San Francisco’s LGBTQ social club allows non-members a peek inside

The Academy in San Francisco
The Academy (Photo: Michael David Rose)

An LGBTQ social club in San Francisco has recently expanded its premises and is allowing non-members the chance to have a peek inside.

The Academy opened in May 2017 in a portion of the building at 2166 Market Street in the Castro district. It’s owned by gay entrepreneurs Nate Bourg and Paul Miller.

They tell the Bay Area Reporter they wanted to provide a social space where people can form friendships outside of the usual club and bar setting. The priority is fostering an environment that promotes personal interactions – as opposed to staring at one’s phone!

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They have over 350 paid members, with monthly membership ranging from $99 to $125 (plus annual dues). Some financial assistance is available for those on limited means who are interested in membership. The concept has proved successful enough for them to recently expand the premises to take over the whole of the building.

They’ve now created additional rooms, including a ‘Reflection Room’ and ‘boardroom’, in addition to the existing ‘Club Room’. The decor throughout follows a gothic Victorian aesthetic. Some elements pay acknowledgment of local history. 

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Sister Roma of the San Francisco chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence has donated a headdress to be displayed in the boardroom. Roma is the first inductee into the venue’s Legends Archive. 

“We want to have a Legends Archive and are asking notable San Franciscans to donate items to it. We will be inducting one person a year into our Legends Hall of Fame,” Miller told BAR.

Harvey Milk will also be remembered, with Miller saying newspaper clippings relating to his life will be installed on the second floor. 

With the expanded space, they’re now able to offer more new memberships. To this end, they’re organizing occasional events for non-members to be able to come and see inside the building. The next of these, part of its Academy Homeroom series, is a life-drawing class on January, 23. Attendance costs $15 for non-members. 

Private members’ clubs are not new, with waiting lists for memberships at such places at Soho House in London, New York, and Los Angeles. LGBTQ private social clubs are less known, and the Academy is the only one of its kind in San Francisco.

Membership at the Academy includes free club access, guest access (depending on the level of membership), discounted admission to program events and room hire, and a certain number of free haircuts per month (there’s a barbershop on the ground floor). 

There’s a basement ‘speakeasy’, television lounge, a calendar of events, plus ‘Complimentary rotating beverage offerings.’ Regular events include wine tasting, piano bar sessions, book club and games nights.

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With so many LGBTQ venues closing in recent years, do the owners of The Academy see their business model as a potential way forward? Or is there a danger of being seen as elitist?

“I think people are realizing the importance of creating and investing in the experience,” co-owner Miller tells GayCities. 

“In the past, it was, ‘Am I getting a good value for this item?’ But now I think people are asking ‘Does this better my life?’ People don’t want to get wasted every night, but they do want a beautiful place where they can connect with friends and maybe learn a little something or listen to some live guitar.

“I think social clubs in the past were created to be elitist and to separate the rich people from the rest of us… so yes, that’s what a lot of people imagine,’ he adds. 

“The Academy is meant to be a place where we can highlight the best businesses and our community has to offer. If someone asks where do I go if I don’t want to be at the bars all the time, hopefully, they hear, ‘you gotta check out The Academy!’”