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Last Exit

Can a fast-changing Tenderloin remain a refuge for the city’s most marginalized queer and transgender people?

Aunt Charlie’s Lounge at Turk and Taylor Streets, above, is the only remaining drag bar in the Tenderloin.

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The site of Compton’s Cafeteria, where queer and trans people rioted against abusive police in 1966.

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Larkin Street Youth Services offers shelter and services to homeless youth.

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Editor's note: This is one of many stories about LGBTQ life in the Bay Area that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the June 2016 Pride Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

“Treacherous and scandalous.”
That was how Lord Frederick pictured the Tenderloin when he moved to San Francisco from Texas in 2013, pulled by the city’s arts scene and openness. Frederick’s friends had warned him to avoid the neighborhood, and he had no intention of living there. But San Francisco’s housing market left him no choice. The gay, black, blind 49-year-old soon found himself living in the Tenderloin.

It hasn’t been easy. Last October, a robbery left Frederick with one less tooth, and he’s learned six different remedies for killing bedbugs, including blasting them with a fire extinguisher and saturating his bedsheets with hand sanitizer. Worse, he hasn’t been able to find a home for himself and the more than 1,000 dolls he’s created over the years, including figures of Liberace, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Mae West. He’s shuffled around the low-income housing system, staying at various run-down single-room-occupancy hotels before ending up at a shelter.

But despite his precarious situation, Frederick considers the TL his home and treasures its rich history. During his stay at a Sixth Street SRO called the Baldwin House, he says, “I used to stand in front of the walls, imagining candlelight, pictures on the wall, decorating the place in my mind, imagining in my mind how it once was.” And come what may, he intends to stay. “My passion is still here,” he says. “I’m just wounded right now.”

The Castro may be the most famous gayborhood in the world, but it doesn’t hold a monopoly on queerness in San Francisco. Indeed, the city’s queer scene originated not in the Castro but in the Tenderloin and North Beach. Starting in the 1940s and peaking in the 1970s, the TL was home to dozens of gay bars that catered to all types and fetishes. It was the only hood in San Francisco where transgender girls in gowns could walk the streets relatively undisturbed, and where countless homeless queer youths from all over the country could find shelter after their unaccepting parents turned them out. (Many also went to work in the sex trade.) And it was always more welcoming to queers of color than the Castro.

In a song she wrote about the Tenderloin, local trans chanteuse Bambi Lake recalls those years as a “golden age of hustlers,” alive with “pretty queens on the corner” and “midnight cowboys in the doorways,” “a candy store in more ways than one.” Even during that golden age, the neighborhood had its downside—abusive johns, addiction, police brutality—and, as Frederick’s robbery experience indicates, it still does. Still, the TL continues to be the closest thing to a refuge that the city’s most vulnerable queer and trans people have. 

But today that refuge is threatened like never before. For various reasons, including zoning laws and the fact that nonprofits control a lot of TL real estate, the neighborhood is less susceptible to gentrification than most. But rising property values, dramatic changes on Market and Polk Streets, and pressure from homeowner associations have led to increased police crackdowns on poor queers, many of them of color; transgender people; and sex workers. None of these groups have powerful political allies, and the mainstream gay community often shows little concern for them: As the once-renegade Castro has become the epicenter of gay privilege, the population in the Tenderloin remains the most marginalized in a city that has long protected those on its margins. If the TL goes, that protection will vanish. So the question arises: Does San Francisco still have room for its ultimate outsiders?

Collette LeGrande
remembers the Tenderloin’s heyday. When she moved here at age 24 in 1975, the Castro was “just another family neighborhood,” she says. Sitting atop her bed in her 400-square-foot studio on O’Farrell Street, she recalls how after she graduated from high school in Santa Barbara, her plan was to move to the Tenderloin and get gender reassignment surgery. But “the drugs they used to give the girls in those days, the hormones were terrible.” Terrible enough to scare her off the idea, and, despite vast improvements in medical treatments, she never again felt the need for an operation. 

LeGrande now works as a cocktail waitress and performer at the only drag bar left in the TL, Aunt Charlie’s Lounge on Turk Street—lip-synching to numbers from back in the day (Dusty Springfield) mixed in with newer-school gay classics (Kesha). She’s a working-class white queen with an old-school San Francisco style that’s distinct from that of the coiffed-to-perfection RuPaul wannabes you can find at any drag night anywhere in the country. “I’m one of those what they call ‘paint-by-number’ drag queens,” she explains. As her drag mother, a Latina queen named Lola Lust, once advised her, “The faster you get it on, the faster you get out, and the faster you make your money. Foundation and powder, eyes, blush, lips, eyelashes: One, two, three, four, five, and you’re out the door.” 

LeGrande has sometimes derided the Castro as a place for “uppity, youth-obsessed” gays. “Being an older person, everybody has their nose in the air to me.” In contrast, she says, in the TL “I feel comfortable. Nobody bothers me. I enjoy talking to the people.” On her 10-minute walk to work, “they never bother me, and they sort of watch out for me.”

But, LeGrande professes, the vibrancy of the TL has dulled. She rattles off some of the dozens of vanished bars: the African American–frequented hangout Blue and Gold, the hustler bar Rendezvous, a trans nightclub called the Road Runner. “Back in those days”—the ’70s and early ’80s—“you didn’t see that many homeless people,” she says. “The pimps and the prostitutes were not sleeping on the streets like they are now. At least they had someplace to go.”

