Becca Macfife is a Bay Area native and a front desk associate at the San Francisco Downtown Hostel. When not working the desk, she's probably out being an explorer of the world, educating the masses with the local nonprofit San Francisco Sex Information, or talking to strangers. She has been known to keep a tutu on hand, you know, "just in case."
We like to say that the only thing San Franciscans do not tolerate is intolerance. Such thinking has always provided plenty of space for unconventional people, rife with peculiarity and rich with counterculture, to move in and set up camp.The legacy of weirdness in San Francisco is historical. With the Gold Rush came a massive population boom that brought single men faster than infrastructure could keep up, creating the perfect environment for debauchery. Later on the San Francisco timeline, the Beat Movement in North Beach ran with the idea of radical counterculture, and then the Hippies kept that going in an all-new tie-dyed direction when they took over the Haight/Ashbury neighborhood during the Summer of Love.
In modern day San Francisco, the Castro neighborhood is known far and wide as a gay mecca, and it is not unusual to pass a drag queen on the sidewalks or a naked man in the park. Alternative sexualities abound, as well as nontraditional values and offbeat, participatory art. Even the architecture here is quirky -- so many of the buildings resemble wedding cakes and dollhouses. And that big bridge? It's bright orange! If you truly want to find and appreciate the weirdness of this place, though, you've got to find the people who rock that stereotype and the gatherings where we show off our costumes.
If you find yourself in a crowd of brides around the Union Square area around the Ides of March, you have found one such event. During Brides of March, hundreds of people -- both men and women -- dress up in thrift store wedding gowns to go pubbing and shopping en mass. It originally started in San Francisco, and now Brides of March is an event that is celebrated in cities across the map.
Santarchy, or Santa Con, is the other notable costumed take-over/street party occurring around Christmas time. Like Brides of March, participation is highly encouraged, and all you need is an outfit! Please note, however, that "city-wide pub crawl" are key words for both of these events, so being over 21 years old, while not strictly required, does come in handy.
Alternative sexualities abound in San Francisco, like in many parts of the world, except that here those differences are often celebrated proudly, out in the open. One example is the well-known Folsom Street Festival in September, where the leather and kink communities come out to play. This is the setting to learn about and witness the BDSM (Bondage/Domination, Dominant/Submissive, and SadoMasochism) culture. It is not for the faint of heart, though, as you are likely to see things that will surprise you.
Not all sexuality-based communities in San Francisco are enthusiastic about whipping and flogging. Bawdy Storytelling: True Stories of Sexual Adventure is a storytelling event that will push your boundaries, but will also make you laugh. Held every month at the Verdi Club, Bawdy Storytelling really is just that: real people talking about actual sexual exploits. Speakers can vary from dominatrixes to stand-up comedians to my next-door neighbor, and with so many people speaking so openly about their sexualities, it certainly becomes its own form of sexual education and a true San Franciscan experience.
A few remaining members of The Cacophony, a secret, anarchic society founded in San Francisco, took their quirks in a different direction and started an event that has since become its own subculture: Burning Man. Burning Man is perhaps the biggest current celebration of San Francisco eccentricity. It started with 20 participants on Baker Beach in 1986, but now fills an entire "city" (technically located in Black Rock Desert, Nevada) with 50,000+ people in one of the harshest desert environments imaginable. While the week-long arts/creativity/party festival doesn't take place within San Francisco city limits anymore, the organization itself as well as a good population of "Burners" are still based here, and you can get a taste of what it's all about at events held here throughout the year.
Burning Man is based on principles of community, art, radical self-expression, and self-reliance, and these rules also apply to Burning Man Decompression, the annual after-party that occurs in October. It takes up several city blocks, many of the big players from "the playa" are represented, and it's a last chance to show off some of the best art cars, projects, and costumes of the year. The springtime How Weird Street Faire also has ties to Burning Man, and many of the dance-camps play thumping music in the streets. Keep an eye out for other such events, too, like Precompression, Burnal Equinox, or the various dance party fundraisers that Burners camps host throughout the year.
Stay at one of our three hostels in San Francisco and celebrate your own inner weirdness.