Joy and Transgender Liberation
A Conversation with the Brilliant ARIA SA’ID
We have to manifest as much love for ourselves as possible because it often feels like the world will tell us otherwise. Trans people and people of color, we have to know how beautiful and special we are, how we are more powerful than our minds can digest.
Aria Sa’id is a transgender advocate and award winning political strategist based in San Francisco. She is a founder and the Executive Director of the Transgender District — the world’s first transgender district, celebrating the resilience, culture, and presence of transgender people in San Francisco’s famed Tenderloin neighborhood. She is the founder of Kween Culture Initiative — a social and cultural empowerment project for Black transgender women. Her efforts have been featured in numerous media platforms including Forbes, CNN, The Daily Mail, OUT Magazine, Marie Claire, The Guardian, Huffington Post, CBS, Vice, and San Francisco Chronicle.
Aria and I connected this week to talk about her life journey, and how the vision to create the world’s first Transgender District became a reality.
Below are edited excerpts of my conversation with Aria Sa’id:
Q. Aria, can you share your journey to becoming the Executive Director of the Transgender District in San Francisco with us?
A. It’s such a long story. I am 31 years old, originally from Portland, Oregon, Northeast Portland in particular, and moved to San Francisco when I was 19.
I am a trans woman, and transitioned as a teenager in high school at a time when there was not a lot of familiarity with the term transgender. I don’t think it was as accessible as it is today. I really struggled, being a very visible trans teenager, trying to work in retail, to live, and to be empowered. Everyone encouraged me to move to San Francisco. Everyone said, ‘San Francisco is the place to go. There you won’t have these issues’. With $60 to my name, I took a Greyhound bus from Seattle to the Bay.
I came with a dream. I’d never lived in a big city. Portland is a big city in some ways, but it has a hometown feel. I grew up very religious and very sheltered. Moving to a city where you have no one you know and no family, is a very different experience. I wound up in the Tenderloin, which is Central City in San Francisco. As I was trying to find my way, I saw two trans Latinas with their dogs coming out of the coffee shop. And I just was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And they’re looking at me like I am crazy, wondering why I am staring at them. But I had never seen us moving around, going to the cleaners, and getting coffee. I knew one other trans person through MySpace. But other than that, I was always alone. I was always the only trans person in the room. I, like so many trans people who come to San Francisco, live in the Tenderloin because that’s the only place we could afford.
I really struggled to get my bearings in the city. The city is legislatively progressive, and there are many benefits to being a trans person in San Francisco. But at that time, there were still a lot of barriers for trans people to get employment. I would interview at different retail stores, and I was taught old school, print out your resume and portfolio, pass them out, look the part, dress up, put on some lipstick and see if they’ll hire you on the spot. Very old school. They don’t do that anymore. Before you applied online, you were hopeful that if you had the image and the charm, that you could start tomorrow. That was something that was very much a struggle for me. I did not get hired, and fell into survival sex work. I did survival sex work for many years off and on. I didn’t actually retire until a couple of years ago.
I got my start in social change work at a time when I was sleeping on the Bart train during the day, and doing sex work at night. I was also going to fashion school at the same time, but ended up having to drop out. There was an older Black trans woman, an elder, who told me ‘you need a purpose. You need something to wake up and go to do’. A friend of mine connected me to a transgender drop-in center, where they would have support groups and food. And so I started volunteering there two days a week, and one day was asked ‘do you want a job?
It was a moment for me to see a lot of trans people. We are advocates because we have to be activists, because we have to do a lot of self-advocacy. We don’t have the same rights as everyone else. We have to fight and yell, kick and scream until we get them. Sometimes the broader public forget, and even trans people forget, that we also have the possibility of normalcy, of casually coming out of a coffee shop with dogs. [I had to do] so much fighting from an early age, I couldn’t go to the prom, I was expelled from a school because I was cross-dressing, because I was wearing women’s clothing, but was a boy. Always having to struggle makes you forget to cherish those very simple moments about living in a world, in which hopefully, we are liberated. The ease of just walking your dogs, going to see a girlfriend, go get coffee, and be able to exist and breathe.
Q. You mentioned a mentor who told you that you needed a purpose and you found some of that by volunteering. Do you want to share how that experience, in combination with others, supported you in your cultural/artistic work, and then how that led to the creation of the first Transgender District in the world?
