Green-Light District

Through the Compton's TLGB District, trans women of color have fought to stay in the Tenderloin, where the fight for queer liberation began more than 50 years ago.

The first gay pride was a riot.

That would be the Stonewall uprising, the street battle in the early hours of June 28, 1969, after police raided a Mafia-owned bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that lacked a liquor license and was known to terrorize its own patrons. With few other places to congregate, they were easy to extort. But after enough people paid up enough times, only to see the bar get raided yet again, the whole place exploded.

This is canonical LGBT history, and the reason why June is Pride month. Almost three years prior, however, there was another riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. No one is sure of the precise date, but in August 1966, after sporadic demonstrations outside Gene Compton’s Cafeteria at 101 Turk St. in protest of the harassment of transgender and gender-nonconforming customers, a staffer called the cops. When they moved to arrest one transgender woman, she threw a cup of coffee in a police officer’s face, and it escalated from there. A police cruiser’s windows were smashed, and the restaurant’s plate-glass windows shattered.

In retrospect, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot was the Big Bang of the modern LGBT rights movement, but the papers didn’t cover it. Until recently, it remained largely a footnote even within official chronicles of queer history, just one more noisy night in a neighborhood regarded throughout its long history as a haven for degenerates. But from it, an entire interlocking system of oppression that connected churches to the medical profession to law enforcement to the political establishment began to unravel.

Although people of that description most certainly played a role in queer liberation, the movement didn’t start with male-bodied, upper-middle-class white Americans who could pass for heterosexual as needed. It started with transgender American women, mostly women of color, and many of them sex workers. And now, more than 50 years later, a new generation of trans activists has won the recognition that has long been denied them. San Francisco has sanctioned the first official transgender neighborhood in the United States: the Compton’s TLGB District.

“We’re publicly acknowledging the humanity of sex workers, regardless of gender or race or socioeconomic backgrounds, and promoting their wellbeing,” says Aria Sa’id, an activist and the program director at St. James Infirmary, which describes itself as a “peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers and their families.”

“Oftentimes, that is trans women and trans women of color,” she continues. “Part of our effort in participating with Compton’s is to restore the humanity of trans people. Even in a world where we are hyper-vigilant of trans people, in media and in society, there’s still a lot of work that we have to do.”

An African-American trans woman, Sa’id has a long history with the Tenderloin. After arriving in San Francisco via Greyhound bus with $60 in her pocket, she stayed in the Larkin Street shelter and the Next Door shelter, and later lived at Turk and Hyde streets. She danced at Divas, a club on Post Street with a largely transgender staff, and did sex work on Polk Street. And she has poignant expectations for the district she helped create.

“I hope we will see trans women — specifically Black and Latina trans women — owning hair salons and stores and bookshops and whatever else the district comes up with,” Sa’id says, “and that other people, who have that same experience of coming to San Francisco and getting off that Greyhound bus, will actually have a chance to see someone like them thriving — because we don’t get the opportunity often.”

The area that Sa’id has such hopes for is a hatchet-shaped zone extending up Sixth Street from Howard to Market streets (the handle) plus a roughly eight-block section of the Tenderloin bound by Jones, Ellis, Taylor and Market streets (the blade). The site of the former cafeteria itself is in the center, and a two-block stretch of Ellis will be renamed Compton’s Cafeteria Way — just as a section of Turk has already been rechristened Vicki Mar Lane, in honor of a transgender drag performer who was known as “The Lady With the Liquid Spine” well into her 70s, as she performed at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge.

In other words, it’s already happening. But if looked at as a petri dish for restorative justice, the neighborhood has a ways to go, even at the symbolic level. Currently, 101 Turk St. is a halfway house run by a private-prison company called the GEO Group. A sidewalk plaque acknowledges that the address was once home to Compton’s Cafeteria, but instead of a true monument to queer liberation, the site remains a place of incarceration.

The plaque in the sidewalk outside 101 Turk St. (Photo by Eric Pratt)

The Tenderloin — and, to a lesser extent, Chinatown — has always been a place marked by the containment of vice. Even the staunchest puritans have never been able to eradicate human desire, so the police and city officials did what they could to cordon it off in a few blocks surrounding the intersection of Market, Taylor, and Sixth streets. While LGBT culture has historically been banished to the margins everywhere, the Tenderloin was always closely associated with people we now understand to be transgender, as politically connected brothel owners effectively established their own semi-official zone of deviance.

