The GLBT Historical Society’s upcoming online exhibition “Queeriosities: Selections from the Art and Artifacts Collection,” opens on Monday, July 26. This collection encompasses a diverse range of two- and three-dimensional objects, including paper materials, metal objects such as pins and plaques, sculptures, framed works of art, historic LGBTQ business signs, theatrical props and textiles. These objects provide visual and material evidence of the San Francisco LGBTQ community’s engagement with the social, cultural, political and physical dynamics of the city, from the late 19th century to the present.
This special preview tour of the exhibition will be led Ramón Silvestre, the society’s museum registrar and curatorial specialist, and Nalini Elias, director of exhibitions and museum experience, and is free for GLBT Historical Society members. Join Ramón and Nalini for a sneak peek at an extraordinary collection of unusual, quaint and at times outright ridiculous treasures that illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of the queer stories in our archival vault.
Friday, July 23 6:00–7:00 p.m. PDT Online program $5 | Free for members
This photograph shows the priceless queer artifact that the GLBT Historical Society acquired in April: a segment of one of the two original rainbow flags first hoisted in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, for Gay Freedom Day. The flag was created by Gilbert Baker and hand-stitched and dyed with the help of volunteers and friends, including Lynn Segerblom (Faerie Argyle Rainbow), James McNamara, Glenne McElhinney, Joe Duran, Paul Langlotz and others.
The society formally unveiled the flag to the public at a press event in San Francisco on June 4. Mayor London Breed; District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman; State Senator Scott Weiner; GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick; Gilbert Baker Foundation President Charles Beal; GLBT Historical Society Board Member Tina Valentin Aguirre; and Board Chair Maria Powers all made remarks.
Mayor London Breed also announced that she is requesting $12 million in the city budget to establish a new LGBTQ museum in San Francisco.
Friday, May 21 6:00–7:30 p.m. PDT Online program Free | $5 suggested donation
Author, historian and OutHistory.org founder Jonathan Ned Katz will discuss his new book, The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams (Chicago Review Press, 2021) the story of the daring Jewish lesbian activist Eve Adams. Drawing on startling evidence while carefully distinguishing fact from fiction, Katz presents the first biography of Adams. Born into a Jewish family in Poland, Adams emigrated to the United States in 1912 and befriended anarchists, sold radical publications, and ran lesbian-and-gay-friendly speakeasies in Chicago and New York. In 1925 she risked it all to write and publish a book entitled Lesbian Love, presenting brief portraits of two dozen women (Katz’s book also reprints the long-lost-text of Lesbian Love). Adams’s bold activism caught the attention of the young J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), leading to her surveillance and arrest. In a case that pitted immigration officials, the New York City police, and a biased informer against her, Adams was convicted of publishing an obscene work and of attempting sex with a policewoman deployed to entrap her. Jailed and deported back to Europe, Adams was ultimately murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Register online here.
Monday, May 24 6:00–8:00 p.m. PDT Online program Free
In this event organized by City Lights Booksellers, author Sarah Schulman will discuss her new book Let the Record Show(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) with Marc Stein, a historian of LGBTQ history at San Francisco State University. Twenty years in the making, Let the Record Show is the most comprehensive political history ever assembled of ACT UP New York and American AIDS activism. Based on more than two hundred interviews with ACT UP members and rich with lessons for today’s activists, Let the Record Show is a revelatory exploration—and long-overdue reassessment—of the coalition’s inner workings, conflicts, achievements, and ultimate fracture. Schulman, one of the most revered queer writers and thinkers of her generation, explores the how and the why, examining with her characteristic rigor and bite how a group of desperate outcasts changed America forever, and in the process created a livable future for generations of people across the world. Register online here.
Friday, June 4 6:00–7:30 p.m. PDT Online program Free | $5 suggested donation
In the first event of our new program series “Mighty Reels,” we’ll be screening a selection of video footage of San Francisco Pride celebrations from years past, drawn from the GLBT Historical Society’s archives. The footage allows us to trace the evolution of Pride over the past half-century, bearing witness to the annual display of joy, performance art, social commentary and community-building. Historian and GLBT Historical Society founding member Gerard Koskovich will lead a conversation interpreting and exploring the clips after the screening. Koskovich was also the co-curator of the society’s 2020 exhibition about the first decade of Pride, Labor of Love: The Birth of San Francisco Pride.