A. I am grateful and very lucky to be able to get to do the work that I get to do every day. It was a Black trans woman elder who told me that I needed purpose. And that has informed me a great deal over [the past] 15 years. At the time I was just trying to get a job, and housing. I don’t think altruism came until later. It’s that same concept that they tell you on the airplane, you can’t help other people unless you put the oxygen mask on yourself first. In an emergency they tell you to put it on yourself first and then help someone else. Once I had stability in my own life, I saw how much we are still fighting for the simplest rights for trans people. That’s how my advocacy grew. My own personal lived experience has informed a lot of the work that we’ve been able to do.
The transgender District is one of those efforts that I still can’t digest — the fact that it does exist, even though I get to lead it! I’m a co-founder, and our ambition in the beginning was simply to respond to an issue, which was that a [luxury] developer was coming in, not wanting to provide a community benefit to the trans community in an already economically fragile neighborhood. It is the neighborhood that boasts the largest and most dense transgender population in any city in the United States. And that’s how our advocacy began. We were crazy, if you think about it. We were sitting in a room thinking about how to protect our community going forward for the next hundred years. That became the conversation, and that’s how the Transgender District was birthed.
Q. Who was part of these discussions and planning?
A. So many different people. So many members of our community were a huge part of it. From all the public comments at the board of supervisors, all the planning and community town halls. Three Black trans women, myself, Honey Mahogany and Janetta Johnson and our allies, Stephany Ashley, and Nate [Allbee], banded together to make this a possibility. But there are probably about 70 to 80 people who supported in many different ways from historians to lawyers, to community members, to residents. So many, so many beautiful people supported it.
Q. I think one of the most beautiful things about this story is that out of protest, you had the vision of the life you wanted in the neighborhood for the community. You had the vision, and you made it happen. I know that storytelling, historical preservation, and heritage preservation of the community, especially in the Tenderloin, is an important part of the work. Can you share more about it?
A. Our first big dream was to cement a space in which we acknowledge and celebrate Transgender people, our presence, our history, our resilience, in this neighborhood. This neighborhood is very historic for trans people. Trans people have been living here continuously since the 1920s. In 1966 we had the Compton Cafeteria riot, which is the first documented uprising of trans folk in the United States’ history. It happened at Turk and Taylor [streets], at the Gene Compton’s cafeteria. Since then we had Stonewall [NYC] and Cooper’s Donuts, [LA], we had all these examples that were documented, and many more that weren’t documented. The common thread is State sanctioned violence against trans people. There were laws in place, and a culture in society, that deemed trans people as deviant. And as a result, they engaged with law enforcement. They would deploy law enforcement to arrest us or incarcerate us.
The Compton’s cafeteria, very similar to Stonewall and Cooper’s Donuts, is where trans people and drag queens would congregate outside. The owner was not happy about that, and would consistently call the police. The restaurant was open late at night and drag queens and trans folks would congregate; it was like, ‘girl, let me get my coffee before I go to the stroller,’ or’ I got to do a show at the cabaret, let me go get a pancake and sausage or something.’ I think that’s why it’s important that we consider how huge of a cultural attribute nightlife is for the trans community. It was often the only avenue that we had to see and engage with each other.
It was illegal for folks to be hooking up with each other, hanging out, being visibly themselves, authentically themselves. Across the street, [from Compton’s Cafeteria], was a speakeasy with drag shows, balls and pageants, and trans folks would go and congregate and do opium. And I mean, I have all these fantasies about what that world was like. It was a cultural asset because it was an underground society of folks that would come together and be with each other in a time when it was illegal to do that.
The owner of Compton’s cafeteria would repeatedly call the police, and one day, a trans woman got fed-up, and when the police officer came in, she threw her hot coffee on his face and a riot ensued.
I am so grateful that we stand on the shoulders of our trans ancestors who were bold enough to fight at a time when they could have just ran away. They could have [said] ‘we’ll walk two blocks away,’ but instead they fought back.
Q. In the beginning the Transgender District included Compton in its name, and now it doesn’t. Can you share more about the change in the name?
A. It’s so tricky how history happens. So often, we don’t question why things are named the way they are. Naming it the Compton’s Cafeteria riot keeps the legacy of a white cisgender heterosexual man who was intensely transphobic and homophobic alive, when it shouldn’t. I wish that it was just called the Turk and Taylor riots, the street names, as opposed to this particular person who named the restaurant after himself. Like so many trans people, we had to do a name change, and we still get called the old name, just as much as the new name, which is fascinating to me.