Records from before the 1906 earthquake and fire are scarce, but Claire Sears’ Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco documents the extraordinary lengths the city went to in that neighborhood to prevent the titillating specter of women in pants and men in dresses from contaminating public morality. Police oppression led to widespread human suffering, but it nonetheless buttressed the neighborhood’s identity as a place where generations of trans people escaped to.

For decades, the Tenderloin has been called all manner of things: seedy, unsavory, un-gentrifiable. Unquestionably, it’s home to people struggling with mental illness, drug addiction, and poverty. But it’s also a locus of intersectionality in San Francisco’s fight for social justice. Advocates for the homeless, LGBT organizations, nonprofits dedicated to protecting sex workers, and racial-justice groups work in close proximity, their missions often overlapping. At the time of the Compton’s riot, Dr. Harry Benjamin, a pioneer who helped create the standards of care for people dealing with gender dysphoria, had his office nearby on Sutter Street (although it was only open in the summer, as Benjamin, a New Yorker, couldn’t stand humidity). Even the brash young queers and trans people who fought back at Compton’s didn’t emerge in a vacuum: Their activism grew out of an organization called Vanguard, which began at the progressive Glide Memorial Church on Ellis Street.

Janetta Johnson, the executive director of TGI Justice Project, is eager to see Compton’s win the same recognition as Stonewall, because of all the suffering that “Black and brown transgender women within that district” experienced.

“They were forced to be inside that area because outside of it, they faced a higher risk of being arrested and it was a lot of abuse and trauma and dehumanization,” she says. “Now it’s an opportunity for us to shift the dynamics and put property back in the hands of people who suffered.”

In the waning months of the Obama administration, the federal government released a comprehensive study on the historical importance of LGBT spaces. Through the National Park Service, it designated several landmarks around the country, endowing 7.7 acres in and around the Stonewall Inn as the U.S.’s first LGBT National Monument.

Although many conservatives — invested though some are in protecting monuments to a Confederate general named Stonewall and his lost cause — flipped at supposed federal overreach, it does not appear that the Trump administration will reverse the move. But whatever happens, the designation lit a fire under San Francisco’s queer community.

“So there’s a national park for Stonewall,” says LGBT preservationist Nate Allbee, who also authored the legislation that created San Francisco’s Legacy Business Registry. “But this other gigantically important space in San Francisco? Nothing. And the trans history of that neighborhood goes back to the Gold Rush. Simultaneously, we’re discovering a project that is ripping down the entire block.”

That project is a proposed 12-story, mixed-use redevelopment of the triangular parcel at 950-974 Market Street. To build it, a local firm called Group i would obliterate several adjacent structures that were once home to historic gay bars such as the Old Crow, the Silver Rail, and the Landmark Room. They’re long gone now, and the ground-level retail most recently leaned heavily on cell-phone shops. But that’s hardly the point, Allbee says, as “the concept of the gay bar is arguably created in these few blocks.”

“It’s the oldest continuing LGBT neighborhood in the country,” he says.

Brian Basinger, co-founder of the Q Foundation (formerly the AIDS Housing Alliance), echoes this point, adding that just because venues have been defunct for decades doesn’t mean they don’t retain instructive capacity the same way a decaying, long-shuttered prison on a forlorn islet in the middle of San Francisco Bay has.

“One reason why these historical architectural remnants are important is because there’s a world of difference between reading about something in a print or digital format and having an immersive, 3D experience,” he says. “It just hits home differently and it resonates so much more, and so we cannot say that having an article in the library that somebody might come across one day is the same thing as being able to walk through those spaces and be told those stories.”

Basinger and Allbee teamed up with Sa’id of the St. James Infirmary, Johnson of TGIJP, and organizer Honey Mahogany to form the Compton’s Historic District Coalition, which sought guarantees that the proposed development did not run roughshod over the existing community.

“They cannot destroy these things that the federal government is saying are so powerful and important without doing something to offset that,” Allbee says.

