Compton’s Transgender Cultural District

by Tee Hoatson

Compton’s Cafeteria Riot has come a long way from hiding in a newspaper clipping in the Gay and Lesbian Historical Archives, waiting to be discovered by trans historian Susan Stryker. Now that this monumental piece of trans history is out of the closet, it’s no surprise that TLGBQ communities have organized around it. By now, you’ve probably heard of Compton’s Transgender District, or at least seen the bright pastel flags gracing a host of lampposts near Market and Sixth streets. Defined as “well-recognized, labeled areas of a city” with high concentrations of significant community landmarks, cultural districts aim to preserve and celebrate history. Compton’s Transgender District is one of many such districts in San Francisco, including Calle 24, JCHESS, and SOMA Pilipinas, but holds the distinct honor of being the world’s first cultural district to center transgender communities. You can thank Aria Sa’id, Janetta Johnson, Honey Mahogany, Brian Basinger, Stephany Ashley, and Nate Allbee for that!

The initial rumblings of this movement were birthed when the powerful real estate agency Group i attempted to purchase the 900 block of Market Street. For context, this part of the Tenderloin held a density of TLGBQ bars, cruising spots, hotels and bathhouses unmatched in the city for decades. What’s more, some of the earliest examples of trans and queer political organizing and consciousness raising happened in this part of the Tenderloin. Basinger recounts: “I did not feel like the process had been done properly when the straight owner of Group i, the straight owner of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy Shaw, and supervisor of the district, Jane Kim, all came together to allow this without consultation with the community and with all of the neighborhood’s resources flowing in one direction: out.” Now, the likes of NPR, The Guardian, and KQED have covered the district, highlighting its celebratory vibe and the poetic justice of “San Francisco’s storied transgender community” finally obtaining a legally recognized home. Janetta Johnson affirms that celebration, remembering that “we were restricted to that area in a way that was really screwed up and fowl back then. I want to create a new experience in that space.”

The story goes further than just a symbolic celebration, however. Compton’s Transgender District opens the door for anti-gentrification efforts that directly impact members of the San Francisco TLGBQ community experiencing housing insecurity. Here’s how.

  1. The District is led and supported by Black trans women who work as frontline service providers.

The folks behind Compton’s aren’t random wealthy developers capitalizing on the vibrant history of the Tenderloin. They’re front line service providers with lived experiences of interlocking anti-Black racism, transphobia, homophobia, and sexism, and they’re dedicated to our community. As Basinger puts it, “…we are not people who come in and commute into our community and neighborhood and do the work. This is something that authentically sprung from the community…All that stuff that people talk about and try to wave flags about? That’s who we really are.” In particular, Johnson,  Sa’id and Mahogany know what it’s like to be on the margins of the margins of an already marginalized group. That lived experience enables them to have an eye for the people and communities who usually get screwed over in urban development plans. Johnson recounts, “Five of the girls at TGIJP who live in the district … I sat them down and explained to them what was at stake and what we were trying to accomplish. And people showed up in a way that I never thought they would — and they brought other black trans people with them to advocate for the district.” The organic community that’s formed around Compton’s is a solid indicator that the most marginalized members of our communities won’t be left behind in this effort. In fact, they’ll be leading.

  1. Compton’s is committed to preserving the affordable housing stock within the District and in surrounding areas.

Straight from the mouths of its founders, this is huge. If you’ve been through the process of getting back into stable housing in the Bay Area, you know how important this commitment is. The District’s founders are particularly attuned to how displacement affects trans and gender non-conforming unhoused people. Mahogany broke it down beautifully when discussing her work as a community mental health director in Concord. “A lot of my trans clients had lost housing in San Francisco and were placed in housing [in Concord] away from their communities and resources for health. That caused a lot of isolation and negative outcomes like missed appointments and eventually, cancelled health care. San Francisco can be a lot better, it’s like a bubble for visible trans folks. Outside of the city, it’s hard to find work and hard to feel safe … when we’re forced out of the city, you see all the negative facets of trans existence exacerbated by the displacement.” 

The ways in which Compton’s intervenes on this grim cycle are already clear to Johnson. “I’ve seen an effect of the district in that we’ve been able to negotiate with developers to secure space.” She’s also determined to take things a step further and focus on the plethora of empty buildings in the District. “ I’ve been talking to the supervisors about them… We want to rezone and co-op-ify to provide housing for the community.” Mahogany adds that “the goal is to get everybody housed. We’re fighting for low income housing and community services centered in the district to get people off the streets and into homes and to keep folks in their homes.”

  1. “Economic development” at all costs isn’t the goal.

As previously mentioned, the leaders of Compton’s Transgender District are integrated into the community within their district and are acutely aware of the challenges involved in improving the district’s living conditions. Mahogany identifies the need for “strategic planning” when organizing to increase housing and livability without gentrification and displacement. “We advocate for affordable housing and specifically low-income housing, not just tearing down SROs to create market rate buildings with some proportion of affordable units included.” She admits that this is balance is “something we really struggle with,” but the Compton’s team offers tangible and practical ideas to achieve it. Johnson names these ideas rapidly and with excitement:  “We’re looking at creating co-ops and community businesses and business opportunities for our community. If a developer brings a business in, they need to HIRE TRANS PEOPLE! We’re aiming for collective opportunities to make things like healthy meals and our own bars affordable … In the end it’s about safety, it’s about transgender safety.” Any and all development within Compton’s District is designed to be by and for the community, and the likelihood of founder accountability is high.

Questions about the actual impacts of the district remain. How will Compton’s Transgender District actually affect the unhoused communities of the Tenderloin? Will there be fewer sweeps and cameras and more services and housing? Will the wealthy and white members of the TLGBQ community sacrifice their neighbors for their own exclusionary sense of safety? At this point, it’s impossible to tell. Compton’s only solidified in the last three years. But if the founders have anything to do with it, this district should remain just as radical as the cafeteria riot it gets its name from. The future seems bright.