You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy—yours might be the best places to eat out in whatever city you live in. Many cities today have a “gayborhood” where rainbow flags festoon every window and businesses are gay owned and schools, churches, and government offices are affirming.
Neighborhood pockets have history in terms of intersecting groups, migration patterns, and cultural change. Districts set up and evolve naturally through neighborhoods, as families and businesses merge, integrate, and contribute to the space and place around them.
Today, thanks to an enterprising and activist-minded approach to historical preservation, we have the world’s first transgender cultural district. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin region, a subset of the now-famous Castro gay district, marginalized folks have long clustered.
People with AIDS, gay people rejected by their families, and transgender people have found solace and support in each other, castaways of the larger district because of poverty. With much homelessness and derelict buildings, gentrification in the region is desperately needed but gentrification is a dirty word and is actively rejected because more often than not it means sweeping away unwanted or undesirable people or lower classes, and replacing vibrant human stories with generic box stores and more playgrounds for the rich, rather than revitalization and injection into new ideas and business.
Enter a trilogy of black transgender women active in business and politics: Aria Sa’id, LGBT policy advisor for San Francisco Human Rights Commission; Janetta Johnson, the executive director of Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP); and Honey Mahogany, a local social worker and a former contestant on season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The trio worked with local nonprofit foundations for homelessness and AIDS, opposing developers who said the region had no historical value or significance worth salvaging. They saw the humanity of the poor and drug addicted population there, having known firsthand what it was like to get off a bus as a refugee from mainstream America, to be welcomed in a rough but real oasis where your trans identity was welcomed. They began discussions about preservation and cultural development rather than condominium development.
“I think we started our effort… as a sort of newly bound unofficial coalition,” Sa’id told Out Magazine. “We were working with historians and lawyers, fighting the developer, and that is how it came to be.”
Johnson told Out, “A lot of people who came to San Francisco came here broken and looking for a better quality of living,” she says. “The Tenderloin was a passage that a lot of trans people went through upon coming… wherever they were coming from.”
In liaison with various local groups and foundations, the Compton transwomen won over folks through education and forward thinking entrepreneurial and culture-minded initiatives. Reflecting the heritage, history, and contributions of transgender people and the LGBT civil rights groups in San Francisco, the world’s first transgender cultural district was born.
The women are working on the future, with prioritized plans for affordable housing, an accessible community center, and funds and other support for transgender-operated businesses in the region.
Sa’id talked to Forbes Magazine about their victory. “We were fighting forecasted displacement of poor communities of color and transgender people. We were also working towards getting the city of San Francisco and real estate developers to acknowledge the really rich history of the Tenderloin, and how transgender people in the area have contributed greatly to society.”
Bravo Aria, Janetta, and Honey for making a difference in the world!