Citing the example of a field of flowers and a housing tract, he notes that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mandates one-to-one damage mitigation. Pave over the poppies, and you have to plant a garden somewhere else. In the case of 950 Market St., that meant working in concert with Sup. Jane Kim, who represents the area. (“The work she’s done is revolutionary,” Allbee says.)

“I am so proud to have worked hand-in-hand with the trans community of the Tenderloin to author the first TLGB district centered around trans people,” Kim says. “Our collective vision is of a living, breathing, vibrant district that embodies our city’s TLGB history in the Tenderloin while also providing economic and social services opportunities for the trans community.”

There was strength in unity, too: The Q Foundation had already won $200,000 from Group i, but Basinger chose to reallocate it. He also later stepped away, citing his own experience as a disabled, HIV-positive gay man who’s worked with other HIV organizations in which no one fits that profile. For him to remain front-and-center with the “trans-forward” group would have been hypocritical, he says.

The plucky coalition won additional concessions from the developer for the destruction of “historical assets,” making a total of $300,000. That will go into a stabilization fund managed by the Mayor’s Office of Housing, to prevent further displacement.

But even that was insufficient. In the vein of Calle 24 — itself created in the mold of Japantown — the Latino cultural heritage district established in 2014 along 24th Street in the Mission, and SoMa Pilipinos, a similar zone in Central SoMa designed to shore up the Filipino community in the face of large-scale redevelopment, the coalition got the Board of Supervisors to approve the Compton’s TLGB District in February of this year. (A forthcoming “Leather Alley” on Ringold Street in SoMa will use the same template.) Negotiations are ongoing, but the district hopes to get $400,000 from the city during the next budget cycle. With the funds from Group i, that makes $700,000 in all.

Eventually, trans-owned or trans-serving businesses in the district will be able to apply for grants, which will in theory cause more to relocate there. And by fortifying the existing housing stock, trans women of color in the neighborhood will have one more means of avoiding displacement. But however much cash rains down, the significance of one other aspect can’t be overlooked: Members of a community that is historically among the most marginalized and impoverished successfully used the same tools — chiefly, planning and zoning — that realtors and deep-pocketed developers have always had at their disposal. But rather than deploying them to slickly rebrand yet another once-liminal neighborhood and make it palatable to affluent newcomers, the people who get pushed around the hardest will stay put. They are the leaders now.

Gene Compton’s Cafeteria stood at the intersection of Turk and Taylor until the 1970s. (Creative commons)

It’s hard to say whether the tough part is behind them or ahead of them. “We’re just getting started,” as Sa’id puts it, and that would seem to be true. Mahogany says the group is now in the “add-back” process, working with the Board of Supervisors to hammer out the final budgetary concerns.

She’s a little impatient with bureaucratic inertia, noting that nothing can really begin until the permits for 950 Market St. go through and the funds get disbursed. (This state of affairs puts the district in the seemingly odd position of being dependent on, and not in opposition to, a large redevelopment project at its doorstep.)

“The mayor’s budget came out and he had provided funding for Calle 24 and SoMa Pilipino, but not for Compton’s,” Mahogany says. “So I was at the public commentary portion before the real add-back process starts to voice concern and frustration, because I hoped all districts would be treated equally.

“I don’t know if this feels like favoritism or transphobia,” she adds, “but it’s sort of hard to justify when the Compton’s District was left out when arguably it’s the district that needs the most money right now.”

When the money arrives, it will go toward job development training, installing trans flags through the neighborhood, hiring a full-time district manager, and to projects devoted to safety and cleanliness. Mahogany would like to see the various housing and medical services that serve all the Tenderloin’s communities become centralized, and she’s already in talks with several businesses that are trans-owned or looking to employ trans people. But most of all, she wants a retail and a community center “where people can feel safe and go and meet your neighbors.”

It’s worth keeping this point in mind. Much of what the organizers behind the Compton’s TLGB District seek are things that almost everyone else in San Francisco takes for granted.

Then there is the question of housing, which is phenomenally expensive. Does the district prioritize keeping existing residents in their homes, or work toward building more affordable housing before developers snap up other parcels and build condos?

Bobbi Lopez, an aide to Sup. Kim, says that’s not necessarily the way to frame it.

