When El Rio was founded in San Francisco in 1978, it was created with the intention of being a space for members of the queer community to go, have fun, and, most importantly, feel safe and comfortable being themselves. Today, under the leadership of Lynne Angel, El Rio still does everything in its power to be a home for members of its community to let loose and take pause on everyday life.
“We try to provide a space and prioritize folks that might not feel like they have many spaces anymore. It’s becoming more and more important to make sure folks feel as though this city is still welcoming to the folks that helped found it and helped make it weird and helped make it interesting and helped make it cool,” says Angel. “We’re going to try as hard as we can to provide that and encourage folks to gather and celebrate weirdness and queerness and openness and community as much as possible.”
El Rio is a neighborhood and community staple known for its dance floor, good music, and events like Mango, Hard French, Sazon Libre, and Swagger Like Us. Their back patio is spacious, but always packed with regulars, old friends, and soon-to-be friends meeting for the first time. While this past year prevented people from taking full advantage of their space, the dedication of El Rio’s customers still coming out to their events and dancing at their tables is a testament to the space they’ve created for their community.
“It was such a different feel, but the magic was still there,” reflects Angel. “We might not have turned a profit during that time, but did it uplift us and raise spirits and provide jobs and provide a space for people? Absolutely. And that was just as important.”
What makes El Rio so important and integral to their community is that they fight for their patrons to feel safe and comfortable.
“We’re trying to carry on in the tradition and the traditions that the [original founders, Malcolm and Robert] passed on, understanding our role as a beloved space and a space that wants to give back as much as possible,” says Angel.
That grit and dedication to honor their patrons and the legacy of their community shows up, always. For El Rio, Pride month isn’t just a celebration of the queer community — they celebrate the community just through their existence. Pride is a reminder and a tribute to the queer people of color who paved the way and fought to make Pride possible.
“There are a lot of conflicted feelings around Pride that we have as a community. Certainly, to me and the people throwing the events we have during Pride, Pride is a protest and Pride is a riot,” says Angel. “ We’re trying to remember the folks that started that and the Black and brown trans women that started all of this so that we could be proud of who we are. That needs to be addressed constantly and it needs to be amplified and it really needs to be a part of what we’re doing.”
From the very start, El Rio has been committed to honoring and protecting its community. Today, it continues to uphold that mission and, even as San Francisco has evolved, it remains a familiar space for people of all identities and backgrounds to leave their worries at the door and just let loose for a night.
“I like to look around to see people with huge smiles on their faces, having a great time, enjoying themselves, feeling relaxed, feeling comfortable in themselves, feeling comfortable with their group, feeling comfortable with strangers, being able to just forget about things for awhile and to hopefully be able to just express themselves openly and freely, however that happens to be,” says Angel. “Just experiencing sheer joy, I think we need more of that in the world.”