Highlighting home movies, drag performances, amateur documentaries, and interviews with queer history-makers, “Mighty Reels” is a quarterly program series that provides an intimate look at the LGBTQ past straight from the camera lens. Each program in the series features a screening of footage from the archives, followed by a discussion with historians, community members and activists on the significance of these images. Register online here.
A half century is a long time in the history of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, encompassing more change than could have been imagined in the early 1970s. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the archives of the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), “America’s longest continuously published and highest-circulation LGBTQ newspaper,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with special coverage, events and a new online exhibition with the GLBT Historical Society. The exhibition, “Stories of Our Movement: The BAR at 50” is made possible by generous support of the Bob Ross Foudation, and will debut on the society’s website on April 26; information is available here.
“Back in 1971, the mainstream media wasn’t really covering gay and lesbian people, much less bi and trans people,” said Cynthia Laird, the BAR’s news editor for the last 22 years, who joined the paper as assistant editor in 1996.
From its first issue, published April 1, 1971, the BAR laid out its independent but unifying mission: “This publication is in no way connected with any organization and will publish the views and thoughts of all groups. This paper will also try to help bridge the communication gap that seems to exist between groups in our own community.”
A RELIABLE WORKHORSE
Surely, this goal is still a work in progress, but over the intervening decades, the Bay Area Reporter became a reliable workhorse of original LGBTQ political and cultural reporting and, like many alternative weeklies around the country, an advocacy paper, influencing elections and helping to advance a civil rights movement that changed the world. Bob Ross, who founded and published the paper until his death in 2003, “had a real keen vision and foresight to see that a newspaper could bring the community together,” said Laird, one of a very few women news editors in LGBTQ media.
As the LGBTQ community and the broader culture have evolved, so has the BAR, said Michael Yamashita, who began working with the paper as an assistant editor in 1989. Now the publisher and perhaps the first LGBTQ Asian man to publish a legacy LGBTQ newspaper, he notes a more inclusive trend in the paper’s coverage and intended audience. “During Bob’s time … the focus really was on the, how would you say it? The power brokers in the gay community, which was really a lot of men,” Yamashita said in a recent interview. “White men who were heading up the agencies and running businesses and attempting to run for office. And increasingly women became part of that, (especially) in terms of the [San Francisco] board of supervisors. And so the focus really did have to enlarge, but I don’t think he would have ever imagined that it would enlarge and change as much as it has in the last, maybe 10 years.”
In 2018, with funding from the Bob Ross Foundation, the GLBT Historical Society completed a project to digitize the entire run of the BAR, from 1971 to 2005, when the paper went online. Since then, the key-word searchable version at the California Digital Newspaper Collection has proven a treasure trove for historians, and provides ample evidence of the breadth and depth of the BAR’s coverage. Laird notes in particular the paper’s reporting on HIV/AIDS, and now COVID, which continues to be critically important to the community’s survival. Nowadays, of course, LGBTQ issues are frequently covered in print and online outlets serving the general public, a fact Yamashita acknowledges, but he thinks there is still a clear need for the LGBTQ press. “I mean, [the mainstream press] just doesn’t have the bandwidth. They don’t have enough people to cover all the subjects that they should be covering and so one of the first things to go are minority and LGBTQ in any kind of reporting.”
EXPANDING THE FOCUS
“The BAR still plays an extremely critical role because we do publish stories that you won’t really find anywhere else. A lot of our content is original. Or if it’s something that everyone else is covering like a major event or major news or something, we will often speak to other voices that the mainstream media don’t speak to,” said Laird. “I think you see that especially in transgender coverage today, and trans women of color in particular. What I’ve tried to do in my story assignments in our coverage is really focus on other communities within the LGBT umbrella.”
