“America is going through a revolution,” began Ms. Billie Cooper, as she spoke to a crowd of hundreds outside the San Francisco Federal Courthouse on Golden Gate Avenue. “I remember a time when we were fighting in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and we didn’t have any hope. We didn’t even have hope we’d be alive now. I never thought I would make 61 years old, as a Black trans woman living with HIV. But here I am today, surviving and thriving.”
Thursday’s protest — christened Courthouse to Compton’s — was the latest public call for racial justice and an end to police violence. For weeks, protests across the city have featured nurses, students, union members, and kids — but last night’s march was the first to center the lives of trans people of color, even though that community is disproportionately affected by violence. In 2019, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign, there were at least 22 recorded murders of transgender and gender non-conforming people. These killings — which are believed to be a vast understatement — were determined to have been motivated by anti-trans sentiment, and the American Medical Association refers to these acts of violence as an “epidemic.”
Not all of these killings occured at the hands of civilians. Many of the signs marchers held as they trekked through the Tenderloin mentioned Tony McDade, a Black trans person killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida on May 29 of this year, and Layleen Polanco, who died in police custody at New York City’s Rikers Island jail in January after guards refused her medical care. The chants at the march toggled between the traditional “say his name” and “say her name” to “say their name” — a nod to gender-neutral pronouns, and shifted from the phrase “Black lives matter” to “Black trans lives matter.”
The route of the march was also steeped in symbolism. The demonstration was organized days before a major Supreme Court decision granted equality in the workplace regardless of gender identity. It was an unexpected win; the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to roll back protections for transgender individuals in the past few years. Because of this, the march was set to gather at the Federal Courthouse on Golden Gate Avenue as a form of protest. In the wake of the ruling, it also became a celebration.
Led by a large white school bus (which is the shell for the Baah bus at Burning Man), hundreds walked through the Compton’s TLGB District — past historic queer landmarks, like Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, which was recently saved from a pandemic-related closure. It ended at 111 Taylor St., the site of the famous 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riots, where transgender people fought police in a landmark moment three years before Stonewall riots in New York.
Honey Mahogany, a cofounder of the Compton’s TLGB District, spoke to the rich history of the Tenderloin neighborhood as a safe space for gender nonconforming people.
“People here got away with a little more than people in other places,” she said. “Trans people, gender nonconforming people, drag queens, queers, people of color… they all ended up in the Tenderloin. It’s their home. This is our community. Before there were cell phones, before there was Facebook, before there was Instagram and Grindr, there was Compton’s Cafeteria.”
But today, Compton’s Cafeteria is no more, and the building is owned by the Geo Group, one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the country. In 2019, Geo Group drew in $2.477 billion in revenue from its 129 facilities, one of which is a transitional housing program at 111 Taylor St. for people recently released from prison. Susan Stryker, an author and filmmaker who directed Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, called for the city to reclaim the building.
“Things that didn’t feel possible before feel possible now,” she told the crowd from her perch on the roof of the Baah bus. “Why not turn this site of historic trans-led efforts against police violence into something that serves our community?”
For Sister Anya Streets, a newly-elevated member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Thursday’s march held layers of meaning. Streets, who is currently transitioning genders, came out as a representative of the sisterhood, and to reconnect with her community after months of sheltering-in-place. The closure of bars and the cancellation of in-person Pride events meant the march was rife with reunions.
“I’ve seen a lot of people that I know that were just happy to see people,” she said. “If you only had five words and occupied a bit of closeness for a few minutes it was really nice.”
But she also showed up in support of the Tenderloin neighborhood. When she was first released from prison, she stayed at Geo Group’s facility at 111 Taylor St.
“The first place I lived was above Compton’s Cafeteria,” she said. “I didn’t have a thorough education on queer history at that time. As I learned more I became attached — not to the current business — but to the meaningful history there, especially when I discovered it was three years pre-Stonewall.”
Streets made space to honor her own queer history on Thursday, but she says she also held space for those who weren’t able to attend a large group protest.
“There’s many of our community that are HIV positive, or immunocompromised in other ways,” she said. “We are carrying those people with us. I’m thinking about the people I know who aren’t there. We’re walking together, acknowledging each other, supporting our Black brothers and sisters and others in ways that they need.”
And while the march was a much-needed celebration of community, an opportunity for reunion, and a chance to hear a multitude of trans people of color tell their stories, there was no glossing over the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done to end hate crimes, abuse, and police violence.
Cooper wouldn’t let the crowd forget it.
“We have a lot of work to do ahead of us,” she said. “We have systematic oppression, white patriarchy, misogyny, and we have to have police accountability. And most of all, we have to vote.”