The Tenderloin Museum Has Ceiling Lights in the Shape of the Tenderloin

“How many tricks do you think I’ve turned?”

So asked Tamara Ching, an advocate for transgender individuals, sex workers, and the HIV/AIDS community, at “Screaming Queens,” the opening gala for the Tenderloin Museum last Thursday. Recounting the mid-‘70s glory days of her work hustling along Mason Street, a note of bragging crept into her voice. The answer to her question is “5,000.”

“I could make more money in one night than my $218 paycheck” as a government worker, she said. “A lot of these bitches couldn’t get into the hotels. I could — I looked like a secretary.”

Having moved to San Francisco since 1965, Ching lived during the era when cops would follow her from her home in Telegraph Hill across Chinatown to Union Square, hoping she would stop walking long enough for an opportunity to slap her with a $500 fine for loitering and “cross-dressing with intent of deception.”

Things changed drastically by the ‘90s, when many trans sex workers were pulling in six-figure incomes by way of Craigslist. Ching was on the front lines then, too, empowering these women to take care of themselves and each other. After transitioning in D.C. while working for the Carter Administration, by 1993, she had returned and gotten sober, too.

Of course, “AIDS scared the shit out of people,” she said, noting that “our transgender universe” has changed even further because “people don’t know how to ‘inter-react.’”

Ching’s moral?

“Don’t pity all of us.”

The Tenderloin Museum opened last week to much fanfare, highlighting the different strains of social activism and underground culture that have kept the neighborhood at the forefront of San Francisco’s consciousness for more than 100 years: labor struggles, LGBT rights, feminism, sex work, and more.

It’s a small institution, approximately the same size as the GLBT Museum in the Castro, except right off the bat, the programming is dynamic. Tomorrow (Thursday, July 23), the museum will screen an unseen-for-50-years KQED documentary called Drugs in the Tenderloin, with director Robert Zagone doing a Q&A.

(Our prediction: the hustlers will be sexy, but the amount of neon in the neighborhood will really blow some minds.)

Current exhibits lining the walls include “Brazen Brothels,” a collection of framed newspaper clippings reflecting high society’s prurient disgust at how the T.L. eclipsed even the Barbary Coast, a profile on Rev. Cecil Williams’ turning Glide Memorial Church into the powerhouse it is today, and an exciting glimpse at the ’Loin’s ties to the San Francisco General Strikes of 1934.

Thelonius Monk had ties to the Tenderloin, as did Dashiell Hammett. And the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, the forgotten-until-recently LGBT rights rebellion, took place at the corner of Turk and Taylor in 1966, three years before Stonewall.

It didn’t just happen out of nowhere, either. That night in August 1966 came about because noted sexologist and transgender medical pioneer Dr. Harry Benjamin had recently opened an office at 450 Sutter Street, and, in the words of one activist, “it became possible, for trans people who’d been considered freaks, to dream.”

You can learn all this, and a fair amount on the theories of the etymology of the word “Tenderloin,” by ambling over at your leisure. It might be the best $10 you ever spent in the T.L., or at least tied with a couple of beers at the Gangway. 

The Tenderloin Museum
, 398 Eddy.

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