San Francisco’s Historic Tenderloin May Become World’s First Official Trans District

New legislation designates six blocks as the Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual District to help protect vulnerable residents and preserve cultural history.
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Jones and Ellis Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin districtPhoto by Brandon Doran / Flickr

Downtown San Francisco’s Tenderloin district could soon be home to the first government-sanctioned transgender district in the world.

“San Francisco needs to do everything it can to stand our ground and be a place of sanctuary.”

Last week, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim announced legislation that would create the Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual District in San Francisco. The district will encompass six blocks in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and where one of the first LGBTQ civil rights uprisings in the United States occurred.

The Tenderloin has been a hub of vibrant transgender culture since the Gold Rush, when many trans and gender-nonconforming people worked in saloons and brothels there, according to the Compton District Coalition, the group of community members, activists, and nonprofit representatives that formed to spearhead the project and work with city officials to make it a reality. The proposal for the district aims to preserve this cultural heritage.

“What we’ve come to know as the ‘LGBT rights movement’ began with transwomen of color in the Tenderloin, and in many ways that’s where it still lives,” said Stephany Ashley, executive director of the St. James Infirmary and a member of the Compton District Coalition.

Another goal is to bring increased visibility and safety to a vulnerable population.

“In the last few weeks, our federal government has made it clear that minority communities have never been more at risk in America,” Kim said in a statement Jan. 31. “San Francisco needs to do everything it can to stand our ground and be a place of sanctuary for transgender people and specifically trans women of color.”

Transgender women of color are a particularly vulnerable group.

A recent report, developed in partnership with GLAAD, documents widespread discrimination, poverty, harassment, poor health, and isolation. According to the report, transgender women and transgender people of color are also much more vulnerable to violence. In 2013, more than half of all LBGTQ murder victims were transgender women of color.

And organizers cite benefits for the wider community. “When trans women of color are welcome and safe, then everyone is welcome and safe, because we welcome everybody,” said Janetta Johnson, a member of the Compton District Coalition.

Kim said she hopes that the new designated district will be the start of a national movement to protect transgender communities and preserve their history.

Laws against “cross-dressing” were first passed in the United States in the mid-19th century and continued to exist for more than a century. Despite its reputation for tolerance and diversity, San Francisco’s own law criminalized the wearing of “dress not belonging to his or her sex” from 1863 until 1974. The laws, in effect, were an easy way for police to enforce gender norms on trans and gender-nonconforming people. But those people, historically, found a safe haven in the Tenderloin.

“This area was very important.”

Although the area was known for gay bars and drag shows, trans people also gravitated toward the Tenderloin’s affordable housing, which increased in the 1920s with the creation of one-bedroom apartment complexes, according to Aria Sa’id, a coalition member, trans woman of color, and programs director at St. James Infirmary, a neighborhood nonprofit that offers free medical and social services to sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations.

Today, trans people still come to the Tenderloin for many of the same reasons, including the area’s affordability, without necessarily knowing the history, Sa’id said. And so the community has retained that character throughout the years.

“The lives of trans people were in danger just walking the streets in the way that felt most comfortable and natural to them,” said Honey Mahogany, a well-known performer, community organizer, and contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “So this area was very important.”

Occasionally, though, police and the community there would clash. In the 1950s, local lore has it that people would escape police raids on transgender bars in the district through a network of secret, underground tunnels connecting the watering holes along the area’s main strip. Though some reports have cast doubt on the veracity of those tales, the coalition intends to explore and document underground spaces (some from the Prohibition Era) with a historian as part of the district’s history preservation.

The district is known for more modern events, too.

“We couldn’t just let them be torn down without trying to preserve our history.”

In 1966, a milestone in transgender (and more broadly, LGBTQ) history happened at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. In August of that year, after repeated clashes between local police and cafeteria employees, trans women resisted arrest and sparked a two-day riot that expanded throughout the neighborhood. Three years later, the famous Stonewall riots in New York kicked off a new era of civil rights activism where LGBTQ people saw their lives slowly become decriminalized.

People in San Francisco have known about the neighborhood’s history for years, but the need to preserve it became pressing when a new development was given the go-ahead to demolish and redevelop an entire city block in the heart of the district. The approval came on the heels of other development displacing long-time businesses and residents.

“We knew the development would have a tremendous impact,” Sa’id said. “We wanted to set a precedent where, when you ‘revitalize’ an area that a community is already living in, you give back, too.”

The block slated for demolition dates back to the 1930s, Mahogany said. “We couldn’t just let them be torn down without trying to preserve our history.”

As a compromise, the developer is donating $300,000 toward creating a transgender community center and giving grants out to help keep transgender people and small businesses in the area. Details are still being hammered out.

According to representatives from Kim’s office, the district proposal will be reviewed by the city’s land use committee sometime in the next month or two, before it’s returned to the board for a vote.