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Where the Girls Are

Oakland as modern lesbian dreamscape.

Tonhu Dao (left) and Thelma P. Payne at Ships in the Night

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.


"To my right, four women in lingerie are making cookies, giggling as they find new parts of each other's bodies to 'accidentally' get dough on and subsequently lick off, Kate Sassoon recalls. “To my left, about 20 girls of all bodies, sizes, and flavors of the feminine are in a squirming, lounging, laughing pile. The scent of hot cookies fills the room and more girls emerge from the kitchen, announcing ‘Hot cookie delivery! Who wants one?’ as they sashay past me.”

Sassoon is talking about Girl Pile, Oakland’s very own (but not only) all-girl orgy, and it’s as good a place as any to start exploring the particular pull this city has on girls who like girls (and grrls who like girls, bois, genderqueers, and trans folk). According to the 2010 census, Oakland has more female same-sex couples per capita than any other city in California—only 700 fewer than San Francisco, a city more than twice its size (although Oakland’s population of male couples hasn't kept up with the female contingent). Oakland has its own pride festival and a black LGBT film fest that’s been around for more than a decade. It has a lesbian-owned bookstore (Laurel), an eclectic and divey LGBT bar with regular drag king shows (the WhiteHorse), and even that bastion of same-sex experimentation, an all-female college (Mills). It has people like Courtney Trouble, a queer porn impresario who just inked a deal to direct a girl-on-girl feature for the mega-studio Smash Pictures, and Nenna Joiner, whose sex shop, Feelmore Adult Gallery, proudly slings trans erotica and high-end vibrators three blocks from City Hall. It has one of the most popular lesbian-oriented dance nights anywhere in the Bay Area, Ships in the Night. And it has city councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, a self-identified butch who is not only arguably Oakland’s most popular elected official, but was also the chosen candidate of many of the city’s churches when she ran for mayor in 2010.

As a friend told me a few years back when I was lamenting how hard it is to find a lady to date in San Francisco, “Cross the damn bridge once in a while.” She was right, of course, even if her argument was counterintuitive. After all, Oakland has only a fraction of the population—and the LGBT cachet—of San Francisco. But what it does have is a long history of radical identity politics, plenty of single-family homes for lesbian couples hoping to start a family, a palpable outsider ethos, and a community that’s accepting of not only gay and straight but all the many shades of sexual and gender fluidity. “Oakland is a place where being in flux is accepted as totally normal,” says comic Carey Callahan, host of the Awkward Sex Show (currently on hiatus). “In San Fran you’re expected to have your three-minute elevator speech at the ready, but in Oakland people want to hear a longer, truer story.”

As it turns out, though, Oakland’s status as a lesbian mecca may come down to something more prosaic: housing prices. With women still making around 77 cents to every dollar earned by men, female-headed households are generally less wealthy than those headed by straight couples or two men—and in a tight housing market, lesbians may be getting squeezed out of San Francisco (even more than everyone else). “From what I’ve been told, lesbians move here to nest and because they don’t make as much money,” says Kelsey Beyer, an artist and figure model—and the girl I finally crossed the damn bridge for.

But it’s not just Oakland’s cheaper rents that keep gay ladies on this side of the bay—otherwise we’d all move to El Cerrito and call it a day. There’s something more to it than that—something native. After all, says Allison Moon, author of the lesbian werewolf series Tales of the Pack and the upcoming Girl Sex 101, “Queer means non-normative, not fitting your script. It means setting your own terms, renegotiating as necessary, and defining your own sense of family and community.” In other words: “Oakland is queer.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco magazine

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