Searching for a Kiki: The World's First Transgender Cultural District

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Photo portrait of Aria Sa'id, President and Chief Strategist of The Transgender District
Aria Sa'id, President and Chief Strategist of The Transgender District (Courtesy Aria Sa'id)

The rich LGBT history of the Tenderloin goes back farther than any bricks thrown at Stonewall, and Transgender Cultural District President and Chief Strategist Aria Sa’id makes it her job to preserve that history. Her work in securing tenant protections, workforce development, arts and cultural heritage preservation, and cultural competency for the residents of the historic Tenderloin neighborhood has taken the idea of ‘safe space’ beyond the bars and into our daily lives. Sa’id speaks with us about what makes a space ‘safe,’ and the effect that empowering the most vulnerable within a community has on the rest of us.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of the episode with Aria Sa’id.

Aria: I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest and Northeast Portland, I had transitioned in high school and just was really struggling to find a place and often always felt like the odd one out… Everyone in my life at that point had told me to come to San Francisco. And I’ll never forget coming to the Tenderloin and seeing two Latina trans women coming out of like a corner store. And they had their little, oh my gosh, what are those dogs called like? Shitzu. And they were just getting coffee. And, you know, I had never seen that. I had always been the only trans person that I knew in my life. And I think just seeing the normalcy of it, like I was just gawking from across the street, like, Oh my God, somebody like me. And there's two of them, and they're literally just, you know, two women going to get coffee in the middle of the morning. But to me, that was such a big thing because I'd never seen that and living in the Tenderloin is when I found that experience of home.

Corey: It’s easy to think that the heavy LGBT presence in the Tenderloin just poofed into existence one day, but that’s not the case.

Aria: I never thought to think about why that was. At some point. I had met trans historians like Dr. Susan Stryker, who, you know, told me that there were trans people that had been continuously living in our neighborhood since the 1920s, and that often it was by design… So at that time it was illegal to be trans… There were laws in San Francisco that you could not wear more than three articles of clothing belonging to the other sex or gender.

And at that time, living in an SRO is very glamorous… in the Tenderloin there used to be a string of jazz clubs… Duke Ellington… Billie Holiday… Ella Fitzgerald… All these are these different greats. James Baldwin and everybody in between were frequently coming to San Francisco from New York and Paris. And many trans women were, you know, doing sex work cabaret shows, burlesque at that time and living and working in the Tenderloin… And we don't even know [this history] because who's teaching out in the school?

Corey: There are a lot of places in the Cultural District that look pretty unassuming at first glance, but they hold real history.

Aria: Turk and Taylor is the center of the Transgender District, but historically it's an intersection that had a restaurant called Gene Compton's Cafeteria, and it was a late night diner. Because it was the Tenderloin, the girls would come through and they would frequent the diner, but Gene Compton did not like that at all… And so the owner would often call the police.

One hot Indian summer August night in 1966, a trans woman who also was a drag queen, Vicki Marlene threw a cup of hot coffee in an officer's face right before being arrested. And a riot ensued in the cafeteria. Drag queens getting their faces smashed into the pavement. Trans folks fighting back, queer folks jumping on officers. I mean, it was a riot and it was a catalyst in the United States.

We would see Cooper's donuts in L.A. there would be riots in Philly. And then, of course, the big Beyoncé of the group, Stonewall, which sort of set the new wave into the gay liberation movement.

The Turk and Taylor intersection is still quite historic for us as trans people. But the site of the riot is actually owned by a private for-profit prison company called Geo Group, which is literally, I think, what many you know trans and queer folks are fighting against.

Corey: Alongside Honey Mahogany and Janetta Johnson, you are one of the three co-founders of the Transgender Cultural District. Why did y’all create it?

Aria: We started our work in 2016. A luxury sort of developer that was coming in and tearing down a building right behind Turk and Taylor, they had determined that there was no prominent LGBT histories in the neighborhood and had chosen not to work with the queer and trans community in the neighborhood as well, the Tenderloin was sort of this last frontier of development and gentrification. And so that was our fight.