We were very intentional about acknowledging our past, and also acknowledging the realities trans folks are facing right here. […] It’s only been four years since we became legally recognized. We have launched a housing program, where we provide partial subsidies to maximize affordability in San Francisco for trans folks. We launched an entrepreneurship accelerator program with a cohort of Black and Brown trans folks. We provided them with bootcamp training, sponsored their articles of incorporation, connected them with a mentor in the industry that they hoped to open their business, and provided seed grants.
Our arts and culture efforts are important, giving trans people pride in walking down the street, seeing the trans flags painted on every street light and crosswalks and trees. We’re very proud of the community development efforts because we want it to be for broader benefit for the neighborhood and community.
We live in a world that does not want us to exist as trans people […] So much of what exists around the trans experience for the broader public is around our disparity and our marginalization. It’s hard to find pride and joy in that. We wanted trans people to feel proud. I know pride happens every year, and in many ways, women and trans women have felt excluded from these festivities. It is not an institution, but an annual event. Sometimes [I question] ‘what am I celebrating?’ Like when gay marriage passed, I was really happy. But I still can’t get a job. Last year the Supreme Court, with the case with Aimee Stephens, said that it is legal to fire a person based on their gender identity or their presentation.
Struggling with finding pride as a trans person has been a huge part of my own experience. The trans district is informed by three very different Black trans women from very different spaces in life, coming together and putting ourselves and our experience and having that help inform the work. The response that we got from the trans community around the world has been absolutely incredible. People want to come to San Francisco simply to walk that corridor and to see a flag that represents her experience. That’s permanent, it doesn’t come down July 1st. We see the rainbow flags in the beginning of June, and then they go away July 1st. Back to normal, it’s like ‘you all are invisible for the next 11 months and you’ll have your day again.’ What does it look like to cement that for trans people? To say, [you] should be proud of who you are and all that you embody in your experience. You should be able to see yourself, cemented and tangible. I am so very grateful, and very proud of the work that we’ve been able to do in such a short time span.
Q. I’m wondering if you can talk about the impact that the pandemic has had in the trans community, and share what kind of community supports Transgender District has provided?
A. The pandemic illuminated a lot of things for us in the Western world and around the world, about the social inequities that exist. The level of violence that we see on a regular basis. As a culture, we have normalized those incidents of violence, like what we’ve seen against Asian and Pacific Islander folk. It’s only becoming more visible now, but it’s been something that’s been going on for quite some time. Seeing the level of deportations and children being incarcerated by Ice. And then, of course, the state sanctioned violence against Black people, Islamophobia, all the things that exist [in this country] while also promoting the City on a Hill and the lights, as the beacon of hope.
Every issue is a trans issue, and the pandemic is no different. These inequities have already been in the red at an all time high for our community for a very, very long time, and the pandemic exacerbated it. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for Black transgender women, with over 44 Black transgender women being gruesomely murdered across the country. In addition to the realities of poverty that we see in the United States, we had a president that refused to address the science and what was going on in the country. We saw how many people had to die before there was a response from the federal government.
Many trans people have had to engage in survival sex work, as a consequence of our authenticity, we don’t have any other economy we can go into. And then if you’ve been criminalized for poverty, it’s even worse. Sex work becomes the only avenue towards income enhancement to be able to pay your bills. But there are no safe guards for people in the sex trade. When stigma and the realities of COVID 19 happened, how many sex workers were able to access unemployment or state disability?
As a sex worker, chances are the only [safeguard] access that you’ve had has been one stimulus [check] in 2020, and possibly general assistance at $400 in San Francisco. At the onset of the pandemic, San Francisco was the first city in the United States to shut down in the way that we did. […] We had this idea around universal basic income, something that we’d been daydreaming about for a couple years. We felt that idea would be amazing, and had lots of false starts. We just gave cash to folks in need electronically through PayPal, and Venmo. The response we got was absolutely incredibly affirming. I was so scared that we were going to be in so much trouble, but the community thanked [us] for this urgent response. We tried to get folks their cash within 72 hours of applying, sometimes earlier. Most days we were working 18 hours, trying to PayPal people and let them know money was on the way. There were a range of different issues [at the time], but giving folks the right to decide what they need for themselves was important.
