By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
San Francisco has long attracted gay people escaping conservative towns, like pilgrims to a rainbow-colored mecca. Only here would the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence qualify as the most ubiquitous "religious" figures. Only here is the word "pride" first associated with a gay parade along the city's main boulevard.
"It was hella ugly," Franks says with her usual panache while recalling the spectacle.
Franks was darting out of Mission High to the J-Church Muni stop on the corner, glad to have survived a day in the wig. It was a black-with-auburn-highlights layered job that even she will admit looked a little incongruous with a hoodie and jeans. While every teen goes through awkward stages, Franks had a harder road to go than most: Franks was born with the plumbing of a boy, but was increasingly realizing he was mentally wired female. While many transgender people — out of lack of information, out of fear, out of simple self-preservation — wait until adulthood to come to grips with their identity, Franks wasn't about to wait. Smack-dab in the middle of freshman year, he was coming to school some days as "he," others as "she." That day, all her identity was wrapped into the wig.
No sooner had Franks gotten down the school steps when the bully — the same bully as always — came up from behind, snatched off the fake hair, and laughed.
Franks grew up flamboyantly feminine in rough patches of Visitacion Valley and the Bayview, and had an almost Darwinian adaptation of not showing weakness when things got to him. But there in front of Mission High, grabbing back for his wig in front of dozens of students pouring out of the school, Franks cracked. He cried and ran away. In another year, Franks would transfer schools.
For Priscilla Fallas, it wasn't coming out at Leadership High School that was the problem. The real battle for acceptance was at home. There, in the heart of the Mission on 24th Street, Fallas tried to keep up the straight act for her parents, Costa Rican immigrants whose preferred term for gay people was maricónes, faggots. For cover, she hung posters of the Jonas Brothers and Justin Timberlake on her bedroom walls. For senior prom, she threw on a dress she'd gotten free from a charity and posed with a guy friend as her mom happily snapped photos. She'd been squirreling away lunch money for weeks, and once at the Westin St. Francis for the dance, she changed into a rental outfit: slacks, a shirt, vest, and tie from Men's Wearhouse. She met up with the hottest bi-girl in the school as her date, and posed for prom photos her parents would never see.
Fallas, now 20, was one of the few youngsters who showed up at a recent vigil in the Castro for the numerous gay teens across the country who recently committed suicide. Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge after his roommate posted a video of him in an intimate encounter with a boy online. Closer to home, Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from the desert town of Techachapi, Calif., hanged himself from a tree in his backyard after antigay bullying at school. In response, hundreds of gay celebrities and regular adults have recorded "It Gets Better" videos and posted them on YouTube, promising kids that if they stick out high school in their closed-minded locales, a better life awaits in urban capitals that will appreciate them.
Yet teen San Franciscans will tell you that ethos often doesn't define their lives at home. Many hail from swaths of the city that voted against gay marriage. With nearly 40 percent of the city's residents being born outside the country, many kids have parents from cultures that spurn gays just as much as any podunk town in the United States.
School is sometimes little better. Recent surveys of San Francisco public school students reveal that gay slurs are rampant. A staggering number of LGBT students have contemplated or attempted suicide (though district officials cannot recall a LGBT-identified student who actually did it). "High school was torture, basically," says one former Galileo Academy of Science and Technology student taunted as a "gay ass" in class. "Even though people assume this is a utopia for queer youth — it may be a utopia for older people that have overcome their issues, but for the adolescents, who are beginning their life, it's very difficult."
These kids circulate in the other San Francisco, the one that doesn't appear in the gay travel guides. It turns out that for kids living here, the Castro might as well be in another state.
On a Saturday last month, Rafique Franks walked down Market Street in ballet flats, stylish nerd spectacles, and a scarf tied over her ponytail. Three years after the wig incident, a casual observer would never guess Franks is anything but female. She is 5-foot-6, and speaks with a low but plausibly female voice. Two years of estrogen treatments from a city clinic have filled out her curves. "Damn, you got ass, girl!" a passerby catcalled. Franks dismissed him: "That guy sexually objectified me."
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.
"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).
"I don't want to minimize the bullying and pretend it didn't happen, because it did," Truitt says. But "there's some things you can get away with in a Mariah Carey video that you can't [get away with] in school. ... I would talk to him about other students we had that were transgender, and they didn't get that kind of attention. [Franks] was very over-the-top. If every day is going to be a parade, you're going to get a comment."
