Wounded Pride

Despite its reputation, gay-friendly San Francisco is still a tough place for teens to come out.

Franks bought long brown hair weaves at a store on a seedy stretch of mid-Market and headed to the Tenderloin apartment of her comely 22-year-old transgender friend, Amaya, who opened the door into a tidy room with a Puerto Rican flag on the wall.

The conversation turned to school as Amaya braided Franks' hair in preparation to sew on new weaves. Amaya said her parents wouldn't let her start hormones until after she graduated. "It's hard transitioning in high school," she said. "I don't think I would have finished."

"I still don't know if I'm gonna finish," Franks said. She fully intends to graduate. Ever since transferring to the small June Jordan School for Equity and dressing as a girl full-time, things have improved. (Franks was blessed with an androgynous first name, and kept it.) She lets fellow students assume what they want about her gender, but will tell them the truth if they ask. Still, her experience at Mission High stings.

Teacher Taica Hsu heads the 
Gay-Straight  Alliance  at Mission High School, which puts on an annual drag show.
Lauren Smiley
Teacher Taica Hsu heads the Gay-Straight Alliance at Mission High School, which puts on an annual drag show.
Franks used the staff bathroom at Mission High School while she was transitioning genders.
Josh Edelson
Franks used the staff bathroom at Mission High School while she was transitioning genders.

"You're almost done [with school], Raficki," Amaya says affectionately. "And if you don't, I'm gonna beat you."

If Franks lived in New York City, she could go to Harvey Milk High, a public school designed for LGBT kids who transfer after being bullied elsewhere. Yet San Francisco Unified School District officials believe that every school should integrate and be safe for gay teens. Officially, the district is steeped in LGBT awareness — it was the first in the country to start a gay student support services division in 1990, and to launch a website last year advising all teachers on LGBT sensitivity and curriculum. Students digest My Two Uncles and The Harvey Milk Story in elementary school and lessons in antigay teasing prevention in middle school, and may join some form of a Gay-Straight Alliance at most high schools.

Yet when the district recently plunked surveys in front of students to measure bullying, the responses proved "we still have work to do," says Kevin Gogin, the district's head of LGBT support services. In fact, 82 percent of high schoolers said they had heard antigay slurs such as "fag," "dyke," or "That's so gay," but only 54 percent had heard a staff member stop students from making such remarks. (Students interviewed reported that many times the slurs were thrown in the hallway or the cafeteria, where no staff member was around to stop it.) More disturbingly, 34 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual middle schoolers reported attempting suicide, while 23 percent said they had tried in high school. Across the board, queer students were more likely to be threatened or in a fight at school. They were more likely to smoke, use drugs, drink alcohol, or sniff inhalants. Statistics collected about transgender students indicated they fared even worse.

When Franks entered Mission High, he stepped into a space where the proudly gay vibe of the nearby Castro intersected with the gritty realities of any inner-city school. Franks joined the Gay-Straight Alliance, led by openly gay math teacher Taica Hsu, who put an "LGBT safe space" poster outside his classroom. That year, the club staged its first drag show. Hsu helped Franks buy thrift-store dresses to perform Janet Jackson and Danity Kane numbers. (Hsu dressed in drag, too.) Franks announced to the auditorium that he was not a gay boy, but a transgirl. Hsu remembers the response being overwhelmingly positive (the show is optional, so it tends to draw people who are already supportive). Franks remembers "claps, oh my goodnesses, boos, just everything all in one." Still, she lights up while talking about the experience.

Not all of Franks' cross-dressing episodes had gone so smoothly. Franks used Halloween as an excuse for his first foray into women's clothes, donning a French maid costume with a miniskirt, sky-high heels, and a black and purple wig. As the school year went on, Franks increased the amount of days he'd come dressed as a girl. The district's transgender policy states that students can dress "in accordance with their gender identity that is exclusively and consistently asserted at school, within the constraints of the dress codes adopted at their school site." Yet Franks didn't yet fall into that category, instead switching genders day to day: "It was like, one day you're a guy, the next day you're a girl, and people were just like, 'Oh my god,'" she recalls.

Some said much worse. As she puts it, "one asshole who hooked up with other assholes" gave Franks the most problems: "A lot of the white kids will just ignore it," she says. "It's weird, because in the African-American community, a lot of straight guys have a lot of hatred towards it. .... They'd just be like, 'That's a nigga. That's a guy.'"

Franks' friends at Mission High remember people calling her ugly or saying, "He thinks he's all that!" behind his back. His friends would often stand up for him. If anyone dared to say anything directly to Franks, he would tell them off, and then storm into Principal Kevin Truitt's office to tell him about the latest dustup.

Truitt is a warm, openly gay man with a sense of humor and a Boston accent. He and Franks developed a rapport during their frequent talks, though he says he still made Franks change clothes at least 10 times when she came to school in an outfit he wouldn't let other girls wear ("the heels that were way too much, or the Tina Turner wig, or the fishnet stockings, or the skirt that was way way too short," he recalls).

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