Honey Mahogany walked down 6th Street in San Francisco, pointing to single room occupancy hotels, the dance and performance space Counterpulse, and gay bars, OMG and Aunt Charlie’s Lounge.
She passed by the Golden Gate Theatre where A Bronx Tale was playing and came to site of the former all-night diner, Gene’s Compton Cafeteria (now transitional housing), where in August 1966 a trans woman threw a cup of coffee at a police officer trying to arrest her, which turned into a riot with trans people fighting back against police harassment, flipping over tables and throwing cutlery.
This event, detailed in Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, happened three years before the famous uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The area Mahogany was walking through makes up part of the first legally recognized transgender district in the world, Compton's Transgender Cultural District.
Mahogany, a performer and contestant on Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is Compton's district manager. The district’s purpose is to stop the displacement of trans people from a place they have been welcomed in historically, and to teach people about trans history, she said.
Mahogany grew up in San Francisco, and she always felt comfortable in the Tenderloin.
“The Tenderloin has always held a really special place in my heart as a trans person with the way the community is accepting of gender variant and trans people of color,” she said. “There’s friendliness and an energy to the Tenderloin. People say hello and good morning and how are you and check in with each other, which I think often gets lost in a big city.”
Under Donald Trump’s administration, there has been a proposed ban on transgender people in the military, and more recently, proposed changes to narrowly define gender that would eradicate federal recognition for about one and a half million trans Americans.
Mahogany, part of a collective that bought San Francisco’s historic gay bar, the Stud, when it was in danger of closing, said it was important, in the face of this attempted erasure, to tell stories about history. And she thinks bars are a kind of community hub where that can happen.
“Many of our traditions are passed down through queer bars because those are the places where our elders interact with younger generations,” she said. “Drag is often seen as a way of storytelling and passing on stories of previous generations.”
Mahogany and other advocates pushed to stop development of a 12-story project in the area. The developer and the activists reached an agreement where project will go ahead, but the developer will pay $300,000 to establish the district, which will include a community center, due to be finished in a few months, at the site of a former gay bathhouse.
In November, San Francisco passed a proposition for a percentage of an existing hotel tax to go to arts, with $3 million specifically for cultural districts.
In May of this year, the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors unanimously supported funding the city's cultural districts, which include the “Calle 24: Latino Cultural District and the LGBTQ Leather Cultural District in SOMA.
Compton’s received $215,000 from the city, said Clair Farley, director of San Francisco’s Office of Transgender Initiatives. Last year the focus was on getting community input and establishing priorities for the district. Going forward, Farley says, the goal is to help trans business and to provide workforce development for trans and LGBTQ people.
Jane Kim, a supervisor whose area includes the Tenderloin, introduced the legislation in June 2017 to create the Compton’s district.
“We don’t often think of nightclubs as safe spaces, but for the LQBTQ community, they’re a place people can be free to love and dance with the people they want,” she said. “That’s why we’re working so hard to have an intentional strategy to keep our small businesses here so they can grow and thrive.”
Aria Sa’id, the LGBT policy adviser for San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, was also involved in creating the district.
Unlike Mahogany, Sa’id didn’t grow up in San Francisco. She came here on a Greyhound bus at 19 with $50 in her pocket, feeling that her hometown in Southern Oregon wasn’t a safe place to be who she was. Sa’id was looking for medical support for her transition and acceptance. She wants to be sure this is a place others can find that as well.
“When you a person of color and part of a marginalized group, it’s easy for your history to be erased,” she said. “If it’s erased, it’s like it didn’t happen.”
Being in a place that had had a continuous presence of trans people for decades made a difference to her, Sa’id said.
“Knowing how many trans people came from across the country to be their authentic selves and to realize they lived the same things I did—knowing I was a part of that history really empowered me,” Sa’id said. “Now my work is finding ways to empower trans people.”
For a long time, the Tenderloin has had a reputation of being a place for people not accepted by society, said Donna Personna.
Personna, the daughter of a Baptist minister in San Jose, said she got the message early on that being who she was wasn’t OK, and she started going to the Tenderloin in the ’60s when she was a teenager, taking a Greyhound bus to hang out in Compton’s Cafeteria before taking the bus home in the morning. She loved the people she met there.
“All they wanted was to live out their lives feeling normal—they just wanted to get a job at Macy’s and maybe have a husband,” she said. “They wanted to dress on the outside like they felt on the inside. It’s not like they wanted to be part of a drug cartel or be criminals.”
Personna stopped going to Compton’s before the riot. She says she wasn’t able to live like the people she met in Compton’s did.
“I came to understand how powerful these women were and so brave,” she said. “I wasn’t courageous enough to do what they did—I didn’t want to end up in prison all the time and get beat up.”
Now Personna lives in San Francisco and is an activist for transgender rights.
She was featured in a short, Beautiful by Night, about drag performers at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, and she and Collette Legrande, also in the film, wrote The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, with playwright Mark Nassar. The play had sold out audiences for four months this year.
The play came about when Nassar, the author of off-Broadway comedy Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, came into the Tenderloin Museum, wanting to write a play about the neighborhood.
Katie Conry, the museum’s director, looked through the exhibits with him, and they decided on the largely unknown history of the cafeteria and the women fighting back against the cops.
Conry said that she was proud the museum showcases how pivotal the Tenderloin was in the fight for LGBT rights.
“Saying the LGBT movement in the United States started with Stonewall completely ignores the work activists had been doing for a decade at least,” she said. “It’s important to realize the movement started with a lot of trans women, particularly trans women of color, and it gives them back their rightful place in history.”
Conry said that the goal of the museum is similar to that of the district—celebrating the people living and working in the Tenderloin now as well as the history of the neighborhood.
That focus on current residents, not just street signs and plaques, is key for the district, Kim said, who aims to keep it a welcoming place.
“The first transgender commemorative neighborhood in the nation’s history is well timed given the president’s attack on transgender people,” she said. “We will have grants for small businesses and we need to be intentional to make the district an anti-displacement strategy.”
For Personna, the district is a rejection of Trump’s policies.
“It’s an act of resistance and of fighting back,” she said. “I’m proud and happy with myself that we did something tangible against the Trump administration.”
The district is in its infancy, and she’s looking forward to seeing what it can do, but establishing it is a huge step, Sa’id said.
She grew up not seeing any representation of trans people in the media except for maybe on the Jerry Springer Show or a dead hooker on CSI. Now transgender actor Laverne Cox, known for Orange is the New Black, is on magazine covers and has a wax figure at Madame Tussauds.
Sa’id recalled President Barack Obama using the word “transgender” in a State of the Union speech–the first time an American president said it.
“Now we have Trump and his intention to further marginalize trans people and Muslims and anyone who’s not a straight white man,” she said. “But progress is not linear. Just saying the word ‘transgender,’ he’s empowering us. We’re seeing solidarity from people who didn’t know what trans was five or 10 years ago. He’s encouraging people to come together and do the opposite of what he wants.”