Memories of San Francisco’s 1990s radical lesbian scene

Memories of San Francisco’s 1990s radical lesbian scene

In her new photo book ‘ Renegades, San Francisco: The 1990s’ Chloe Sherman documents queer resistance and joy.

In 1990, a then 21-year-old Chloe Sherman stumbled across a photo book that would completely alter her life’s trajectory. She had recently moved to Portland, Oregon from the east coast, but the pictures in Della Grace’s (AKA Del LaGrace Volcano) Love Bites, gave her itchy feet.

“Back then, it was harder to experience the world unless you showed up and arrived – maybe I had seen photos of hippies and the Golden Gate Park, [but] there wasn’t Google Images or Instagram,” Sherman recalls. “[Love Bites] was exquisite and life-changing for me – it was UK and San Francisco dykes in bars and I was just leafing through pages memorising everything. I saw San Francisco under some of the titles of the images and I was like: ‘I can get to it, it’s not far.’”

Identifying with the gender-bending, butch femme aesthetic of the book, she wanted to “check it out” for herself. One weekend, Sherman decided to jump into her car and make the 10 hour drive, where she stumbled across a newly opened Bearded Lady Truck Stop café in the Valencia Gardens housing project. Sharing patio space with the Black & Blue tattoo parlour, it was everything she was searching for and more.

“It was a dyke-owned, underground, performance space – officially a café, but really a gathering space,” she says. “And I went in there just as they were opening their doors, and found everyone who eventually became friends, girlfriends and partners. I loved it, was like ‘I’ll be right back’ and moved formally the next week – went home, packed up my little Toyota, drove down and never looked back.”

The Bearded Lady would form a key cornerstone in Sherman’s life and community, and is now immortalised in her new photobook Renegades, San Francisco: The 1990s. Within its pages and spreads, the book presents pictures from the photographer’s archive, where for years she captured the self-identifying queers, butch femmes, lesbians, artists and radicals of San Francisco’s Mission District.

The ‘90s were a different time in the Bay Area. Tech giants had yet to become truly giant, rent was cheap, and a radical spirit in the city continued to linger from its moment at the centre of the beatnik generation, via its hippy and gay men heydays. “It was the beginning of this explosive dyke scene, queer scene in The Mission,” Sherman says. “It was beginning to exit the AIDS crisis, but it was a new decade, and it was a kind of women prominent decade in San Francisco. It was radical, it was anti-establishment, and as people came together it was a way of creating a safe world irrespective of anyone else, who never cared about us or never noticed us.”

Featuring a mix of black-and-white and colour film shots, Sherman’s pictures are warm and nostalgic, bursting with queer resistance and the joy of youth. There are candid moments in bedrooms, lively party shots, and people making art. It was an endlessly creative scene – full of painters, writers, photographers, tattoo artists and musicians. “We were scrappy dykes – unapologetically loud and punk,” she explains. “Opening a van door and piling out to read or [play] music. There were bands every night – I was in two bands and one I don’t even remember the name of it.”

It was a scene where butch femmes, queers and lesbians could be and express themselves in ways that they could never before. They presented as masculine, bent ideas of gender, and even pronouns before he/she/they was a commonly understood thing. “I remember me and my friends started calling people ‘he’ – like you’re obviously not ‘she’,” Sherman says. “There wasn’t even a conversation about it, we just started playing with pronouns and identity and accepted whatever we wanted for ourselves and each other, and made our own language really.

“Even the idea of FTM (female to male) trans, was very beginning in the early-to-mid ‘90s – the furthest you could go was being butch,” she continues. “Now a lot of those people [have come out] as trans. We were pushing the boundaries and pushing the envelope, and being very anti-establishment. But we loved each other, we were all coming together in a way we liked and related to.”

Renegades, San Francisco: The 1990s is available at Chloe Sherman’s official website

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