san francisco -- the islamic reli-gion asks its followers, without incurring undue financial strain or endangering their health, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives. The same could be said of gay men and women visiting San Francisco. So here I am, checking out the gay centre of the universe for the first time in my life.When you come out late in life (I emerged from the straight bubble ready to breathe queer air in my early 30s), you have a lot of catching up to do. I feel like a 100-metre sprinter who's stumbled out of the blocks and has to push so much harder to make up ground on the rest of the field.
I make my way to ground zero -- Castro Street -- which, disappointingly, caters to an almost all male clientele. This is Boystown USA, where dykes are seen behind the counters serving chai teas and Thai salads to toned men.
What most distinguishes T.O.'s and San Francisco's gay strips is the grand Castro Theatre. This Art Deco rep cinema boasts a mighty Wurlitzer organ that rises up out of the stage complete with an enthusiastic organist who rips through a bevy of show tunes prior to every screening. I attend the San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival's opening night gala of Susan Seidelman's comedic mystery romp Gaudi Afternoon. It's fluffy fun for the audience of 1,500 dykes who love every scintilla of the gentle, gender-bending fun.
Speaking of dykes -- whoa! The diverse cross-section of dykes, bi women and trannie boys is overwhelming. I catch myself openly gazing at these irreverent creatures who exude a confidence I rarely feel among T.O. lesbians.
It's a raw, fuck-you, I-deserve-as-much-happiness-as-I-can-possibly-grab vibe. You see it in the heavily tattooed 18-year-old baby butches as well as the beautiful, grey-haired senior dykes. It's this vibe that acts as the city's aphrodisiac, the sultry come-on that attracts queers from around the world to its embrace. I want to talk to the women around me -- ask them how their journeys are faring -- but I feel shy and fade back into myself, part of a huge crowd streaming out of an historic cinema on a warm summer night.
The next day, to get my bearings, I head down to the Mission district and Osento, San Francisco's women's bathhouse. No sexual activity is allowed here -- this is a place to relax in a body-positive, safe space.
I strip off my clothes and make my way to the wet sauna, where I join two others, one from a nearby small town, the other a long-time San Franciscan. Sitting nude, chatting about the festival, San Fran's high cost of living and the benefits of peppermint oil, I realize that I could live here, make a home in this city that demands that each of us face our true nature. Suddenly, I feel naked in more ways than one.