From Little Scandinavia to Gay Mecca: San Francisco’s Castro District


It’s LGBTQ+ pride month! 

I was fortunate enough to spend a few years living in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco which borders the infamous Castro district, one of the well-known meccas for gay pride. Walking a few blocks to 24th Street was a weekly thing for my sister and I when we did all of our shopping. One block up and a few blocks toward the downtown, we would hit the Castro district with all of its color, vibrancy, and enthusiasm and all of its rainbow flags and rainbow crosswalks. It was a place full of energy.

Photo Credit: A crosswalk in the Castro District painted with the colors of the rainbow flag, 13 October 2014: Pinpinellus/Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA 4.0

But the Castro district (often referred to as “the Castro”) didn’t start out that way. In fact, its beginnings are much more humble. In the 19th century, the area was inhabited mainly by working-class immigrants of Scandinavian origin. Their hard work and love of their new country and the city are well documented in the 1948 film I Remember Mama. The film is based on the true story of a Norwegian family trying to make ends meet in early 20th century San Francisco and get used to the modernizations of American culture, including putting one’s money into a bank (a major theme in the film). 

This Scandinavian enclave lasted until the mid-20th century. Several things turned the tide for the Castro. The 1950s marked a great shift in American living when people, eager for a safe and sane life after World War II, sought the suburbs and their own houses with a picket fence. Families fled San Francisco for the more sedate cities of the Bay Area like Pleasanton, San Jose, and Walnut Creek. Many Scandinavian families from the Castro moved out of their homes, leaving them empty, and the city was eager to fill these homes, so buying or renting a home was reasonable (hard to imagine in San Francisco) at that time. This coincided with many gay servicemen being released from the army and looking for a gay-friendly place to live. Later in the late 1960s, when San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (just bordering the Castro) became wild with drugs and violence, many gay people there escaped into the more livable Castro district.

In the 1970s, the Castro was a haven for gay activists, the most famous being Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay politician to serve on California’s Board of Supervisors. In the 1980s, the Castro saw a darker side when the AIDS/HIV epidemic hit the nation, but today, it stands as the symbol of gay culture and pride. This year marks the first since the COVID pandemic when all the festivities associated with Pride Month in San Francisco will be out in full force and as this article makes clear, San Francisco still remains a safe place for LGBTQ+ people to live and thrive just as it was in the mid-20th century. 

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Boston Marriages and The New Woman


This month is LGBTQ+Pride month so let’s talk about Boston marriages. 

These were not really marriages (that is, legally) and they weren’t always in Boston. The term came from Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, published in 1886. This book (made into a film almost 100 years later starring Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve) tells the story of women’s suffrage and the New Woman from a man’s point of view. In it, the very prim and proper spinster Olive takes under her wing a free-spirited, charismatic speaker named Verena with the intent of educating her and grooming her as a leader of the suffragist movement. Their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship is challenged by Olive’s Southern cousin, a Civil War veteran who is not exactly a believer in women’s lib.

James’ novel is set in Boston and depicts the Olive/Verena relationship as a kind of intellectual marriage of minds — hence, Boston Marriage. But Olive and Verena’s relationship wasn’t exclusive to fiction. In fact, James took the model for their relationship from his own sister. Alice James lived in a Boston Marriage with her companion Katharine Loring for almost twenty years.

Photo Credit: Alice James (reclining) and her companion Katharine Loring, 1890, Royal Leamington Spa in England, unknown source, unknown author: Elisa.rolle/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 expired

To understand the appeal of Boston Marriages, we want to go back to the philosophy of the separate spheres that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women were confined to a very small space and expected to remain there, physically, mentally, and intellectually. Women who had intelligence, wit, and charisma were oftentimes encouraged not to express it, and those who did have the courage to be themselves were oftentimes ridiculed and mocked.

Women who entered a Boston Marriage, which means they created a domestic partnership where they shared a home, finances, and an emotionally attached relationship, sought to be respected and revered for their intelligence. It was no wonder many of them were New Women, as the ideals and values of New Women fit in with the Boston Marriage perfectly. These were women who were independent in mind and spirit, usually financially well off (so they didn’t need a man to support them), educated, and intellectually curious. They knew they had a lot to give and chose to give it to a female partner instead of a male one.

The question debated for years about these domestic arrangements is: Were they lesbian relationships too? Many say there is evidence from passionate correspondences that many did have a sexual component. However, one thing to remember is the line between romance and friendship wasn’t as tightly drawn in the 19th century as it is in the 21st. If you look at letters written between women friends, and even men friends, during this period, you’ll likely find language we would consider appropriate only for a romantic partner nowadays. So romantic language was not always evidence of romance during this time. 

The likely answer to this question is: Some of the relationships were sexual and some were platonic, and because of the taboo put on same-sex love in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ll probably never know which ones were and which ones weren’t. 

Boston Marriages were one way out of the conventional path for many intelligent and independent women. They had the companionship they deserved and were able to pursue their own values without being expected to behave in certain ways that they found constricting and inauthentic to them.

Between Adele Gossling, my protagonist for the Adele Gossling Mysteries, and Nin Branch, her sidekick, there exists not a Boston Marriage (Adele lives with her brother while Nin prefers to live on her own) but the same respect and reverence for women’s intelligence and wit. Each woman honors the strengths of the other and encourages her in her talents. They give one another emotional support and comfort throughout the series, especially when faced with the more restrictive mindsets of men like Jackson, Adele’s brother, and the county sheriff.

Book 1 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is out and you can pick it up here at a special price. And don’t forget to check out Book 2 of the series, which is now on preorder also at a special price!

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