The second week of November is observed as Transgender Awareness week and leads up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance on the 20th, which memorializes victims of transphobic violence. This has been another perilous year for trans people: more were murdered in the first seven months of 2020 than all of last year, and trans people of color are still disproportionately victims of violent crime.
As part of our commitment to Transgender Awareness Week, the GLBT Historical Society’s archivists have organized two new primary-source sets on trans men and trans women in the Online Resources area of our website. And we’ve caught up with Aria Sa’id, the executive director and cofounder of San Francisco’s Transgender District. Established in 2017, the District is one of seven officially designated cultural districts in the city and the first legally recognized transgender district in the world.
What has the Transgender District been doing to remember the many precious trans lives lost this year?
AS: I don’t think we’re ever able to properly mourn and grieve the loss. We live in a world where so much is stacked against transgender people, and it has been a gravely emotional experience both as a trans woman and as the leader of an organization that focuses on celebrating our joy and resilience. We held a #BlackTransLivesMatter rally in June called “Courthouse 2 Comptons” in partnership with transgender historian Dr. Susan Stryker and filmmaker Julian Carter. Hundreds of people filled the streets of the Tenderloin to raise awareness and mourn the lives of transgender people who have been senselessly murdered. In August, as part of our celebration of the 54th anniversary of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, we painted the historic Turk and Taylor intersection with the affirmation “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER” as a symbol of both past and present struggle in America — and to commemorate the lives of transgender women who have been lost.
The Transgender District is centered in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that has historically been home to trans people and has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the District responded?
AS: As a cultural district, we are both limited in how we can support people (for example, we don’t have access to a clinic or a food pantry), but on the other hand we are able to be innovative. Within three days of the San Francisco shelter-in-place orders, after seeing the lines of hundreds of people in grocery stores stocking up on food and supplies, we launched our COVID-19 mutual-aid relief fund. So many of our folks were struggling to get supplies and food. To date, we’ve given cash grants to over 550 transgender people across the country, and over 40 nonprofit projects across the country have replicated our model to support their local communities. We’ve also launched our COVID-19 testing-access event in partnership with Mayor London Breed’s administration to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 testing for transgender San Franciscans. We have a ton of other projects and efforts launching in 2021 that I’m confident will support our community and educate people on how to minimize the spread of COVID-19, especially those who are marginally housed and economically vulnerable.
In a year when racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement are at the forefront of the nation’s attention, how has the District addressed these issues?
AS: I pray this isn’t just a moment, but a turning point. We’ve been doing this work and addressing these issues from the beginning. We were founded by Black transgender women and created a space and sanctuary for ourselves even when gay white men stood in opposition to us (literally and figuratively). And we continue to design every aspect of our programming, actions, efforts and moments with Black transgender San Franciscans in mind — we are so often treated as the afterthought, or not included at all. Our racial justice work is applied to intersections of being Black, transgender, and women — this is a Tenderloin experience that is consistently ignored, consistently not centered.
But we’ve also been working in tandem with Black transgender leaders from across the country, including the lead organizers of both Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, to ensure an expanded framework for our movement’s fight for the protection and safety of our people and to shape how we communicate that to non-Black people. We’ve also been a part of MegaBlackSF and our collective effort to defund the San Francisco Police Department of $128 million — funds that will be directed to Black communities across San Francisco as we face forced outmigration, displacement, and increased poverty in a city that has gentrified and erased us.
Aria Sa’id cofounded the Transgender District and currently serves as its executive director.
Mark Sawchuk is the communications manager at the GLBT Historical Society.