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Revisiting San Francisco’s Radical Queer Scene of the 90s

Chloe Sherman shares intimate scenes of everyday life coming of age among a new counterculture movement.

“It is said: San Francisco is where young people go to retire,” novelist Jeffrey Eugenides wrote of the sparkling city by the bay famous for its radical counterculture enclaves. From the beatniks to the hippies, the city’s progressive politics allowed outsiders of all stripes to reinvent themselves anew.

In the early 1990s, a new generation of queer youth, outcasts, and artists flocked to San Francisco’s fabled Mission District back when the neighborhood was still a predominantly Mexican and Black enclave. Rents were cheap and community thrived amid a neighborhood that had not yet been gentrified. 

Eager to experiment with art, self-expression, style and gender, they came together to create their own world of bars, nightclubs, tattoo shops, galleries, cafés, bookstores and women-owned businesses that embraced gender fluidity long before such terms became commonplace. 

“San Francisco had this sense of anything goes,” says photographer Chloe Sherman, who moved to the city the week after her first visit in 1990. “It has so much history and the ‘90s was a queer cultural renaissance. People came from all around the work to find one another, and it was an era before internet and cell phones so you had to show up in person.”

It was serendipitous timing for the young artist: the Bearded Lady Café had just opened. The community space, art gallery, performance space, and café quickly became a favorite place of artists like Catherine Opie, who encouraged Sherman to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.  

“I fell in love with everything: the people, the city, the freaks, the energy, the view, Sherman remembers. “San Francisco was a siren; when people arrived it called to them and they stayed. A year or two after my arrival, 10 people who visited me also moved here. It happened a lot this feeling of seeing what’s happening and wanting to be a part of it.”

Anna Joy post op, San Francisco, 1997 ©Chloe Sherman
Asia’s Room, 1996 ©Chloe Sherman

“No Rules, No Breaks”

Chloe Sherman arrived in San Francisco seeking art and adventure, creativity and community, and found just that, seamlessly blending it together in her photography. Turning the camera inward Sherman chronicled the world in which she lived, creating a captivating portrait of the vibrancy, tenderness, individuality, resilience and joy within this subculture that was marginalized by mainstream society. 

“I came to take photos, find my people, to laugh, feel safe, be inspire and just be free in San Francisco,” Sherman says. “People were experimental with art, self-expression, style, and gender. There was a renaissance unfolding as people showed up, joined forces, and made new rules. There was a sense of celebration. It was a new age of gender nonconformity, and the status quo was obsolete.”

Perfectly attuned to the moment, Sherman photographed her friends with a care and lovingness reflected back in their eyes. Now her debut monograph Chloe Sherman: Renegades, San Francisco: The 1990s is a candid portrait of a vibrant era that connects current and future generations to the pulse of San Francisco at a pivotal chapter in queer history. 

Sherman’s photographs eloquently capture the spirit of the time, of a Generation called X that understood from the start the only way something was going to get done was to do it yourself. They understood identity as a construction and performance as paradox, but couldn’t help from dabble in both before vocabularies around practice became common parlance. 

“Some of us already transitioning, adopting pronouns, audaciously insisting we were gorgeous, terrifying, trifling with normativities, flying in the face of cistems, tossing dynamite at binaries, then rebuilding ourselves from the bits,” musician Lynn Breedlove writes in an essay for the book. 

“Fleeing our pasts to a city by the bay where we could be dancers, bikers, studs and fatales, icons in sixties suits and dresses, strutting, pedaling, rising, roaring up and down hills where the only rule was no rules, no brakes,” Breedlove continues. “Chloe was always around, a spy in plain sight, surreptitious, camera deftly held, so we never noticed, so we stopped posing, or if we did look into her lens, we relaxed because it was her, part of the gang, no interloper.”

Picnic Near Golden Gate Bridge, 1998 ©Chloe Sherman
Birthday Cake with Wings, mid-90s ©Chloe Sherman
Cypher Glasses, 1997 ©Chloe Sherman

Til the Bearded Lady Sings

At it’s heart, Chloe Sherman’s Renegades, San Francisco: The 1990s is a love story, an ode to another time and place that has all but disappeared from the city but remains ever present in the stories we tell of family, community, and partnership. 

“Photography can be powerful because it connects the past to the present,” says Sherman. “The book is a snapshot of the time, but it barely touches on the extent of how many people were present and how much was happening. We were really about making waves and not fitting into the mainstream or being apologetic. It was just very, this I what we’re doing; take it or leave it. We weren’t trying to offend people but we didn’t care how we were perceived.”

Liberated from outré ideologies, Sherman and her friends made their place in the Mission amid the multi-generational Latin American community. “There are people working now at the same mom and pop stores I used to go to back then,” says Sherman. “I became did a documentary photography story on the woman who washed windows for the Bearded Lady and am still close with the family. You become part of the structure of the place.”

Sherman’s camera was a welcome addition among friends and strangers alike. “It was a flamboyant community so people liked being photographed. Everyone was spontaneous, fearless and uninhibited. Part of it might have been we were not under scrutiny from the internet so we could be who we were without feeling that were being overexposed,” she says.

“We had individual conviction and this feeling of strength in numbers because we could lift each other up. We would bounce idea off each other and say things like, ‘Let’s make a movie’ or ‘Let’s start a band.’ Things just happened with surprising effortlessness.”

The Heist, San Francisco, 1996 ©Chloe Sherman
Summer in the City, mid-90s ©Chloe Sherman
View from the back seat, San Francisco, 1997 ©Chloe Sherman


Chloe Sherman: Renegades, San Francisco: The 1990s is published by Hatje Cantz, $50

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