SoMa Nights: The Queer Nightclub Photography of Melissa Hawkins

February 15 – May 27, 2019

Curated by Melissa Hawkins and Marke Bieschke

This exhibition highlighted the extraordinary vitality of queer nightlife in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) district during the darkest years of the AIDS crisis, an era that simultaneously marked the peak of AIDS activism and queer militant organizing in the city.

“SoMa Nights: The Queer Club Photography of Melissa Hawkins” focused on the work of Melissa Hawkins, a young photographer for the San Francisco gay weekly The Sentinel and other publications from 1986 to 1994. Her black-and-white images vividly captured the scene with a combination of frankness and intimacy reflecting her dual roles as journalist and nightlife participant.

Melissa Hawkins,  Dancer, 1015 Folsom  (1991), used with permission.

Melissa Hawkins, Dancer, 1015 Folsom (1991), used with permission.

“It was such an incredible time of creativity and expression, even in the midst of the tragedy of AIDS,” Hawkins says. “In the daytime, you’d read an entire section of the paper filled with the names of people who had died. Then at night, you would go to the craziest parties on earth. It truly was about living every moment as if it were your last.”

In an era before digital photography and at a time when some LGBTQ people were still hesitant to make their identities public, Hawkins had both the gear required to shoot first-rate photos and the connections needed to gain the trust of her subjects. The results are powerful images documenting parties at 177 Townsend, 1015 Folsom, The Eagle, The End Up, The Rawhide and The Stud in SoMa, as well as The Box in the Western Addition.

Co-curated by Hawkins and nightlife historian Marke Bieschke, the GLBT Historical Society Museum show featured dozens of these never-before-displayed photos, along with memorabilia including flyers, posters, clothing and decorative artifacts selected to recreate an indelible moment in San Francisco and queer nightlife history.

To purchase the limited-edition exhibition catalog, click here.

About the Curators

Melissa Hawkins,  Phatima and MichaelAngelo  (undated), used with permission.

Melissa Hawkins, Phatima and MichaelAngelo (undated), used with permission.

Melissa Hawkins is a photographer and multidisciplinary designer. Her photographic oeuvre of the 1980s and 1990s captured San Francisco’s queer community. Many of the images were taken in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood in clubs popular during the era.

Artwork by Hawkins has appeared in group and solo exhibitions in San Francisco at Cell Space, Flash Art, Frisbee Street Galleries, LincArt and New Langton Arts. She received a “best idea” prize from the San Francisco Renaissance Center and was a finalist in the SF Weekly Mastermind Competition. Hawkins holds a degree in industrial design from San Francisco State University and studied product design at Brunel University in England.

Marke Bieschke is a nightlife historian who specializes in queer dance music and club history. He has written about Bay Area queer nightlife for more than two decades. He serves as the publisher and arts editor for 48 Hills and the SF Bay Guardian. He is a member of the Stud Collective, which owns the 52-year-old San Francisco queer bar The Stud.

Marke is the co-author of Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens (Zest Books, 2011) and the forthcoming Into the Streets: A History of Protest in the United States. His writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers including The Advocate, The Guardian, The New Yorker and Vice and has been featured on NPR and affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS.


“SoMa Nights: The Queer Club Photography of Melissa Hawkins” is sponsored by 48 Hills, Fort Point Beer Company, Galleria Scola, The Lone Star Saloon, Precept Wine and The Stud.

Banner photo: Melissa Hawkins, Duo with Cigar, The Eagle (undated), used with permission.