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PRIDE MONTH: The LGBTQ history of Hillcrest

Posted at 4:23 PM, Jun 07, 2023

HILLCREST, Calif (KGTV) — Hillcrest is widely known as the LGBTQ+ hub of San Diego.

The area is decorated with Pride flags hanging from businesses and colorful murals on the side of buildings. There are even some rainbow-painted crosswalks.

But how did Hillcrest become the queer community it is today?

In celebration of Pride Month, ABC 10News took a look at the LGBTQ history of Hillcrest.

"We were always having people over and drinks," said Susan Jester. "It was a fun, fun time -- the 80s."

Susan Jester recalls her early years in Hillcrest.

"This is Jason. He was the manager of BJs, which was our country western bar in Hillcrest in the 80s," she said, describing a photo.

The memories remind her of the best time of her life and the worst.

"The AIDS epidemic came along, and just going through these photos, there's so many people that are not with us any longer," she said.

Jester moved to Hillcrest in the early 1980s, around the time the AIDS epidemic began. The disease stigmatized the LGBTQ community. Homophobia and harassment ran rampant.

"The LGBTQ plus or the queer community has a way of finding each other," said Nicole Verdés.

Verdés is the Board President of the Lambda Archives, a non-profit that collects, preserves, and shares the LGBTQ-plus history of San Diego, Northern Baja California, and Imperial County.

Verdés said Hillcrest started as a quiet suburban area, which was ideal for gay men and women.

"Because it was a little quieter. They felt like they could walk at night without fear of being harmed or yelled at or anything like that," Verdés said.

In the 1960s and 70s, gay bars began emerging in Hillcrest as places for refuge and freedom of expression.

"Pretty soon it became a mecca and spot where we all meet and gather in Hillcrest because there were safe places to be... restaurant wise, bar wise, church wise," said Jester.

Hillcrest also became the hub for LGBTQ rights activism in San Diego.

It's where Jester founded the San Diego AIDS Walk and where protests happened against Prop 8 -- which was intended to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

Years later, the LGBTQ community is still fighting against bigotry.

Instead of in bars, the Pride flag at University Ave. and Normal St. is where the queer community gathers to celebrate, mourn, and protest.

"When the shooting happened in Orlando, the Pulse shooting, the first place our community gathered was the Hillcrest pride flag down the street," Verdés said.

What started as a secret safe haven for the queer community has evolved into a bustling neighborhood with over 20 LGBTQ-owned businesses.

"In 20, 30 years when I'm no longer here, I still want it to be a place where LGBT young people of all stripes can come and feel safe and also remember what it took to get us here," Jester said.

Businesses in Hillcrest are currently working to get the area designated by the city as an Entertainment and Cultural District.