I think so often there is a popular opinion that poor folks don’t know what they need and therefore they need guidance, case management and a level of oversight on how to cure the issues that exist. But poor folks are some of the most creative folks. […] When folks have cash in hand, they can treat the issues that they’re facing on their own accord. I think that’s what was so beautiful about it. We’ve provided 620 cash grants to trans people across the country with over 70% of our recipients being, Black, transgender women living at, or below the federal poverty line.
From the follow-up survey, [we heard] that they were able to use [cash grants] for things that even I take for granted in my own life. I live in the city, I don’t drive, I don’t know how to drive and I’m 30. So when I need to go to the grocery store, depending on how close to payday it is, I take an Uber or Lyft to go to the grocery store. Otherwise I’ll take the train. People were saying that that’s what they were using the money for, to go to get groceries, or order hot food, if they lived in an SRO, because they wouldn’t have a kitchen. A negative response that we got was, ‘what if people just use them for drugs?’ [My response] was we can’t care. People are entitled to do what they need to do for relief. Give folks relief if that’s what they chose to use it for, to relieve themselves for an hour or two. Debunking that popular myth was also part of this effort.
We helped replicate [the program] with almost 30 different organizations across the country. It was amazing to see how it grew legs and took on a whole new life. For example, the Okra Project provided up to a thousand dollars in relief through prepaid visa gift cards, and the Transgender Law Center did their own iteration. It was beautiful to see how we, as social change projects and nonprofits, were able to pivot. […] We are finding innovative ways to catch up to the for-profit world of technology to create and expand access in ways that we didn’t know were possible.
Q. When thinking about the future of the Transgender District, what are the things that you are excited about? What are the struggles and how can we support your work?
A. [There are] some exciting efforts on the horizons ranging from piloting different job training program efforts, to providing partial housing subsidies to give folks a bit more breathing room, to be able to live in San Francisco. […] We’ve been able to do this work because of the love and support from our partners from philanthropy, from donors. People can really see that efforts like the Transgender District are possible and make a high impact.
When there’s a change in the president from conservative to liberal, resources begin to divest away from social justice efforts like ours. But the support has to continue in order to impact and affect change. Being a Black trans woman leader has its challenges, from funding, to what projects we are able to do, and how long it takes to make those things happen. And we are all peer led. While we are working, and responding and creating, we’re also training each other on things that others may feel are very simple. It’s not often that we get opportunities to be empowered in workspaces. All of these things play a part in the blessings and challenges.
Q. Can you share what has brought you joy and inspiration in the past year?
I have to say my time at the Women’s Foundations’ Women’s Policy Institute. I’m someone who never got a college degree. I did sex work and that was my education, living on the streets was my college. The successes that I’m so grateful to have had, have been informed by my experience in the sex trade.
I couldn’t see my own potential when it came to applying for the Women’s Policy Institute. I had to be encouraged by my friends, thought leader partners and the good folks that TGI Justice Project. I [thought], I’m not smart enough. People that go to this program normally have master’s degrees and are lawyers. I eventually got into the program and worked on the criminal justice team, and we were very ambitious. […] We sat in a room and discussed how we’re going to create a bill that says that you guys can no longer incarcerate trans people ever. We’re shopping our bill around and at the time president Obama was still in office. So there was a way that it was just like, ‘Oh no, we don’t do criminal justice bills, or ‘no that would never happen.’ And then Trump got elected and suddenly the conviction of white folks was ‘I’m not that, I’m not on that side, let me get on this side.’ We were getting phone calls from staffers in the Capitol, and we’re like, ‘we’ll get back to you.’ The competence that gave us as trans people marching around the State Capitol, feeling like big shots, was the biggest confidence boost, the biggest inspiration that I’ve had in my entire life.
I got to graduate from the program, and I had never graduated anything before. I remember I wore this green Grecian goddess dress. It was in a hotel or at a hotel’s restaurant in Sacramento. It was Grammy’s night, this is what [graduating] felt like. It took to be a Black trans woman in my twenties to finish something. […]
I think graduating something, being able to do work at that scale and to work with decision-makers and not have imposter syndrome of why am I in the room, but to actually feel like I was contributing towards macro level change, has been such a huge blessing and, such a foundation for me, and the work that I get to do day to day. I think that’s been the biggest inspiration of my work in social change.
We have to manifest as much love for ourselves as possible because it often feels like the world will tell us otherwise. Trans people and people of color, we have to know how beautiful and special we are, how we are more powerful than our minds can digest. That is why we see the level of attacks against such a small part of the population. It has to be a reason. It’s because we radiate power and affect change by virtue of living and breathing.