Both Laird and Yamashita also spoke of their efforts to be more fully representative of all races and classes within the LGBTQ community. “After the George Floyd killing and all the Black Lives Matter actions and activity,” said Laird, “we’ve worked hard to feature people of color, queer people of color, in our stories, and photos of queer people of color with our stories even before that. But I have been really more aware of it in that context.”
Like many community newspapers and businesses, the BAR faces many challenges, particularly in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Last year, the paper was forced to lay off two long-time employees as print advertising revenue plummeted and online advertising has not made up the difference, despite an increase in online traffic. But Laird and Yamashita expressed confidence that, with the community’s support, the BAR will persevere. “Part of survival, I think, is paying attention to meeting your readers where they are and giving them what they want. So we’ve tried to stay away from sensational, quick clickbait things which work, but we’re hoping to cultivate a more consistent and loyal readership, “said Yamashita. “We hope to provide a steady diet of the kind of news coverage that local people here are looking for.”
Regardless of what comes next, 50 years — or some 2,600 weeks — of writing the first draft of LGBTQ history is an extraordinary contribution . “It’s really amazing,” commented Laird on the BAR’s quinquagenary. “It’s really a milestone and I’m really proud of the paper. I’m proud of everyone that’s contributed to it over the years to make it this great resource. I think the Bay Area is really lucky to have it.”
Terry Beswick is the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. He spearheaded a successful campaign to preserve the Castro Country Club for the queer recovery community in San Francisco, co-founded the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and co-chaired the LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy.
A new online exhibition provides a pathbreaking look at LGBTQ lives and culture in the Japanese American community in the United States. Curated by Stan Yogi and Amy Sueyoshi, a frequent GLBT Historical Society collaborator, Seen And Unseen: Queering Japanese American History Before 1945 is a project of J-Sei, a Japanese American community organization in Emeryville.
The show draws on a variety of sources, including some of our archival collections, to unearth a hidden past when same-sex relationships and female impersonation were accepted parts of nikkei (Japanese American) immigrant culture. The exhibition also explores how, over time, the nikkei community’s atittudes came to mirror white American fears of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity. We interviewed Stan and Amy to learn more about how they curated Seen and Unseen.
Q: The theme of “kinship” among issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) is an important one. What does it mean in the greater context of nikkei?
Stan: Generational identity has been a defining factor of the nikkei community in the U.S. As we move farther away in time from the issei generation, we run the risk of forgetting that early immigrants were overwhelmingly male. There’s evidence that some had emotionally (not necessarily physically) intimate relationships. Many of us who identify as queer Japanese Americans have been unaware of ancestors who were involved in intimate same-sex relationships or defied gender roles. We hope that our exhibition reveals and informs the larger nikkei community, and queer-identified Japanese Americans specifically, about the rainbow branches of our collective family tree.
Amy: Issei arrived in the U.S. during a time of intense anti-Japanese sentiment. Before the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which allowed more Japanese women to enter the country as wives, the community was overwhelmingly male. One cannot adequately underscore how much these men relied on each other for companionship and comfort as they made their way in a new land, in a new language, under the brutality of immense animus from whites. Immigrant poet Yone Noguchi wrote that when he tramped to Los Angeles, he was welcomed along the way at any Japanese person’s home for a meal or a night of lodging.
Q: The show uses a lot of literary and newspaper sources; can you tell us about how you located and interpreted these?
Stan: Literary scholar Andrew Leong, a contributing curator to the exhibition, shared his research about issei leaders who urged compatriots, many of whom led vagabond lives, to settle in America, marry and raise families. He has revealed the queer subtext in creative literature written by issei authors, several of whom depicted men who rejected the call to enter heterosexual marriages and maintained emotional intimacy with other men.
Amy: In the absence of oral histories, written texts are often the only sources we have, and they are often sparse since many queers could not afford to leave such materials. Literary sources and newspapers are among the few available materials. When I first started my dissertation in 1996, I had to read each newspaper day-by-day, page-by-page to find a queer nugget. Now many of the newspapers are digitized—even the Japanese American press—so it was easier to put together this exhibition, particularly in the context of the ongoing shelter-in-place.