Over 75 percent of the trans folks living in the Tenderloin are living in abject poverty on less than $10,000 a year… to the developer, they didn't care. They felt like... by building, they were adding to the neighborhood or making it better. But I think people forget that there are people living in the neighborhood already marginalized and disenfranchised. And because of that looming displacement, where else would they go in terms of safety?

[The Transgender Cultural District] became legally recognized in January 2017, and it then became world news and we were like shocked because then, you know, we're getting calls from like Swedish Public Radio or like Switzerland or the Daily Mail in the U.K. And obviously, you know, we got so much love, you know, and LGBT media in the United States and our community was just, like, really outspokenly excited about the possibilities and we were having like town halls.

I think it was complicated because, you know, we became legally recognized and then months later, nothing. There was no funding. Though the developer was legally obligated to give us funding from the community benefits effort, we didn't realize that they legally didn't have to do it until they broke ground. And so, you know, those funds didn't even come into last year.

Corey:: This is where Aria’s work as executive director comes in. It’s all about filling and funding those gaps, building partnerships with NGO’s that help people get access to housing, food, and jobs…

Aria: We’ll be launching guaranteed income for transgender people who are living in abject poverty, and they'll be provided with $1000 a month for 18 months. And that's been a replication of the universal basic income program that happened in Stockton, California, and their mayor, Michael Tubbs. To me, those are forms of reparations as we fight for black trans people, specifically. Creating a safety net for our folks, it's the most important thing that the transgender district is building right now.

Corey: To have a cultural district, you need to uplift the culture. One way they set about doing that was using flags to make trans support visible… To put out into the world that trans people matter that they belong here, and that this belonging is recognized in the landscape of the neighborhood.

Aria: One of the first big things that we wanted to do was to make sure that people could see the trans flags. I used to joke, like, I'm transgender nine-to-five, because when you have the job of intellectualizing your gender identity and then translating that for public consumption and explaining to people what pronouns are and explaining to people, why trans people are who they say they are every single day, day in and day out, I think you grow weary...

And so when they painted those flags, I remember people texting me photos and then I went outside and I got to see the trans flags on the light pole. And never in my life had I been so proud to be a transgender woman. And like knowing that so many trans folks have come before me to pave the way for the freedoms that we have now and that we've inherited. A little bit of freedom, honey, but freedom nonetheless. It just was such a beautiful moment.

I was always raised that we have to be twice as good to get half as much as white folks. As a leader there is a double standard. We are triple audited compared to white organizations that may not even be audited by funders. It's interesting because I have those experiences. I'm always a step ahead. So funders will literally be like, we'd like to sort of see where the funds have been spent. In ten minutes, I'm going through our server like, here you go, girl. Click Click, Click Click. Here's a year's worth of receipts!

And I think because the overwhelming majority of philanthropic donors, as well as philanthropy institutions, are led and facilitated by white people, they tend to inherently trust people that look like them, as opposed to us. We have this stigma. I'm a blonde Black trans woman. Child, bye! They think I just got off the track yesterday. They don't have trust in Black leaders. And so you almost have to suspend their disbelief and sort of co-facilitate a paradigm shift for them to understand, that the people who are facing the disparity should be the ones leading the solutions.

Everyone says that they want to see trans people empowered. But trust me, and I use my girls at the Transgender District as a focus group ... The way the world receives them now that they're more economically empowered than they ever have been, is such a jarring experience because it's almost like people love the idea of empowering trans people, but they're not married to it because it then challenges this idea that we should be infantilized.

Some of the most beautiful moments of joy that I've had as a black trans person were when I was doing survival sex work in the Tenderloin on Polk and Post. And I was with other girls and we had nowhere to stay. We barely had access to food or shelter or what have you. But the way that we would come together and kiki and laugh and have joy while we were working, like we'd be waiting on the block, you know, for customers to circle around. And that was when we would read each other and laugh and like, tell jokes. And those are the moments that stick with me, because it reminds me that, you know, even in our disenfranchisement, Black trans joy is a revolutionary act. The self-care of Black bodies is a revolution.

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