A Hillcrest sign can be seen above the bar at Rich's in Hillcrest on May 30, 2021.
A Hillcrest sign above the bar at Rich's in Hillcrest on May 30, 2021. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

San Diego was home to same-sex couples as far back as the 19th century, but it wasn’t until around World War II that gays and lesbians started to come out of the shadows and find places to call home. In honor of this month’s San Diego Pride celebrations, here’s a look at local LGBTQ historic sites that offer insight into the triumphs and struggles of past generations.

The Gayest Neighborhood of Them All 

The Hillcrest Gayborhood

Location: North of Balboa Park, south of Mission Valley (1970s-present)

For most of Hillcrest’s history since its birth around 1907, the neighborhood north of Balboa Park and south of Mission Valley was best known as the home of senior citizens, working-class residents, a Sears store, and a pair of hospitals. During World War II, the city’s gay bars were mainly downtown, where they catered to sailors.

But things changed dramatically in the 1970s as Hillcrest attracted LGBTQ people who sought cheap housing and were willing to fix up Victorian homes, a classic case of “gaytrification.” The Brass Rail, meanwhile, led the vanguard of gay and lesbian bars flocking to the “gayborhood” and nearby neighborhoods — North Park, Banker’s Hill, and University Heights.

“Gayborhoods allow gays and lesbians to find one another for friendship and fellowship, sex, dating, and love, despite the ascendance of dating apps,” said Amin Ghaziani, author of the book “There Goes the Gayborhood?,” in a 2017 interview. “They help us answer the question, ‘Who are my people?’ and they offer a renewed sense of our roots.”

There has been a lot of talk about the decline of the classic “gayborhood” in the United States. But Hillcrest remains an exception. A Voice of San Diego analysis of 2010 census data found that local gay male couples were still highly concentrated in Hillcrest and nearby neighborhoods. Lesbian couples, however, weren’t so centrally located. Instead, they lived all over the county.

Bar None – Gay Watering Holes to Remember

The Brass Rail/The Rail

Notable locations: 3800 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest (1963-1973); 3796 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest (1973-present)

The Flame

3780 Park Blvd., Hillcrest (1984-2004)

Gay bars are fairly rare these days: Only about a dozen are still open in the city of San Diego. But our region was home to many dozens of gay bars over the eight decades since World War II, according to the 2018 KPBS documentary “San Diego’s Gay Bar History.” There were so many in town that a sleazy 1952 bestselling book called “USA Confidential” warned that local “fairy dives” were pulling in sailors to watch “prancing misfits in peekaboo blouses, with marcelled [gelled] hair and rouged faces.”

Hillcrest’s The Rail (formerly known as The Brass Rail) is the most venerable of the bunch. In 1957, a straight man named Lou Arko bought the bar, then housed in the later-demolished Orpheum Theater downtown, and welcomed a gay clientele at night after businesspeople went home.

But there were rules laid down by police: “They did require that you could not keep your hands under the table if you were sitting next to another man. They had to be on the table,” Arko told the San Diego Reader in 1999.

The Brass Rail moved to Hillcrest in 1963, not long before it began attracting LGBTQ residents. By the 1990s and 2000s, The Brass Rail was known for its racially diverse customers – and their admirers – and drag shows.

The Flame, San Diego’s most high-profile lesbian bar, opened in 1984 on Park Boulevard at the site of a supper club. Its name reportedly memorialized a fire that destroyed a previous restaurant at the location called the Garden of Allah.

“I decided to run a woman’s bar because the women’s bars that were around at the time were owned by men. What made The Flame special is that everything was brand new,” said co-owner Carla Coshow in the KPBS documentary. “I made a point of hiring pretty women. I like pretty women, and I wanted it to be a place that people could feel comfortable bringing in their mom. My mother loved to go in there.”

The Flame closed in 2004, although its landmark neon sign remains. A few blocks away on University Avenue, Gossip Grill reigns as one of only about 30 or so lesbian bars left in the United States, down from an estimated 200 in 1980.

Meanwhile, patrons continue to quaff brews and serve shade at the Rail, which still sits at the corner of Fifth and Robinson avenues.

Under One Roof: A Home for the Community

Organizers of the Gay Center for Social Services gather at its Golden Hill headquarters in 1973.
Organizers of the Gay Center for Social Services gather at its Golden Hill headquarters in 1973. / Photo courtesy of The San Diego LGBT Community Center

The Gay Center/LGBT Community Center

Notable locations: 2250 B St., Golden Hill (1973-1980); 3780 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest (1980-1992); 3909 Centre St., Hillcrest (1999-present)

In 1972, a classified ad in a newspaper announced that an organization called the Gay Center for Social Services “needs a home. Minimum 6 rms. In Hillcrest, dntown, Golden Hills or N Park area.”