Q: How does the exhibition change our understanding of LGBTQ history in the United States through 1945?
Stan: Our exhibition helps audiences understand that early Japanese immigrants came from a culture in which male same-sex relationships and female impersonation were accepted. Their children, the nisei, came of age when white Americans’ harshly negative judgements of homosexuality and gender nonconformity were crystallizing. Nisei adopted those attitudes and beliefs. Although issei weren’t necessarily celebrating what today we consider queer sexuality and gender expression, they were more accepting than subsequent generations. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II accelerated the community’s desire to prove itself “American,” which included conformity to rigid gender roles and condemnation of same-sex intimacy.
Amy: A number of scholars, such as Siobhan Somerville, have shown that racism breeds homophobia and transphobia, even within marginalized groups themselves. Many Japanese Americans are terrified of coming out to their families, and postwar Japanese immigrants or shin issei think being queer is an American phenomenon. Most are unaware that our grandparents or great-grandparents were likely more queer-friendly than our parents. Learning about this might reshape how queer Japanese Americans think of themselves.
On February 19, Free Harris joins Shayne Watson in a program about LGBTQ historic preservation. See the events listing below for more information. Here, he discusses some significant sites of Black queer history and how preservationists are correcting and updating the historical record.
Historic preservation is inherently a complex process. Black History Month is an opportunity to consider the specific challenges that arise when preserving Black LGBTQ places. One challenge is conducting thorough historical research to open “historical closets” — to uncover and identify the people and events that haven’t been talked about within an LGBTQ context. This also entails examining the broader networks of queer Black people, in order to reconstruct their social worlds and find unexplored threads. A good example of this kind of work is Azurest South (circa 1938), a historic house on the National Register of Historic Places located on the campus of Virginia State University, a historically Black university. It was designed by Amaza Lee Meredith, an extraordinary self-taught architect who learned the International Style, a post-World War I architectural style. Her architecture is significant on its own. So too is the fact that she lived with her partner and VSU colleague, Dr. Edna Meade Colson. This couple likely was part of a larger LGBTQ community at VSU, and that’s a network worth exploring.
Re-Centering the Obscured
We also have to reexamine familiar sites to highlight obscured figures. For example, there is the Henry Gerber House (circa 1885), a National Historic Landmark in Chicago. It was the home of the nation’s first gay-rights organization, the Society for Human Rights, in 1924 and 1925. Interestingly, one of the early presidents of the Society was an African American, John T. Graves. This is the same time period as the Harlem Renaissance, which is famous for its queer dimensions, yet Graves is an important figure in queer history who has all but disappeared from the historic record. Preservation research can help re-center figures like Graves.
There are many such fascinating examples. There’s entrepreneur and millionaire Madame C. J. Walker’s home, Villa Lewaro (circa 1916–18), in Irvington, New York. Her daughter A’lelia Walker, who inherited the home after her mother’s death, was a bisexual benefactor to queer members of the Harlem Renaissance. And the house in Columbus, Georgia belonging to the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, is a museum, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But only recently has it become more widely known that Rainey was bisexual. Many places may have similar “hidden” histories.
Ongoing research results in our having to update the historic narratives in various listings on national, state and local historic registers to explicitly acknowledge unknown or unacknowledged LGBTQ historical information. In other instances, similar research helps us to prioritize new places worthy of preservation and/or recognition. As an out and Black preservationist, my hope is that we can get ahead of the game with regard to the preservation and designation of African American LGBTQ historic places of the recent past. I hate to admit it, but 1970 is now 50 years gone, so it’s officially historic!
Having written and spoken about African American LGBTQ historic places has been self-affirming. It’s wonderful information for all of us to know. Younger generations, particularly, are more invested in seeing the full spectrum of who we are. They want to learn about historic queer people of color, transgender people and people outside of binary gender structures. To do this work in the African American context is a joy. I’m standing on a foundation that is many generations deep.
Jeffrey A. “Free” Harris is an independent historian and preservation consultant who works with historic preservation organizations, historic sites, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions on preservation issues related to diversity and historic site interpretations.