Franks denies ever wearing fishnets, but defends her outfits by saying she was cobbling together girl clothes with no support as she was bopping between foster homes and her own troubled family (she says her mom once threw out one of her wigs). "I [was] still figuring stuff out my dang self, so [the administrators] can't be mad at me," Franks says. "I would never wear stuff that's hella revealing. I'm not gonna dress like a slut."
On many occasions, Truitt and the staff supported Franks: They paid for hair extensions and a shopping spree for clothing. School officials talked to the bully's sports coaches and teachers in addition to suspending him, "but sometimes you can suspend someone five times, but it's like, is this really addressing the issue?" Truitt says.
It was always a struggle. Truitt gave Franks permission to use the staff unisex bathroom, but she'd sneak into the girl one. Franks often refused to dress for gym. A few days before a class project presentation to parents, Franks' adviser told her to come dressed as a boy. Rebuffed by the preemptive strike, she showed up in polkadot heels and a skirt, which she now admits was a little "vindictive." "I'm like, 'How y'all gonna tell me what I can and cannot wear?'" she says. "As long as I'm being appropriate, you can't tell me what gender to be."
The summer after freshman year Franks started hormones and honed her wardrobe with help from a friend's hand-me-downs. She returned for sophomore year dressing as a female full time. The bullying dissipated, yet after the same bully threw a plastic bottle at her head in the courtyard, she'd had enough. "It was either going to be me or him," she says. Franks transferred. She says she still resents school.
"I have my fears about school because of how it was before," she says. "That was when I was 16, and I'm only 18. It's only two years ago. It doesn't just go away."
Hsu still views the situation with regret: "It's a pretty big deal when you can't identify the way you want to identify and stay at your school."
Staff and student sources throughout the school district say boys often face the brunt of antigay teasing. Even in San Francisco, coming out as a gay boy is "much tougher," says Todd Morgan, a teacher at Phillip & Sala Burton Academic High School in the Bayview. "I think that's another symptom of the objectification of women built into our society. It's a lot hotter to young men to think about two women together than two boys together."
Talen Lee came out to fellow students in eighth grade. During high school at Galileo in the Marina, he says he weathered daily "gay-ass," "faggot," and "cocksucker" hazing for his androgynous clothes and unapologetically feminine demeanor. "There were a couple girls who came out, but no guys," Lee says. "We have to conform to society and be more masculine." Struggling with depression from being treated as a "pariah" at home as well, Lee eventually transferred to another school. Now 20, he has moved to the Castro and transitioned to live as a woman by a different name.
Jarrell Soriano didn't identify as gay as a freshman at Burton, but after he joined the cheerleading team and the all-girl JROTC drill team, people began to make assumptions. He started skipping school. In fact, 18 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual high schoolers reported playing hooky because of "lack of safety" in the recent district survey, as did 56 percent of transgender students. That's compared to just 6 percent of heterosexual students.
While his former honors English teacher calls Soriano "brilliant," his grades sank to a D average. "It was hard for me to concentrate," he says. "I struggled. It was because of too many slurs, too many assumptions. It gets really annoying and immature when people do that a lot. It hurts."
Since transferring to Balboa High School, the taunting has stopped, and Soriano's grades have gone up. Still, he says his former bad grades have him worried about getting admitted to a state university.
Anecdotally, students and administrators say schools are improving. Burton now has a 40-student-strong Gay Straight Alliance. On the National Day of Silence, more than half the students cover their mouths with tape to symbolize how bullying of gay students forces them to stay in the closet. For National Coming Out Day, the school raised a rainbow flag instead of a California one, and the alliance members got other students to fill out 400 placards reading "I'm coming out as ..." which they filled in with slogans including "a gay supporter," "film noir lover," or "bossy." Students in the Gay-Straight Alliance at Mission High did the same while wearing their "Gay? Fine by Me" T-shirts. The seniors there still remember Franks, but Sushi Song, one of Franks' straight allies, notices that the environment at the school has improved in her four years there. Teachers have gotten better at cracking down on slurs.
Still, for some kids, the real problems start in the one place no one can control it: at home.
Priscilla Fallas struts out of her house onto the mural-covered Balmy Alley, past the fruit markets and bakeries selling pan dulce on busy 24th Street in the Mission, and ducks into Laura's Beauty and Barber Shop. Inside, the walls are plastered with pictures of curls and long dos for women, crew cuts and stylized sideburns for men. Fallas' style falls, well, somewhere in the middle. A long ponytail hangs down her back, but Fallas likes to shave her temples and widow's peak in the style of guys from the neighborhood.
