Motherlode Finally Victorious

Copyright 1998 by Christine Beatty

(Originally published in Spectator Magazine on December 25, 1998)

The Motherlode, San Francisco’s premier “drag” bar, has endured tremendous obstacles over the last five years. Between pandering politicians, bigoted bureaucrats and narrowminded neighbors, this club suffered more slings and arrows than any other business of its kind. In spite of prolonged opposition, inspired by his late partner Joe, owner Mark Gilpin has tenaciously persisted, finally succeeding in moving the “ML” to a new address.

Five years ago, April ‘93 to be exact, I penned my first story about this transgender tavern, and its impending relocation to a more spacious building. The move was opposed by a vocal group of businesses and burghers, led by the now-defunct First Apostolic Church that would have been the nextdoor neighbor. Yet, the protests failed to derail the permit process at the police department with whom the bar negotiated safety and security arrangements. The move seemingly imminent, I submitted the story to Spectator, confident I’d soon be doing a followup with photos of the new place.

Wrong! The protestors turned to the last regulating agency that could curtail the move. Fifteen months later I was reporting that, despite the support of the police, the effort had finally been stymied. When I interviewed Mark for that story he placed the blame squarely on a biased report by homophobic inspector from the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control board) and a “ludicrous” decision by an equally unimpartial administrative law judge. It would not be appealed because of the $187,000 spent thus far. And all this time the bar continued to host overflow crowds, the main impetus to move in the first place.

Then, in 1995, hopes were raised anew. A roomier location was found right across the street, and there was no nearby church to raise objections. Yet once again, neighborhood activists attempted to cast a monkeywrench into the plans, this time enlisting the aid of Mayor (and former police chief) Frank Jordan. Jordan vetoed a Board of Supervisors resolution to allow the move, a resolution passed on the strength of the testimony of police officers and several transsexual women, myself included. When the veto was overridden, I turned the story in to Spectator, absolutely certain we’d have a new place to call our own very soon. Guess what? The move was again killed at the ABC level by the neighborhood activists.

Photo by Christine Beatty

Finally, in April of this year, the Motherlode finally opened its doors at 1081 Post Street, less than a block from the former location. The new building is called Diva’s and will eventually house two clubs under one roof, a brand new fourstory entertainment complex in the Polk Gulch area. One club is the Motherlode bar which is currently open, and the other is “Dragon” which will occupy the top two levels.

Diva’s is an ambitious dream on the verge of being realized. The first floor is the lobby and the Motherlode, boasting a marbletopped bar, with a stage for the girls, classy decor and pleasant bathrooms. Mark escorted me on a grand tour of the third and fourth floors, currently in the final stages of construction, with many opulent furnishings already in place. Mark anticipates four to six more weeks for Dragon’s grand opening. He spoke with great pride of the new building which is opening coincidentally with the resurgence of the Polk Street area.

“It’s the nicest thing the girls have ever had,” Mark declared of the new Motherlode. “We’re getting a better clientele — you don’t have the street trash... I miss the windows, but that’s okay. The windows caused more problems than they brought in [customers]. And it’s air conditioned which is nice on some of these hot days. The third and fourth floor will be called ‘Dragon’ which will be predominantly geared toward gay Asian guys and gay guys. The nice thing about it is that while the lobby for Dragon and the Motherlode are the same, you don’t have to go through the Motherlode to go to Dragon and you don’t have to go through Dragon to get to the Motherlode. They’re two completely separate clubs, but everybody is welcome on every floor. The third floor is the dance floor and it’s big for San Francisco. And the fourth floor is going to be a video lounge ... I have never charged a cover for the Motherlode — but I’m going to for the first time for this Halloween. Normally, you’ll only pay to get on the third floor. I didn’t want to have to charge the boys and I didn’t want to have to charge the girls, yet I’ve got to have some middle ground — therefore, the third floor. You want to dance? Give me your three dollars.”

He went on to say the dancefloor cover will only apply to Friday and Saturday nights, and possibly Thursdays. One of his motives for the mixed building is to bring together the transgender and gay communities which historically have been somewhat isolated and separatist though they share many common problems, such as discrimination and harassment. He believes an intermingling of the communities would be a step in the right direction toward solidarity, and that Diva could help play a role to that end.

