Market Street and Union Square Sex Work Economies

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Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.

Union Square, 1955. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

Redevelopment in the central city would dramatically impact the Polk Street in the 1970s. The Polk Gulch district sat on the western fringe of the Tenderloin. The area housed the city’s bustling entertainment industry, until the 1920s, when city officials shut down the Barbary Coast “vice” district at the behest of the city’s business elite before the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and much of the trade went underground and relocated to the Tenderloin district.[1]

San Francisco’s modern gay subculture began to come together in the Tenderloin’s speakeasies and gin joints during the era of Prohibition. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, a number of gay bars quickly opened in the area. By the 1960s, the low-income area was a haven and a residential ghetto for low-income elderly, runaway youth, and an emerging transgender community, who found space in its residential hotels, 24-hour cafeterias, bars, and liberal religious institutions.

Patrons of the Gilded Cage, a Tenderloin club and afterhours youth hangout. 1968. Courtesy of the Peter Fiske collection at the GLBT Historical Society.

Ed Hansen, a liberal minister with close ties to anti-poverty campaigns and youth organizing, called the Tenderloin “the human dump heap of San Francisco. It is the place where the social outcasts – the aged, the poor, the infirm, the youth with sexual problems – persons of all races and religions – go and are out of sight. Here they are forgotten, ignored, and ultimately die, emotionally and then physically.”[2]

Several discreet sex work economies were also based in the neighborhood, each built around a specific “type” of sex worker and customer. While youth may have carried themselves differently in other aspects of their lives, while working they conformed to each location’s style of dress and sexual identity.

Patrons of the Gilded Cage, a Tenderloin club and afterhours youth hangout. 1968. Courtesy of the Peter Fiske collection at the GLBT Historical Society.

The “Meat Rack,” located along Market Street at Mason, was known for “trade,” a term referring to heterosexual-identified, traditionally masculine or “rough” young men, as well as individuals we would now refer to as transgendered. In 1962, a letter to the editor in LCE News complained about the “Walking Eyesores of Market Street” made up with “Lipstick, Rouge, Pancake, Eyeshadow, Spraynet and Bobby Pins,” and “the Hustler,” “lounging in the doorways of Market and Mission looking for the married man from down the Peninsula or over in East Bay.”[3]

“A few are quite honestly married with children,” a 1968 article noted of the “Meat Rack” hustlers, “and proud to wheel the carriage down past the meat rack on Sunday afternoon, introducing the wife to the johns and other hustlers.”[4] These youth were also thought be less educated and more likely to be involved in drug use and crime. “This is the male who is more likely to claim that he is straight …who is temporarily out of work and is transient to the city,” criminologist Martin Stow wrote in the early 1970s. He is “not likely to have completed high-school and comes from a family of conflicts.”[5]

Gay-identified prostitutes, many of them thought to be in college or with higher education levels, worked outside Union Square’s St. Francis Hotel, where the upscale “men-only” Oak Room was a well known cruising spot among gay men in the 1950s and early 1960s. “His goal,” according to a 1968 article, “will be to meet a truly generous sugar daddy, not too hard to take and too demanding of time, that will set him up as a keptie, put him through college, buy him a car, or place him in a life-time business career.”[6]

In this economically depressed area, aboveground businesses depended on the money generated by the sex trade. “The Plush Doggie…has suffered mightily from the gay trade,” Guy Strait wrote sarcastically in 1964 of a 24-hour diner. “They have suffered so badly they are still in business, otherwise they would have had to close their doors many months ago.”[7]

Vanguard Magazine, 1966. Courtesy of the GLBTHS.

Vanguard, a short-lived queer youth organization that arose out of liberal ministers’ anti-poverty work in the central city, characterized the economy as exploitative in the mid-1960s: “We Protest the endless profit adults are making off youth in the central city,” one mid-1960s flier read. “We demand justice and immediate corrections of the fact that most of the money made in the area is made by the exploitation of youth by so called normal adults who make a fast buck off situations everyone calls degenerate, perverted, and sick.”[8]

Vanguard "Street Sweep" Protest. Courtesy of the GLBTHS.

  1. “Excavating the Postwar Sex District in San Francisco,” Josh Sides, California State University, Northridge, 359.
  2. Vector Magazine, Jan 1966.
  3. LCE News, March 4 1962.
  4. Orpheus…in-bound, Vector Magazine, May 1968.
  5. No title, c. early 1970s, by Martin F. Stow, Toby Marotta Collection, GLBTHS.
  6. “Orpheus…in-bound,” Vector Magazine, May 1968.
  7. LCE News, May 1964.
  8. Vanguard “We Protest” in Don Lucas papers, GLBTHS.

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