The LGBTQ community lost a pioneer in April, when LGBTQ activist Phyllis Lyon (1924–2020) passed away at her house in San Francisco. Together with her partner and later wife of over 50 years, Del Martin (1921–2008), Lyon cofounded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first lesbian-rights organization in the United States. Just a few months after Lyon’s death, the Noe Valley house that Lyon and Martin shared for over five decades was sold and is now threatened with demolition. Community members are organizing to attempt to save this historic structure from erasure, establishing the group Friends of the Lyon-Martin House, for which the GLBT Historical Society, whose archives hold Lyon and Martin’s papers, is serving as fiscal sponsor. On October 19, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman initiated the process to name the Lyon-Martin House a San Francisco Landmark. With Mayor London Breed’s approval on October 30, the nomination moves to the San Francisco Planning Department and from there to the Historic Preservation Commission. Success in naming the house a landmark will require major support from the LGBTQ community during the series of hearings that accompany the landmarking process. History Happens interviewed architectural historian and preservation planner Shayne Watson, who is spearheading the preservation efforts with Friends of the Lyon-Martin House.
Why is it important to preserve the Lyon-Martin house as a queer historic space in San Francisco?
Connecting our history to the physical places where that history unfolded makes the stories really come to life. Imagine trying to convey the significance of Stonewall without the actual Stonewall Inn, or the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot without that now-iconic building at the corner of Turk and Taylor. A bronze sidewalk plaque just doesn’t cut it. The Lyon-Martin House is a landmark with or without formal designation. Just as Americans claim Independence Hall as a birthplace of American democracy, queer people throughout the world can claim the Lyon-Martin House as a place instrumental in the development and advancement of our fundamental rights — it’s part of our collective experience.
With our Executive Director Terry Beswick, you served as the co-chair of the Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee for the LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy, which went to the Board of Supervisors last year. Does it provide guidance on saving sites such as the Lyon-Martin House?
The LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy was published in 2020 after three years of engagement with LGBTQ communities in San Francisco. Feedback from queer San Franciscans was clear: as current stewards of our history, we have a responsibility to ensure that San Francisco’s LGBTQ heritage — in all its colorful diversity — is preserved for future generations to experience and celebrate. Our committee developed actions to realize this goal, including the development of a Historic Preservation Advocacy Group composed of experts in the areas of LGBTQ history, historic preservation and related fields. A primary goal of this group would be to fulfill the recommendations outlined in the Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History, adopted by the Historic Preservation Commission in 2015, which serves as a guide for the treatment of historic properties associated with LGBTQ history. One of the first recommendations is to landmark sites of significance.
If the Board of Supervisors designates the Lyon-Martin House as a landmark, what protections does this status offer?
The current reality is that the Lyon-Martin House is private property and the new owners have a right to propose demolition. But if the Lyon-Martin House is designated a San Francisco Landmark, any proposed project that would result in demolition or substantive alterations to the building would need to be reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Commission at a public hearing. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person at the hearing trying to demolish or muck up the longtime home of one of the most significant lesbian couples in history. Those who are interested in supporting our efforts to preserve this historic building can join the Friends of Lyon-Martin House by signing the letter of support. And participate in the webinar on January 19 (check the Friends website for information) on the future of the house cohosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, and the GLBT Historical Society. Finally, you can write a letter or speak in support when the Lyon-Martin House Landmark designation is heard by the Historic Preservation Commission (in late February) and the Board of Supervisors (TBD).
Mark Sawchuk is communications manager at the GLBT Historical Society. Shayne Watson is the owner of Watson Heritage Consulting, a Bay Area-based consultancy for architectural history and historic preservation planning.
The San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project at the GLBT Historical Society collects and documents the unique and diverse history of Bay Area direct-action movements that protested social and governmental inaction in the face of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s. ACT UP/San Francisco, ACT/UP Golden Gate, Stop AIDS Now Or Else, AIDS Action Pledge, Citizens for Medical Justice, Enola Gay and related groups were part of a nationwide ACT UP movement that would go on to change the very practice of medicine and speed up the transformation of cultural attitudes about gender and sexuality.