The Motherlode has managed to turn around the opinions of many who’ve opposed its presence. When I testified at City Hall regarding the  Motherlode’s second attempt to move, the North of Market Planning Coalition vehemently opposed it. The NMPC has since reversed itself, now enthusiastic about the new location. Mark has had the complete support of the police department, the Board of Supervisors, “the whole city bureaucracy ... because they realize it’s more tax money. It’s a nice place. It’s not sleazy ... it’s a classy place.”

Yet there are those who have been against the bar all along, a vocal handful who’ve given Mark grief for over five years. I spoke to Mark at length about the opposition and he pulled no punches.

Spectator: What’s been the biggest impediment to moving?

Mark Gilpin: Basically, the neighbors, led by a gentleman named Robert Garcia. Who is supposedly the president of Save Our Streets...

S: When you say ‘the neighbors’ are you talking about the whole neighborhood?

M: I’m talking about Robert Garcia and the people gathered into his fold with his lies.

S: What lies has he told?

M: “If we get rid of the Motherlode there’ll be no more prostitution in the neighborhood.” “If we get rid of the Motherlode there’ll be no more noise in the neighborhood.” “If we get rid of the Motherlode there’ll be no more drugs in the neighborhood.” “If we get rid of the Motherlode it will be the beginning of the demise of bars in the neighborhood.” Now I find it interesting that two bars have changed hands in the last eight months. And Robert Garcia did not protest them at all.

S: So it sounds like he has it in for the Motherlode.

M: Robert Garcia is transgenderphobic.

S: What kinds of things has he done to oppose the new location of the bar?

M: He put out a petition — if I didn’t know the Motherlode and I just looked at it, I might have signed it myself. Because it said something to the effect of “we’re trying to improve the neighborhood and get rid of some of the problems and would you sign this to help us.” Sounds great! Except you have to read on. And then it says the Motherlode has been a constant source of problems and if you let them buy this license [and move to the new location] it’s just going to get worse. As if the Motherlode, which has been a bar for 26 years, is the cause of all the problems in the neighborhood... So he gathered 152 signatures and turned them into the ABC to protest the transfer. A very simple person-to-person transfer. Very above board. That caused us to have to go to hearing. And the ABC did an extremely thorough investigation of me and came to the conclusion that the license should be issued. At the protest hearing Robert Garcia raised all of protests, and his innuendo and his lies—

S: What type of lies?

M: “They’re operating without permits. They don’t have a business license. They’re having drag shows without an entertainment license.” I’m not doing anything I’m not supposed to do. I can have drag shows without the license as long as I don’t pay the performers and as long as they don’t sing live. The administrative law judge took 700 pages of testimony and transcripts under review and threw out every one of his protests. The license went permanent as of today.

According to Mark, Garcia has protested every permit the bar has applied for, including the entertainment and dance permits. The bar has the complete approval of the police captain of their district, owing largely to Motherlode’s impeccable reputation as a clean, safe and well-run establishment. These permits will be complete as soon as the construction is finished. But this was not the end of Garcia’s attempts, who next went to the zoning department and attempted to block the new building’s permits through what Mark referred to a “flat out lie,” one which the Motherlode was able to disprove with thorough documentation. And with the permanent liquor license finally granted and all permits approved pending construction signoff, I detected more than a hint of satisfaction from Mark as we wound up the interview.

Christine: Do you have any last words?

Mark: Not to take a parting shot at Mr. Garcia, but — I did it legally and I did it right. And sometimes right wins.

And so, Dear Reader, this is hopefully the very last article I will ever have to write about the Motherlode bar’s struggle with bigotry. If you’ve never been to the Motherlode, you don’t know what you’re missing. Packed every Friday and Saturday night for the drag shows which start at 11:30, it hosts some of the most friendly, glamorously beautiful transgendered women in the world. So come on down to 1081 Post, just a block east of Van Ness, and help us celebrate our new home!

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