In San Francisco, August marks the first full month dedicated to celebrating trans history and identity.
Our Streets is a column by writer and reporter Ray Levy Uyeda that highlights activists, artists, and organizers who are doing the work and reclaiming power for the people.
When transgender activist, actress, and speaker Donna Personna was coming up in the 1960s, there were few, if any, queer and transgender public spaces where she could hang out and meet others in her community. Just about everything was different back then, she tells Mic, from social attitudes to laws to media portrayals of queer and transgender people and families.
Now, Personna works tirelessly to educate the LGBTQ+ community on its own history, which has been at best forgotten, and at worst, erased. This year, Personna will have some help in educating the public on transgender history in San Francisco, as the city will commemorate its first-ever Transgender History Month.
San Francisco’s Transgender History Month is the first of its kind in the U.S. It came about through a collaboration between San Francisco’s Office of Transgender Initiatives, the country’s first trans-led government arm dedicated to serving trans residents, and The Transgender District, a cultural hub in the city. “I am a firm believer that through disseminating history we are able to really pave our path forward,” Jupiter Peraza, who championed the concept and wrote the proclamation that was eventually signed in August 2021 by Mayor London Breed, tells Mic.
Peraza, the director of social justice and empowerment initiatives at The Transgender District, had learned about the political power of proclamations through a public policy fellowship. She was interested in facilitating a bipartisan statement of support for San Francisco’s trans community. Given that many commemorative events dedicated to the trans community are “eclipsed by an element of grief and sadness,” Peraza says, it was critical that the proclamation instead create an opportunity to celebrate trans history.
Until very recently in the U.S., transgender and queer people lived in the shadows of society, forced by social convention and laws into marginal spaces — and stories of trans joy, love, and triumph remained hidden as well. Now, for the first time in the U.S., a governing body is recognizing that trans history is both important and a part of a city’s fabric. “I don’t want to say ‘legitimate,’ because trans history has always been legitimate, but in a way [the proclamation] is something that is part of public consciousness, having that recognition,” Peraza says.
But because mainstream society refused for decades to recognize the existence and humanity of trans people, it was difficult to find housing, employment, and community when Personna was coming into adulthood. “Everything was undercover and secret, and so I just wandered around and found these places and met people on the street,” Personna says. “It was all word of mouth. The places that were gay were in back alleys. It was like an old fashioned movie where you have to knock on the door and say the right thing, and then they open it and let you in.”
Personna was raised in San Jose, about 60 miles south of San Francisco, and as a teenager she began taking Greyhound buses up to the City by the Bay. One evening while walking around the city, she came upon Compton’s Cafeteria, a 24-hour diner in the Tenderloin neighborhood where transgender people and sex workers could commune with a degree of safety and openness. For months after that first encounter, Personna says, she would drive up on the weekends to hang out with her queer and transgender kin at Compton’s.
Compton’s Cafeteria’s importance in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community spans beyond all-hours meet-ups, though. The restaurant was the site of the first major transgender-led uprising against police in the U.S. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riots occurred in August of 1966 — about three years before the famed Stonewall Riot in New York City that was later the inspiration for yearly Pride celebrations.
In those days, it was common for police to raid bars and clubs that were well-known LGBTQ+ watering holes. Police would arrest, beat, and harass LGBTQ+ patrons; for transgender people, interactions with police and subsequent arrests could lead to further abuse and isolation. There was also the fact that many states had laws on the books governing what clothes one could wear based on their assigned gender, or laws that restricted sex between queer people. In that era, to be trans in public was on its own an act of courage and defiance, and remembering the moments in history when that courage was on display is critical, advocates say.
“I’m asking you to learn your history,” Personna says, because it “establishes that you have a right to be here,” she explains. “If you don’t know about that, you don’t think you have a future.”
Transgender History Month is a way to “honor who was really at the forefront so that we can continue to make progress without forgetting the past.”
Personna says that learning that history can help a person avoid some of the feelings of loneliness that she herself felt as a young queer person. She was never ashamed of herself, but in many queer and trans spaces, especially those that were white-dominant, Personna says she battled against her community’s own misogyny and racism. It took some time, but finding friends within the LGBTQ+ community allowed her to feel more grounded, she says.
Yet conservative politicians nationwide are now actively trying to erase this shared history. With the rise in anti-trans legislation, local and state officials are attempting to create policies that demonize trans children and harm their development. In June, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill took effect, banning kindergarten through third-grade teachers from offering “instruction” about sexual identity. In Texas, Republican lawmakers have proposed a number of laws that would limit a parent or health care provider’s ability to offer gender-affirming care to a minor. And after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said that the high court should reconsider the decision that extended marital rights to queer couples.
Advocates hope public institutional support for trans history and trans lives could shift this trajectory. San Francisco’s commitment to addressing anti-trans sentiment and uplifting trans contributions is evidenced both by Transgender History Month as well as by other programs run by the Office of Transgender Initatives.
Pau Crego, the executive director of the office, says Transgender History Month is a way to “honor who was really at the forefront so that we can continue to make progress without forgetting the past.” While the city will help support some specific events in the month of August — like offering an energetic boost to the Transgender District’s annual Riot Party, which commemorates the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots — for Crego, the commemorative month is more tied to the larger set of programs the city is rolling out to support trans residents, like a city-funded housing program that specifically prioritizes trans people.
Breed’s office estimates that there are 400 trans people who are unhoused at any given time in the city, out of an estimated 7,754 people who are unhoused, meaning roughly 5% of unhoused people in the city are trans. Earlier this year, Breed told The Bay Area Reporter that transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people are 18 times more likely to experience houselessness than the general population. The city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is working in collaboration with trans residents and organizations like the Transgender District to assist this population, who are often cornered into a cycle of houselessness and joblessness. In 2022, Breed announced a plan to end trans houselessness within the next five years.
Crego says that programs like these are the product of sustained organizing by trans communities in San Francisco, much in the way that Transgender History Month is a product of trans organizing and leadership. And amid the national backlash against trans people and trans lives, Transgender History Month is a bright spot, Crego says — and a way for trans organizers and leaders to re-energize the movement going forward.
“Change is possible because we have seen it happen,” Crego tells Mic. “Sometimes we get stuck on what's really hard, and what's really painful, understandably,” he says. But “acknowledging all the change that has happened can really allow us to envision what can happen in the future to achieve true liberation.”