Remembering SF’s COVID ‘Reopening’ at the Last Gay Bar on Polk Street

What was intended as an outing to celebrate SF’s “reopening” in June of 2021 morphed into something perhaps more special: an ode to the importance of queer safe spaces in a heteronormative world.

“I’ll just take a gin and soda, extra lime,” I told the bartender June two years ago on June 15th — the same day San Francisco “reopened” after lifting a long list of then-relevant COVID-19 health protocols. It was a request heard not muffled by wearing a mask.

The thirtysomething libation slinger — who was by himself amid the frenetic energy that pulsed across San Francisco Tuesday evening, scurrying behind the bar to contend dozens of drinkers — hurried to mound ice and generously pour house gin, leaving what looked like enough room for two tablespoons of carbonated water to float on top.

“Thank you,” I chimed, asking to close the tab before I flung myself onto a nearby barstool. I scribbled something north of a 30% tip using a provided pen; there was neither a “clean” nor “dirty” vessel anywhere on the bartop for pens to go after being used.

I put my body on the barstool; back relaxed, posture limp.

I put my lips to a paper straw and soaked in the overwhelming normalcy of the activity I was practicing: enjoying a drink at The Cinch Saloon (a.k.a “the Cinch”) — which remains the last-standing queer bar from the bygone era of San Francisco’s original gayborhood.

The walls of the Cinch drip with nostalgia — still to this day. Established nearly fifty years ago, overtly sexual ads for San Francisco bathhouses in the 70s dot the interior. Local flyers describing future events were spackled by the entrance wall. Rainbow flags line the bartop.

Billiards tables clank with kinetic energy. Rain on Me played through the treble-heavy speakers. I peed in a trough, smiling all the while — reminded of the fact that this very spot was attended by gay individuals who participated in the first official SF Pride parade in 1972 that went down Polk Street.

There’s something so simple, yet layered about sitting inside a queer bar that’s weathered gentrification and now a pandemic. The resilience of the space seemed to bleed out of the wooden floors; the antique decor; the stampings and writing and postage hung on the bathroom walls. From the giddy queer men, many of whom have frequented the bar for well over 30 years, returning Tuesday night to keep the tradition alive.

In queer culture, our bars and nightlife venues don’t exist for frivolity’s sake; they double as community hubs and safe spaces that are otherwise absent in the worlds around us. In San Francisco — the “gay capital of the world” — queer bars like the Cinch, SF Eagle, Powerhouse, and OASIS are defined by their inherent togetherness. Chosen families are made inside these spaces, as are other relationships, platonic or otherwise.

LGBTQIA+ people inhabit a world not defined by them. We live on this mortal coil that’s organized around straight people. Though queer-themed Zoom hangouts and virtual gay events had their merit, they still pale in comparison to the IRL iterations of the two. Being able to occupy those IRL queer experiences that were missed those past fifteen months can’t be signal-boosted enough.

It was as if a part of our authentic selves — self-images largely discovered by being able to express our full humanities, away from heteronormativity, inside these spaces — were snuffed by the pandemic. But those embers have been fanned, again… maybe even more so now.

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