but for very different reasons. As property values and rents have risen, gay bars in San Diego and elsewhere have shut down.

Also, people have the Internet for dating, and younger generations are more comfortable partying with people of all sexual orientations.

There were 40 gay bars in San Diego in 1986; today there are around 20. That assimilation has been controversial, Detwiler said.

While there have been tremendous strides for LGBTQ people in the U.S., they are far from safe or protected, he added.

For Detwiler, the most stunning discovery was about his subjects’ deep roots in San Diego and their lasting relationships. San Diego is the kind of city where people arrive and and leave after a few years, he said, but many of the people he talked with have stayed put. They became active in political and LGBTQ issues locally and nationally. They chose to call San Diego home.

“In general,” he said, “they all did find a community here that in most cases was first encountered and later sustained in gay bars.”

Popescu is a freelance writer.