How three Black trans women made San Francisco’s Tenderloin cool again

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‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ mural on Compton’s Cafeteria Way (Photo Courtesy of The Transgender District/ Garet Gooch Photography )

The Tenderloin has gained a complicated reputation over the years. This central, hyper-urban hood, adjacent to bustling Union Square, hosts the city’s vibrant theater district, Michelin-star restaurants, storied nightclubs, but also its fair share of unhoused neighbors and crime. While living up to its rep in many ways, it’s clear the neighborhood is changing– quickly becoming one of the hippest hoods in San Francisco.

A neighborhood in transition

In order to understand how Tenderloin’s newfound cool factor came about, we must first look back at history. Before the birth of the Castro District, the Tenderloin was San Francisco’s first official gay ‘hood. It was the site of the Compton Cafeteria Riots of 1966, one of the very first LGBTQ protests in US history. This area is home to one of the city’s oldest gay bars, Aunt Charlie’s, various art spaces, like Counterpulse and PianoFight, gathering sites, and hotels with cultural significance to the trans community. Though many members of the LGBTQ community have moved, the neighborhood still houses a very large trans population.

In fact, the Tenderloin has the densest population of transgender people in the US, with an ongoing, documented presence of trans residents since as early as the 1920s. Despite this rich history, trans folx have an increasingly difficult time surviving in this ‘hood due to high housing prices, lack of employment opportunities and access to community programs.

(Photo: “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria” 2005, IMDB)

That’s why, in 2017, three Black trans women joined forces to help balance gentrification by creating Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, the first legally recognized transgender district in the world. This newly-minted district encompasses six blocks in SE Tenderloin and two blocks across Market Street on 6th, but its impact reaches much farther.

At the helm of the ship is the Transgender District’s co-founder and president, Aria Sa’id. GayCities had a chance to catch up with Sa’id, learn more about her team’s mission and plans for the future, plus her recs for fun things to do around this emerging gayborhood.

GC: What motivates you to do this work in the Tenderloin?

Aria: “I’m a Tenderloin girl through and through. I moved here as a teenager and have been connected to the neighborhood for almost 15 years now. I live in the Tenderloin and work in the Tenderloin, and I think our community is misunderstood. There are so many mysteries in this neighborhood yet to be explored, and I think it’s a special part of my own personal journey, as well as a huge part of my work.”

“I have so much trauma in this neighborhood, from experiencing homelessness to resorting to sex work for survival when no one would hire me. I struggled to survive in this urban jungle. But I also have an immense amount of joy in this neighborhood. From signing my first lease for a tiny studio on Turk and Hyde to getting a phone call on Eddy and Taylor street asking if I would tour Brazil to amplify trans and queer safety.”

“The TL has given me so much of my identity. I think my biggest motivation overall is that we have such a rich culture and history in this neighborhood, and yet so often, the rest of the city ignores us.”

GC: What do you have planned for the future?

Aria: “My dream as a resident, and the President of the Transgender District, is to be a part of a renaissance for queer and transgender culture in this neighborhood. Prepare to see more art, more sass, more cultural happenings. We’re advocating for more housing opportunities, more restaurants, and businesses owned by transgender people. That’s what we are working tirelessly to build- a new era for transgender people who have so much history and presence in this neighborhood.”

Walking around the block, you can see this work already well underway. Last June, Sa’id’s organization was instrumental in creating a pilot program for San Francisco that provided a no-strings-attached, monthly payment of $1,000 to low-income, transgender residents of the city. This initiative could set the tone for how marginalized communities across the country access and receive government support.

This program goes a long way toward the organization’s overarching goal: Keep trans folx in the Trans District. Often marginalized, even within their own LGBTQ communities, transgender people finally have the support network they need in a neighborhood they can peacefully call home. This is a place for trans people to not only live– but thrive.

Dancers celebrating on the streets at Riot Party. (Photo: Gooch)

GC: What are some of your favorite hotspots in this neighborhood?

Aria: “I love grabbing coffee at Fluid Co-Op, a Transgender owned and operated coffee shop housed in La Cocina Marketplace. (Fun Fact: The Transgender District gave them seed funding through our Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program.)”

“Whenever someone visits from out of town, I take them to The Tenderloin Museum. After that, I like to walk over to Vicki Mar Lane & Compton’s Cafeteria Way- the famous Turk and Taylor intersection where the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots took place. For the full experience, book a walking tour of the hood with Del Seymour and Code Tenderloin.”

“The brunch menu at Dottie’s True Blue Cafe is absolutely delicious, especially the biscuit sandwiches. For a more elevated dining experience, I recommend Charmaine’s, Proper Hotel‘s rooftop restaurant. For drinks, we’re bar hopping. It’s always Aunt Charlie’s Lounge for their heavy pours, HotBox Cabaret drag shows and handcrafted cocktails at PianoFight for me!”

GC: How can we support your work?

Aria: “There are ways for everyone to get involved and fuel the work that’s already happening. Of course, monetary donations are perhaps the easiest form of altruism, for both the donor and the nonprofit. But also we’d love for folks to volunteer at events, or offer their skills or services. That will help us lead the social change in better and strengthened ways.”

“Signal boosting our work on your social media platforms always helps too– and I think of it as donating!”

You can also show your support by attending their vigil commemorating Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, 2021, at Counterpulse in the Tenderloin.