Transgender District staff from left to right: Aria Sa'id, Ivory Smith, Jupiter Peraza, Ernie Tovar and Juniper Yun. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
hen venues closed during the COVID-19 shutdowns last year, Bionka Stevens suddenly found herself losing out on the supplemental income from her work as an entertainer dancing at local venues. In search of new ways to make money, she hit on an idea: Snatched by Simone, a shapewear business specifically catering to members of the transgender community.
“I’ve always been a sucker for undergarments,” she says, “and lots of trans women don’t know about proper shapewear. I wanted to shed new light on it and make it OK for them.”
Stevens lost no time in getting down to work, but she couldn’t do it alone. She had a lot of questions about the ins and outs of running her own business, and not enough answers. A lot of intensive googling yielded some explainers on YouTube and Instagram, and while these did help somewhat, she needed more information.
Enter the San Francisco Transgender District’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator. After seeing a social media blast last summer, Stevens applied for the program, and she was overjoyed to become one of its very first participants. “It made me feel really accomplished to be selected,” she says. “I was glad to know that my business idea was good enough to move forward.”
For the next several months, Stevens received rigorous training in the nitty gritty of running her business. She was placed into a community of business professionals that supported and mentored her, as well as a cohort of transgender entrepreneurs that reflected her identity and aspirations. By the end of the months-long intensive program, the Entrepreneurship Accelerator helped Stevens develop her website and ecommerce platform, and it still provides ongoing support for her business even after graduation.
pilot program last year, set to launch its first full year this fall, the Entrepreneurship Accelerator is one of several programs that the Transgender District created since its founding in 2017 as the first legally recognized transgender district in the world. In the four years since it came into existence, the District has inspired transgender activists the world over, while developing initiatives that address many of the unique forms of discrimination and oppression that transgender San Franciscans face.
The District’s location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin was chosen both because of the area’s current population of underserved Black trans people and for its historic significance to the community. As transgender historian Susan Stryker recounted in her book Transgender History, gender-diverse San Franciscans have made their home in the Tenderloin since the early 20th century. In August 1966, tensions in the community reached a tipping point when the neighborhood saw a massive riot between transgender people and the police, with enormous implications.
The chaos sparked when a police officer aggressively manhandled a trans woman patron at Compton’s Cafeteria, which was a known gathering place for LGBT people with few options for community. The riot was a culmination of years of gentrification and marginalization against the LGBT population in the Tenderloin. This ongoing oppression became much more acute throughout the summer of 1966 as the management of Compton’s Cafeteria took to harassing its trans clientele. One weekend in August (nobody knows exactly which one), the trans community snapped back against this bullying, engaging in street fights with police and unleashing general havoc throughout the neighborhood.
The riot occurred during a wave of trans empowerment in the 1960s, as more doctors began to recognize the existence of transgender people, and medical treatment for gender dysphoria became available for the first time in the U.S. That makes it a key event in the battle for trans liberation that continues to this day. The riot’s continuing relevance is evident when one considers that the abuses Compton’s patrons fought back against—among them police brutality and economic marginalization—continue to beset San Francisco’s transgender community today.
The Transgender District’s mission is both to honor this rich cultural history while empowering those currently living there. For Juniper Yun, director of cultural affairs for the District, this means changing the fact that, historically, transgender individuals have been prevented from recognizing and supporting one another due to intense stigma. “There’s been less chance for our community to create generational wealth, or community spaces,” she tells me. “The District has to do that work from the ground up.”
Creating such spaces can be as simple as painting the transgender flag on the District’s light poles, and it can be as complicated as creating a trans business corridor in the Tenderloin. The Entrepreneurship Accelerator program is part of the District’s push to bring in businesses owned by trans people and promote trans culture, just as other San Francisco neighborhoods are associated with other ethnic or LGBT cultures. “It’s important to work in a way that’s anti-gentrification,” Yun says. “We want to give space and resources to the people who would normally be marginalized.”
second issue that the District is focusing on is another longstanding flashpoint for the transgender community: housing discrimination. Jupiter Peraza, the District’s director of social justice and empowerment initiatives, manages the Housing Opportunity for Transgender Tenants program, which seeks to educate landlords, create welcoming spaces for trans tenants, and provide 50% of rent for program participants. “We’re seeing gentrification change the landscape of the city,” she tells me. “With people being displaced, forced to leave a place that has been their home for decades, the fabric of the neighborhood is changing.”
Creating all of these programs has not been easy. After Black trans women Aria Sa’id, Janetta Johnson and Honey Mahogany won legal recognition of the District in 2017, there was no blueprint for how to move forward. “It’s required a lot of tenacity,” says Sean Greene, the District’s vice president of strategic partnerships and deputy director. “We really wanted to make this happen. We’ve understood that we have had a lot of eyes on us.”
Those eyes have come from all over the world. The District has fielded press from France, England and Canada, and it has partnered to export its ideas for supporting trans communities to other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Austin, New York, Philly and Baltimore.
Along the way, Greene and his colleagues have dealt with misunderstandings and patronizing reactions. “We’ve encountered condescension around the fact that we are led by a Black trans woman,” says Greene. In the beginning, funding was hard to come by, as many institutions required a track record of success in order to secure grants. By necessity, the District has had to work in terms of what it could accomplish with available resources, snowballing its way to bigger and bigger projects.
A big moment occurred during the massive protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer: donors began to create funds specifically for Black-led organizations, and individual donations came rushing in. Overall, the District’s development has required a lot of imagination and flexibility. “We’ve taken risks because we knew there wasn’t a blueprint to model ourselves on,” said Greene, “so we leapt with both feet forward, being run by the community for the community.”
Ultimately, the District is guided by a dedication to truly care for its community. Greene explained how new tenants in its housing program are each given care packages because it’s essential to create a welcoming environment. Peraza struck a similar note, explaining that the housing program “aspires to help members of our community feel good about where they live. We want them to feel inspired, to have a foundation for a life where you’re aware of your potential and how bright your future can be.”
For Stevens, that brighter future is becoming a reality. After well over a year of hard work, Snatched by Simone recently launched, and orders have begun coming in. “Watching the analytics brings me a little joy,” she remarks. “I want to be up there with Spanx, Kim Kardashian, I want to be right up there with them.”
Those dreams are now closer to being realized thanks to Stevens’ hard work, along with the power of support from her trans community.
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