Venerable San Francisco gay bar Aunt Charlie’s remains community cornerstone

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Before the Castro was covered in rainbow flags, downtown San Francisco was the center of the city’s LGBTQ+ scene. 

Aunt Charlie’s Lounge Manager Joseph Mattheisen has tended bar there for 25 years. The neighborhood around Turk and Market is now known for drugs and crime, but it used to be full of gay bars.

Aunt Charlie's Lounge Manager Joseph Mattheisen
  Aunt Charlie’s Lounge Manager Joseph Mattheisen

CBS


“The gays wanted their rights, which we got, which caused the end of a lot of businesses because gays didn’t have to go out to a gay bar. They could go to a neighborhood bar and feel just as comfortable,” Mattheisen said.

With its strong pours, $5.50 well drinks and cash-only policy, Aunt Charlie’s stuck around and so did its crowd of regulars. Many of them have shared experiences of isolation. Mattheisen grew up in the 1960s in South Dakota.

“I knew I had a leaning towards men, but I didn’t know there was a whole group that did that,” Mattheisen explained.

Then he moved to San Francisco.

“The first gay bar I had ever been to, I was on a bus here in San Francisco and there was some guy I thought looked cute, so I sort of followed him. He went up a set of stairs to a club, and I never saw him after that because the club was packed,” Mattheisen said.

In the 1990’s, Aunt Charlie’s started weekend drag shows and attracted customers from all walks of life. Of course, heavy eyelashes and even heavier pours couldn’t combat COVID and things are still not quite back to normal.

“A lot of people are still a little leery about coming out and we are a small space,” Mattheisen said.

This year, the Pride Parade is back and Aunt Charlie’s is only a block off of the parade route. They’re opening early, as they always have on Pride Parade Sunday. Mattheisen is happy to help refresh the crowd.

“I’ve worked gay bars now since 1973 and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Mattheisen said. 

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