After four years of efforts, I am pleased to share that the San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project has been completed in time for World AIDS Day this December 1. Composed of interviews with 23 Bay Area activists, this new collection in the society’s Oral History Collection is among the most extensive histories of local AIDS activism in the United States. The interviews, available here, paint a communal portrait of the unique challenges, debates and triumphs of this remarkable movement.
Historian Joey Plaster launched the San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project to document the determination and kinds of activism that had defined queer politics during the AIDS crisis. While the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP/New York had already been documented in films such as How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger, the history of the Bay Area’s response to the epidemic had received relatively little attention until the publication of Emily Hobson’s Lavender and Red. In her monograph, Hobson argues that Bay Area activists were the first to confront the epidemic using direct-action tactics — even before Larry Kramer gave the speech that is often regarded as the catalyst for ACT UP in New York.
The San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project provides new information and context to ACT UP’s work in the Bay Area. Plaster’s conversation with Jack Davis is a prime example. Davis planned the “Blood and Money” ritual protest that Enola Gay performed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1984, during which protestors poured blood on the road at the entrance to the nuclear-weapons laboratory to decry government research priorities emphasizing weaponry over AIDS research. Most accounts suggest that the blood was fake, but Jack clarifies — the blood was real. It was his own. “This was also the period when we didn’t know — we knew that AIDS was transmitted by body fluids, so this blood was dangerous,” Davis explains. “And most of the people watching us knew that as well.” It has been an honor to play a part in bringing these interviews to the public. I want to thank Joey for getting the project off the ground, the volunteers who supported this work over the years, and the interviewees. But the lion’s share of my thanks must go to all those activists who have fought and continue to fight the battle against AIDS.
While the society’s archives remain closed in compliance with city and state health regulations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have been busy adding digital content for researchers at home and are thrilled to provide you with a roadmap to these resources. We have overhauled the archives area on the website to make it easier to find the content you’re looking for. On the website, click on “Online Resources” under the “Archives” tab, and you’ll find a new launch page for all of our digital materials featuring four colored boxes that link to the four following sections: Digital Collections, accessed through the pink box (top left),are selections from our physical archival collections, scanned and photographed. We’ve vastly expanded this page in the last six months. Recent additions include ACT UP oral histories; videos of performers at the Valencia Rose cabaret in the 1980s; the Posters and Art and Artifacts collections; Jean-Baptiste Carhaix’s evocative photographs of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; Hal O’Neal’s home videos of gay men socializing as far back as the 1940s; and collections about lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, Japanese American World War II incarceration-camp survivor Jiro Onuma, and the famed “Maestrapeace” mural on the Women’s Building in San Francisco. Exhibitions, accessed through the yellow box (top right), takes you to our online exhibitions, curated and built since March by our museum staff. You can view exhibitions that were previously on display at the museum on Roz Joseph’s drag photographs, Angela Davis, Gilbert Baker and more. And some of the exhibitions, such as AIDS Treatment Activism, are “born-digital” shows that are exclusively available online. Primary Source Sets, linked from the orange box (bottom left), are a new resource we’ve introduced this year. These are curated sets of images, articles and recordings on specific topics, ranging from drag to the Gay Games, to gays and lesbians in the military, to queer feminism and trans men and women. They’re great jumping-off points for research, and are intended to be especially helpful to students, educators and novice researchers. Research Guides are available through the blue box (bottom right). They’re textual roadmaps of the archives, also themed around specific topics, and intended for researchers who are planning to dig deeper and ultimately consult the physical archives. They list relevant collections, oral histories and periodicals. Also available here are our presentations about research and collection donation, as well as information about local LGBTQ historic places, links to other LGBTQ archives and more. We hope you’ll explore our online resources. And if you have any suggestions for topics you might like to see covered or any questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re here to help you!
Kelsi Evans is director of the Dr. John P. De Cecco Archives & Special Collections at the GLBT Historical Society. Isaac Fellman is the reference archivist at the GLBT Historical Society.
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.