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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Guerneville: The LGBTQIA+ community hidden in the Redwoods

How “The River” became a safe haven for queer Californians and tourists


By SAVANNAH BURGER — arts@theaggie.org


Nestled in the coastal redwoods along the Russian River in Sonoma County, the town of Guerneville has provided a sanctuary for local and visiting LGBTQ+ people for decades. Known affectionately as “The River;” it is regarded as one of the most safe and well-known havens in northern California for people of the LGBTQ+ community.

Although the gay scene has made Guerneville what it is today, it didn’t hit the town until somewhere in the mid-1900s. Before that, Guerneville was predominantly known as an ex-logging town, originally named “Stumptown,” because of all the clear-cutting that occurred in the area. When the town was established in 1877, it provided a large quantity of lumber used to build the first infrastructures and buildings in northern California following the discovery of gold.

The town was later named after one of the loggers that controlled the area and owned the sawmill, a Swiss immigrant named George Guerne. Because of the extreme logging practices, most of the redwoods in the Guerneville area are no more than 200 years old, as they were planted after the felling of thousands of old-growth redwoods. Now, only few remain, and a handful of them can be seen in Guerneville’s Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve

After the logging industry went under, residents of California realized how beautiful of an area Guerneville is, and the town became a major vacation destination. Soon, train tracks were laid that connected the forest-encapsulated town with cities like San Francisco, which is a little less than two hours south of it.

During the 60s, however, as worldwide travel was becoming more popular, visits were starting to dwindle. Then the whole west of Sonoma County, where Guerneville is located, was hit with massive flooding. Just like that, Guerneville was practically wiped off of the vacation map.

Following this setback, a multitude of old, beat-up resorts and hotels were up for sale. It was here, in the 1970s, that a few members of the LGBTQ+ community began buying these properties. Soon, multiple gay-friendly resorts and bars were opening in the redwoods. Especially after 1975, when anti-sodomy laws were finally repealed in California, these queer spaces were able to be transparent and proud about their status of being gay-friendly and were able to directly cater to LGBTQ+ clientele.

Happening concurrently, the sexual liberation movement was in full swing, which attracted even more queer people to the redwood vacation town. Even when tragedy struck with the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, Guerneville remained steadfast as a refuge for those who were either personally suffering or had loved ones who were. 

It is also important to note that it was this point in time that really brought lesbians and gay men together, as it was largely the lesbian community that took care of the gay male community struck by the epidemic. This is why the “L” in the term LGBTQ+, which represents lesbians, comes at the forefront of the acronym. It’s a way to give respect to the lesbians who were caregivers during the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

Many of the original resorts, hotels and restaurants are still alive and well today, such as The Rainbow Cattle Company, The Woods Cottages & Cabins @ the Russian River, The R 3 Hotel, The Highlands Resort and more. As of recent decades, there have been new openings, such as the lesbian-owned Boon Eat + Drink and Boon Hotel + Spa. The woman who owns these two businesses, Crista Luedtke, is a renowned chef who has been featured in the likes of the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Forbes and Food & Wine magazine, among others.

Guerneville also has a wide variety of LGBTQ+ events that happen throughout the year. Lazy Bear Week, one of the largest and most successful gatherings in the world for bears, a subculture of gay men, fundraises for charity every year. It’s happening this year from July 29 to Aug. 5. Women’s Weekend Russian River, which took place last weekend, happens every year to hold space for LGBTQ+ identifying women. There’s also the Russian River Pride happening between Sept. 19 to 21. These are just a few of the limitless LGBTQ+ gatherings held in the town.

Also boasting itself as a chapter of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of LGBTQ+ nuns that raise money for charity and promote joy, the town is a strong and established hub for the queer community. 

Welcome to people from all walks of life, Guerneville is an exemplary safe space and community in the redwoods that’s definitely worth the visit.


Written by: Savannah Burger — arts@theaggie.org 


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