Fallas greets a woman walking in with her two sons, recognizing her as the wife of her old baseball coach at St. Peter's grade school. (Fallas was the only girl on the team.) They don't know she's gay. So as Fallas settles into the barber's chair and tells her coming-out story to Alvaro — a hairdresser from Mexico City in a bubblegum-pink shirt — she lowers her voice to a murmur.
"It's like nothing ever happened," Fallas tells him in Spanish. "My mom doesn't want to accept it."
"That's hard," Alvaro says in an equally hushed voice.
"I'm like, this is my life. I look more like a boy than a girl."
"You look good," Alvaro says.
"Gracias. I would like to be able to take a girlfriend to the house and say, 'This is my girlfriend,' but I don't know if I'll be able to do it."
"It's easier once you leave the house."
Fallas is studying sound arts at Ex'pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, and can't afford to move out.
She continues, "I think they're mostly worried about how other people will treat me, but I'm like, 'We're in San Francisco!'"
"Puh-leeze!" Alvaro exclaims. "You're living in the perfect city. Here, if you want to put on red shoes and a green shirt, no one will say anything to you."
But Fallas isn't from that San Francisco. She isn't one of the queer girls rocking a Mohawk and clasping her girlfriend's hand while walking down Valencia. She's from the Latino Mission, where Catholic and evangelical mores run deep, and gender roles are not exactly subtle. Here, in a neighborhood where shops sell puffy gowns for a girl's sweet 15 party or tight bejeweled jeans for everyday wear, Fallas is sometimes mistaken for a boy.
A self-proclaimed "soft stud," she likes her jeans and shirts baggy, a blingy cross dangling from her neck, a flat-brimmed S.F. baseball cap plunked over her ponytail. So perhaps it's fitting that Fallas finally decided to come out a year ago to her parents while shopping at the mall, after telling her mom she wanted to check out the men's jeans. "She's like, 'Fucking lesbian, you're not a man, you can't be wearing that,'" she recalls her mother saying. (Fallas said her mom wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story.) Now she says her mom mostly doesn't talk about it, though sometimes she will call her a marimacha, a colloquial Spanish slur that combines Maria with the feminine version of "macho."
It's a similar situation being lived all over the city by kids with conservative parents. "I sometimes feel like Latinos think that if you're gay, you're gonna be like the pictures in the Castro, like the white guys in the leather suits, because that's what's gay to them," says Carla Moreno, a 20-year-old who identifies as lesbian. Kathia Ramos, 17, says she's accepted by students at John O'Connell High School of Technology in the Mission. Yet when she came out to her parents, her dad punched a hole in their apartment wall and told her to go to church. "We go to church maybe once a year, on Christmas maybe," she groans. "I'm like, 'What the fuck is going on?'"
An extensive field study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University indicated that young people with unsupportive families have a much greater risk of depression, substance abuse, contracting HIV, and plotting suicide.
Fallas says her mom voted to ban gay marriage, while she voted against it. Fallas blames it on a generation gap — she's noticed first-generation Americans raised in San Francisco are more accepting, even if they're a little less politically correct than what would fly in the Castro.
On a recent afternoon, Fallas sat at a picnic table in Garfield Park a block from her house. She slapped hands sideways guy-style with Rene, a 19-year-old acquaintance from the neighborhood. He asked what the interview was about.
"Me being gay," she said, with a quick laugh.
"Are you gay gay or are you bi?" he asked.
"Nah, nigga. I'm gay gay. Fo' real?"
"I didn't know. We haven't talked. Why you gay gay?"
"Because I don't like guys," she answered, chuckling. "I'm not attracted to guys. I'm into the same thing you're into. C'mon, man."
"I mean, I'm not trying to be rude, but how come you don't like," he paused, "dick? That's weird."
"I don't know, dude. How come you don't like dick?"
"'Cause I'm not gay."
"I'm not straight."
"Girls are supposed to like that," Rene lobbed back, still not convinced. "If I was a girl, I would like it. ... For you it's more like an emotional thing?"
"An emotional thing? Yeaaaah," Fallas said, uncertain. "I guess."
"I mean, that's good," Rene allowed.