Right now, LeGrande can afford the $900 she pays for her little piece of the TL, and she’s “not going nowhere.” But she doesn’t know what she’d do if she arrived today, suitcase of wigs in hand. “I wouldn’t know what to tell anyone unless you’re into living with five or six people.” She says the question burning in her mind, and a lot of people’s minds, is: “What’s going to happen when they start building all these new high-rises here? Sooner or later, there won’t be a hood like this; it’ll be just like the rest of [the city].”

The erosion of the TL’s queer boundaries began on lower Polk Street, on the neighborhood’s northwestern border. Long a haunt of street hustlers and transgender sex workers of color, the stretch of Polk between California and Ellis, and the surrounding Tendernob neighborhood, started to gentrify in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, a neighborhood improvement association called Lower Polk Neighbors, composed of business owners, property owners, and residents, set out to “clean up” Polk Gulch, filing repeated noise, soliciting, and loitering complaints. At the same time that the transgender sex workers, hustlers, and street kids were being driven out, property owners began leasing to more upscale businesses, like whiskey bars and Pilates studios. 

A queer, anticapitalist direct action group called Gay Shame denounced Lower Polk Neighbors as a “pro-gentrification attack squad that works with the police to rid neighboring streets and businesses of ‘undesirables,’ i.e. hookers, hustlers, drug addicts, homeless people, trannies, needle exchange services, working class queers and other social deviants.”

But it was an unequal battle. With a few exceptions, such as the bar the Cinch and the transgender club Divas, the queer spaces in Polk Gulch have been decimated. Today there are still a few queer and trans sex workers working Larkin Street, but the days when hustlers lurked in every doorway are gone.

But while the old Polk Gulch has disappeared forever, much of the Tenderloin itself remains stubbornly impervious to change. Aunt Charlie’s is still hanging on, and LeGrande makes “good money” on weekends when the bachelorette parties come through. “I can’t figure out what fascinates them about drag queens,” she says, “but they love it!”

Like LeGrande, Dafahlia Mosley came to San Francisco with high expectations for something she hadn’t experienced as a young black trans woman growing up in California’s Central Valley: “honest acceptance.” It was something the queer mecca did not deliver. After arriving, in 2014, in the TL, which she describes as a place where people are “scraping by,” she felt immediately labeled as just another “street kid” by non-trans people in other parts of the city. For months after her arrival at Larkin Street Youth Services, the TL’s drop-in center and shelter for homeless youth, she tended to keep to the 10-or-so-block “bubble” that the neighborhood can become when you’re a young, low-income trans woman of color. Twice she returned to Stockton, where her grandmother lives but where trans people are even less accepted.

With her perfectly painted cyan talons, Mosley gestures animatedly as she enthuses about spending New Year’s Eve in the Tenderloin: “It was cracking!” By contrast, the Castro is not nearly as welcoming. Although the neighborhood is home to the Lyric Center for LGBTQQ Youth, which provides services and support for young queer and trans people, it skews homogeneously middle-class and older. Indeed, some Castro bars have been accused of not only being inhospitable to gay people of color, but actually discriminating against them. In 2005, the S.F. Human Rights Commission found that the club Badlands had violated civil rights codes by refusing to admit black patrons, and queer Black Lives Matter activists have repeatedly staged protests in front of Castro bars that have reportedly turned away people of color. At the Café on Market Street, Frederick says, he was turned away because, he believes, he was black and blind. When he asked the bouncer why he was being denied entrance, “Don’t worry about it” was the reply. 

But Frederick remains upbeat. “All you need to do is find one ally, one person who you can really trust,” he says. He’s found that in Justice Taylor, a genderqueer-but-questioning African American art student and jewelry maker who one March night brought Frederick to Aunt Charlie’s. He ended up dancing the night away on the bar’s well-worn rugs. 

Taylor lives above a sidewalk plaque at Turk and Taylor commemorating a 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in which queer and trans people threw dishes and delivered high-heeled kicks at abusive police who were hassling them in the late-night diner. The riot predated the more widely acknowledged start of the gay liberation movement, the Stonewall uprising in New York City, by three years. “I live on the corner of history—that’s so cool,” she says.

In her mid-20s Taylor was hit by a car, leaving her with broken bones and a traumatic brain injury. She found community and help with the owners of Marcus Books on Fillmore Street, the country’s oldest black-owned bookstore. “I could call them up anytime,” she says, “and someone would come over and spend some time” with her at her place.

It’s a heartwarming story.
But in 2014 Marcus Books closed its San Francisco store, another victim of a changing city. Can the Tenderloin, and the marginalized people living in it, avoid meeting a similar fate?

Taylor believes so. “People talk so much crap about the TL, but this is where people come to party! It’s where all the businesspeople from downtown come to buy their party drugs.” Taylor doesn’t sell drugs, but she pays some of her bills selling her handmade jewelry to people who wander into the hood after dark.

For all its rough edges, the TL inspires Taylor. It offers a community of queers she was able to turn to when her life-threatening accident resulted in months cooped up at home. Where others see addiction and poverty, she focuses on the TL’s ongoing history of queer protest, its community gardens, and the banh mi joints in the Little Saigon quarter. Sometimes, she says, “you’ve just got to get out of the house and remind yourself of why you came, and you can appreciate it here.”


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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