“The Tenderloin doesn’t have the level of development that, for example, South of Market has,” she says. “But there are some opportunities where we can encourage developers to make sure they’re offering what I call ‘TLGB-centered’ or ‘-advertised’ homes — obviously, affordable.”

One advantage, she notes, is that the Tenderloin’s unique diversity and collaborative networks ensure that people who aren’t TLGB may still support TLGB housing. Displacement begets displacement, so it’s also in the interest of the neighborhood’s Latino, Arab-speaking, and South Asian communities to see everyone stay put.

“There’s a larger umbrella group dealing with development that includes Compton’s but also includes homeless providers and other organizations,” Lopez says. “Part of the conversation with Compton’s is making sure the TLGB community is included in those discussions, given the rhetoric at the national level. It’s also about making sure we keep it hospitable and affordable.”

For TGIJP’s part, Janetta Johnson says there will be new programs on the docket.

“We’re looking to develop a new re-entry program for trans people coming out of jails and prisons to have economic justice around employment opportunities,” she says, “and pay them a wage so they can afford to stay in San Francisco.”

Repatriating residents for whom finding gainful employment is a major challenge and keeping them in a notoriously expensive city? You can’t get more optimistic than that.

“We’re tired of being left behind,” Johnson says. “We want to progress just the same as other populations progress.”

The Tenderloin has always been a home for vice. (Photo by Nick DeWolf)

Because of the time-scale, where this all goes is hard to predict. Undoubtedly, the Compton’s District will encounter pushback. Calle 24 drew accusations of reverse-racism, the LGBT senior housing at 55 Laguna St. got slapped with a sexual-orientation discrimination lawsuit, and even a proposal for 100-percent affordable senior housing in the Mission drew the ire of Bernal Heights homeowners whose No. 1 priority appears to be an unobstructed, panoramic view. Nor is it hard to imagine, say, Sean Hannity dedicating the better part of an hour to mischaracterizing it as a violent urban jungle where cisgender people are forbidden from setting foot.

Further, one can never discount corporate capitalism’s insidious ability to co-opt queer resistance and redirect it to other ends. One infuriating example is Turing Pharmaceuticals, named for the gay British computer scientist and de-crypter of Nazi codes Alan Turing, whose 1952 conviction for gross indecency led him to take his own life. Established by one Martin Shkreli, the company became famous in 2015 for raising the price of a drug used to treat AIDS patients by 5,000 percent.

Something that egregious is admittedly unlikely, but if successful, the nation’s first transgender district will surely attract people looking to make money in ways more consequential than hawking trans-flag T-shirts. The most ominous outcome, of course, would be for marketers to rebrand the neighborhood in the style of “NoPa” or the ill-fated “Quad,” although a Disneyfied museum of trans history might be stranger. What Compton’s definitely will not be is a clone of the Castro’s sterile Harvey Milk Plaza.

No matter what, the TLGB District will not spring to life overnight. Considering that it takes five to 10 years to build even one building in San Francisco, it’s probably fair to say it’s going to take decades for it to materialize. But, as Allbee says, sexing up a rather dry topic, “queers have got to think about land use.”

Considering the stakes involved, it’s easy to imagine future fights over the construction of affordable housing. (Even the definition of “affordable” is contested. To the extent that it’s a technical term, it’s not synonymous with the less stringent “below-market-rate” category.) But however arcane, those debates have major consequences. Ultimately, Chinatown remains Chinatown because the Chinese-American population owns its buildings; to a lesser extent, the same can be said of the Mission’s Latino community. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot was almost 51 years ago, and it might take that much time for enough trans people to own enough of their businesses and their buildings to ensure the character of the Tenderloin remains intact.

The idea that transgender women of color, in one corner of the country at least, might become full citizens with the same agency as anybody else, feels like a fulfillment of President Barack Obama’s invocation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, and of Woody Guthrie’s promise that this land was made for you and me.

The Tenderloin isn’t Noe Valley, nor should it ever be. But it might be a place San Francisco residents are unambiguously proud of, the way we’re proud of the Women’s Building or the AIDS Memorial Grove. Because this overlooked and over-policed red-light district has gotten a green-light to choose its own future.

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