Fallas asked about Kristi, her prom date, on whom Rene had a crush.
"She's pretty as hell," he said. "She's too much for me."
"Yeah, that she is," Fallas said.
"If I were her type of guy, maaaan —"
"What is her type of guy?" Fallas asked, "You know she's," she paused, choosing her words, "more into girls now, right?"
"I don't give a fuck. If I were her type of guy, I'd do everything I can. I'd buy her roses every day, I'd fuckin' –"
"Nah, nah," Fallas cut him off. "You ain't gonna change nobody, man. There's no changin' nobody. It ain't worth it."
After Rene left, Fallas said, "They'll be respectful about it. They don't say anything fucked up about it. It's just that they're curious."
With her parents, it's a different story. Fallas was an extra in the recent movie La Mission, in which the macho Latino father, played by Benjamin Bratt, finally accepts his gay teen son. It can happen: Carla Moreno's mom even marched with her in the Pride parade last year. Yet Fallas isn't so sure about her own family.
"She always gives me this spiel of 'Your dad and I didn't raise you this way,' and I'm like, 'You didn't raise me to be happy?' I'm not doing anything wrong."
On a recent Thursday night, Fallas buttoned up a blue plaid shirt over her solid frame and pulled on her baseball cap. In her bedroom, the Justin Timberlake poster still hung on the wall to fake out her grandma who often sleeps over. "She'd have a heart attack. She's super-religious." Her friend, Enrique, a gay boy from the Bayview, came over and they picked up another friend, Alyssa, who could pass as Fallas' twin in her almost identical plaid shirt, loose jeans, and baseball cap. They drove to City Nights, the gigantic blue box of a nightclub in SOMA; downed some vodka-and-cranberry cocktails in the car; and headed inside to greet the pounding music.
Every Thursday is the Crib, an 18-and-up LGBTQ club night. Fallas comes every other week. "At straight clubs, the men are just staring at you," she says. "At gay clubs, it's about having a good time." The music videos playing on the screen above the packed dancefloor were the club's only injection of heterosexuality — Katy Perry beckoning to Snoop Dogg in "California Gurls," Beyoncé belting out "Put a Ring on It," though it's still uncertain when the young people here will be able to do so in California. But no one was thinking about such heavy stuff that night. The place hummed with the energy of youth, sex, and acceptance as Fallas joined the orgy of indiscriminate grinding on the dancefloor — with butches, with femmes, with gay boys, with five or six other young people in a queer conga line. When the place closed at 2 a.m., she left with two girls' numbers.
The three piled back into Alyssa's car and Fallas rolled down the passenger window as she spotted a 19-year-old gay friend, Richie, walking away from the club. Richie was jumped last year near the Metreon by punks calling him a faggot, and the memory brought out Fallas' protective streak: "Richie, text me when you get home!" she called. As they sped away from the haven of the gay club, the realities of the real world sank in again.
"Take off your hat," Alyssa told Fallas as she drove down Folsom.
"So we don't get racially profiled," Alyssa says, insinuating that the hat could get Fallas mistaken for a young thug. "We're in the Mission."
Just blocks away from the house where Fallas still fights for acceptance from her parents is the place where Rafique Franks has finally found it. During freshman year, bouncing between girl and boy, between foster homes and her sister's place, Franks would often head to the Bayview extension library on Third Street to escape the drama. (Well, maybe also to chat with a certain boy who liked to read manga.)
One day, Franks flipped through a magazine photo spread of an androgynous model, exclaiming, "She looks like a man!" A librarian named Wendy overheard her and asked, "So what if she looks like a man?" Franks was amused, and started talking with Wendy on every visit. Eventually, Franks came by to check whether Wendy was working; if not, she'd leave.
Eventually, Franks decided to pop the question to Wendy: "Would you adopt me?"
These days, Franks lives with Wendy and her female partner in their Mission flat, her bedroom decorated by a poster — of herself — and a math table her "moms" hung. The foster parents have given her the stability to plot a future. Franks would like to work after graduating from high school to save up money for her gender reassignment surgery, and eventually go to college.
In the end, San Francisco adult gay culture has given Franks a surrogate family. "That's why I put up with all the curfews. That's why I put up with the vegetables," she says. It's also why, nearing curfew on a recent school night after getting her latest hormone shot in the Castro, Franks passed Mission High, and started running again. Not to escape a bully this time, but to catch the 33 bus, settle into a backseat, and hurry home.