San Francisco May Soon Have the World's First Transgender Cultural District

The announcement comes after tension between activists and housing developers set to build luxury condos in a historically trans-friendly neighborhood.

Toshio Meronek

Photo courtesy producers of the documentary"Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria"

On Tuesday, San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim announced she will soon introduce legislation to establish what is likely to be the world's first transgender cultural district. Alongside three nonprofit groups, including a sex workers' clinic (St. James Infirmary), a trans prisoner support group (TGI Justice Project), and a housing program focused on people with HIV (Q Foundation), Kim announced that—surprise—if you woke up on Wednesday within a six-or-so block radius near the Tenderloin, a historically trans-friendly area of the city, you'd spent the night in what will soon be the planet's only government-sanctioned transgender neighborhood.

Banding together as the Compton's Coalition, so-named after the trans riot at Tenderloin diner Compton's Cafeteria that predated Stonewall by three years, the organizations are promoting the district as a place where TLGB people can access services that are more essential than ever today, including healthcare. The announcement also marks the end of the beginning of a long fight with real estate developers Shorenstein Realty and Group I, who have been angling to construct a hotel and condominium complex in the Tenderloin; advocates were prepared to sue the developers, arguing their environmental survey to obtain building permits ignored crucial sites of transgender history that the development would demolish. In a compromise with the coalition, the developers are now seeding $300,000 in a city fund to make the district a reality; in exchange, they will face less resistance in moving forward with construction.

Trans people have long had to carve out spots where they could watch one another's backs, given the incredible levels of violence they face. A report released by the National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) in 2016 surveyed more than 27,000 trans Americans, who reported that nearly half had survived at least one sexual assault in their lifetime. Forty percent had attempted suicide, compared to less than 5 percent of non-trans people. Interviewees expressed that everyday experiences like bus rides and visits to the doctor's office were psychologically torturous experiences.

It's been a bleak 14 days for LGBTQ people in America. After inauguration day, the webpage devoted to gay rights was wiped from whitehouse.gov. The family riches of Betsy DuVos, Trump's education secretary nominee, have gone in large part to funding anti-gay groups like the Family Research Council. Neil Gorsuch, Trump's Supreme Court nominee, strongly supports the "religious freedom" to legally discriminate against LGBTQ people.

"There has never been a better time to resist and to fight the mess that's coming out of Washington, DC, right now," says Janetta Johnson, executive director of the TGI Justice Project. "We want reparations, restorative justice, and restorative healing for all the years of violence that trans women of color have faced, and we need a safe place to do it." She hopes that the symbolic district will translate into tangible things like low-income housing, which is rare in the city.

The six blocks that comprise the new district are by no means tourist fodder; the double-decker buses that shuttle sightseers between tourist-only zones like Fisherman's Wharf and the Victorian-style houses featured in the opening sequence to Full(er) House intentionally avoid them. This area, the Tenderloin and a portion of the South of Market (SoMA) neighborhood, have long been known as dens of vice.

Local nightlife icon and Compton's Coalition leader Honey Mahogany describes how starting in the 1930s, it's also where gay and trans people gathered before gay sex and drag shows were legal—where queers could spend their nights at gay hustler bars relatively undisturbed by antagonists such as the cops. "We couldn't just let [the buildings] be torn down without trying to preserve our history," they said.

"The only support we had was from each other," says Felicia Elizondo, who moved to the Tenderloin in 1963 as a teenager. "We were black, Asian, Mexicans, but we were all a community. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, we were all in the same boat. We were there [in the Tenderloin] because we liked it; we were there because our parents had thrown us out and disowned us." Elizondo, now 70, was one of the "drag queens, transvestites and hair fairies," as she described it, rioting at Compton's in 1966.

"It's significant that this area of the city can boast the longest standing residential presence of trans people—before the 1950s and after," says 27-year-old Aria Sa'id, who moved to the Tenderloin in her early 20s and is now program director of St. James Infirmary.

Sa'id knows that the district comes with a huge catch—after all, many trans people will be unable to afford the luxury condos now set to build just a block away from Compton's. She was recently evicted from her own Tenderloin apartment, which was redeveloped into condos for the super rich. For trans people, violence comes in other forms than a fist or a gun: finding a landlord who'll accept trans tenants is tough, even in liberal San Francisco; the NCTE report found that 30 percent of trans people experienced housing discrimination or instability in 2015 due to anti-trans bias.

The city and the Compton's Coalition still have work to do. City laws will require Shorenstein to build about 60 below-market-rate (BMR) housing units, but even below-market-rate units in the city are generally only affordable to those who make close to $90,000 per year. The almost 250 new market-rate units may ultimately lead to gentrification in the area, and the 60 BMR units will be "off-site," away from the market-rate owners. 

"#BlackTransHousingMatters," reads a sign Johnson keeps in her office. She says she'll be holding the city accountable to use the funds as they've promised and is chasing wealthy donors to fund the Compton's Coalition's dream: purchasing additional buildings in the district that would be turned into low-income housing for trans women getting out of prison. 

"Fifty-one years later, and the work of [revolutionary transgender women like] Tamara Ching and Felicia Elizondo and Miss Major and Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera is not in vain," says Sa'id."It can't be." 

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