Including the word “gay” in the name of an organization was a bold move 51 years ago. But 11 men and four men from the local chapter of the Gay Liberation Front were on a mission: They wanted to open one of the nation’s first lesbian-and-gay community centers.

It didn’t take long for the non-profit organization to place to set up shop at a historic two-story home in Golden Hill.

According to the Lambda Archives of San Diego, “the Center’s initial programs included a hotline for information on their services and crisis intervention, counseling in ‘rap groups’ or one-on-one sessions, educational programs including a speaker’s bureau and a lending library, and a prisoner parole and probation program for LGBT prisoners.”

Over the next few years, the center turned into a full-fledged social service outfit with funding from the federal government and United Way. It sponsored film festivals, held block parties, and spoke up about misconduct.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the center’s home was in a cluster of buildings near Fifth and Robinson avenues. While the city has deemed parts of the complex to be historic, a development project aims to tear it down to make way for housing. 

The center, now known as the San Diego LGBT Community Center, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It’s based in a building at 3909 Centre St. on the northeast side of Hillcrest and has an annual revenue of about $7.9 million.

Where Men Met Men in the Shadows of Balboa Park

Photo by Rafa Rios

The “Fruit Loop,” Balboa Park

Location: Southwest section of Balboa Park/Marston Point (?-present)

It may seem odd to commemorate a leafy area of Balboa Park that was notorious for late-night cruising, hustlers, and public sex. But the “Fruit Loop” is an important part of local LGBTQ history because it was an important part of many local gay men’s lives, especially in the years before online personal ads and dating apps offered alternatives to bars. Men went to the southwest section of Balboa Park in search of sex, and they often found it – or ran into vice officers in search of illegal behavior.

Many gay men didn’t know where else to go because they were afraid to be seen at gay bars, especially if they were married or in the Navy, said Walt Meyer, a historian of San Diego’s LGBTQ past.

“They saw it as their only outlet to meet men. In some cases, they met people with whom they had relationships. And in other cases, it was all about anonymous sex.”

But there was plenty of risk. “Getting caught there could very well destroy your life,” Meyer said, since employers could learn about arrests.

The Fruit Loop became so well-known that Bruce Springsteen hints at its seediness in a wrenchingly sad 1995 song titled “Balboa Park.” Springsteen sings about a desperate and doomed migrant from Tijuana who is heading through the park, “where men in their Mercedes come nightly to employ/In the cool San Diego evening the services of the border boys.” 

In 2016, an art project called Parkeology spotlighted interviews with drag queens, park rangers, police officers and others about “the surveillance, management, and celebration of hookup culture in Balboa Park.” Now, homeless people often gather in Fruit Loop, and the road through it is blocked off at night.

A ‘Safe Space’ to Explore and Express Femininity

“Her Closet” at The Caliph bar

Location: 3100 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest (?-2018)

The Caliph, an iconic piano bar near the western edge of Balboa Park that closed on the first day of 2019, was best known for its showtune singalongs and faithful older clientele. Only a few patrons are likely to have known about “Her Closet,” a room where cross-dressing men, drag queens, and transgender women could dress up and let their hair down.

Sherman Mendoza, who bought the bar in 2003, said he worked out an arrangement with his landlord so the room could continue to serve the transgender community. Its origins go back to a hair-removal business that became a meeting place for the transgender community, said Meyer, a historian.

“People would go there for electrolysis and end up sticking around to talk to somebody else who was in the same boat they were,” he said.

Her Closet offered clothes, cosmetics, and camaraderie plus a place to change clothes before hitting the bars. “It was a safe space where someone could be themselves with no judgment and then go out on the town wearing whatever they felt like,” Meyer said. “It offered them a wonderful opportunity to do that.”

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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  1. According to my grandfather, during WW2 there were two very popular gay bars across the street from the entrance to the Naval Training Center (today Liberty Station). One was for gay men, and the other catered to lesbian woman. He used to tell a very amusing story about not understanding the concept of a lesbian bar, heading over to try and pick up girls, and getting an important lesson on just how different the wider world could be than his poor southern farming town.

    He wasn’t able to remember what the bars’ names were back then, but both are still around after some changes in management. The gay bar is now called “The Hole in the Wall”, at 2820 Lytton St, and the lesbian bar is “Desi’s” at 2734 Lytton.

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