Aria Sa’id, co-founder and executive director of the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District: We want to support the beautification of the neighborhood while acknowledging its rich Transgender history.”
BY KELLY LOVEMONSTER | PHOTO BY DUSTI CUNNINGHAM
Occupying six blocks in the South East Tenderloin (which also crosses over Market Street to include two blocks of 6th Street) Compton’s is the country’s first government recognized Transgender Cultural District. The District promises to become the hub for initiatives, economic opportunities and humane housing support – specifically targeting and supporting the Transgender and gender-nonconforming community.
Aria Sa’id, the co-founder and executive director of the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, spoke to THE FIGHT recently about her history as an activist and the often slow nature of political bureaucracy.
Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Sa’id moved to the Bay Area when she was 19 years old. She has lived in almost every San Francisco neighborhood and described herself as the “Black Trans Carrie Bradshaw.” At least, that was her initial dream.
“I briefly went to fashion school when I moved to San Francisco,” Sa’id shared. “I had this fantasy of being a fashion and beauty editor.” But in her first year of living in San Francisco, she found it difficult to get a job and soon was homeless.
“Folks would say: ‘Move to SF; the city will help pay for your surgery; there will be work opportunities.’” Instead Sa’id found herself sleeping on BART trains, doing survival sex work, and dancing at Divas.
Several of the Trans women Sa’id met in her early days living in the City held day jobs at nonprofits. This led to an opportunity volunteering at Trans:Thrive, a Transgender and gender non-conforming resource center. Quickly realizing Sa’id was an intelligent hardworking asset, Trans:Thrive offered her a full-time position.
Next Sa’id began working at Saint James Infirmary, a peer-based nonprofit health and safety clinic for sex workers. “My activism bootcamp happened when I started working as the Program Director at Saint James Infirmary. I was 25 years old and one of few Black Trans women in a leadership position.” Sa’id reveals. “This is the time I started being vocal about being a sex worker. Saint James radicalized me and transformed my life.”
Sa’id later found employment as the LGBT Policy Advisor under the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. She worked on several LGBT affirming policies and legislations like access to gender neutral bathroom, SCR-110 (California) the first legislation in U.S. history to name the harms of non-consensual medical interventions on intersex people, and the country’s first sex worker protection policy Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers (San Francisco) which is now a California state law.
“Working for the City was incredible because I didn’t have to be Trans and stand on a podium. I just got to be. I got to do Trans advocacy work, but more from behind the scenes.”
It was at the SF Human Rights Commission that Sa’id began dreaming and working on cultural District legislation. “Cultural Districts support the history and culture of communities.” Sa’id reminded me of San Francisco’s already vibrant cultural Districts like Chinatown, Japantown and Little Italy.
Sa’id, alongside co-founders Honey Mahogany (former Executive Director), Janetta Johnson (Executive Director of TGI Justice Project), Stephany Ashley (former Executive Director of St. James Infirmary) and Nate Allbee (Community Organizer and Co-owner of The Stud) imagined creating a District which would celebrate the resilience of Transgender community.
Compton’s is in its infancy. The District’s current goals are to help reduce violence against Transgender people by working with the City to create training and safety initiatives, and developing policies that would support humane housing and housing resources. Currently Sa’id is working on creating a foundation to support the District’s work. “We want to put Trans people in housing that they want to live in.” Sa’id also wants to create job training and entrepreneurial programs that will support the community.
The first businesses slated to open in the District will be a coffee shop and a bar. “I would [also] love to work with a group of Black Trans women to open up a cannabis shop.”
Thinking outside the box is what Sa’id does best. She would like to work with aspiring Transgender entrepreneurs to open up businesses that use cooperative models like the Stud bar and Rainbow Grocery. “A lot of Trans people of color don’t have access to generational wealth. “[Cooperative business models are] an opportunity for folks who are in a privileged socio-economic position to work with folks who may not be.”
One of the biggest challenges Compton’s seeks to solve is homelessness and marginalized housing. Sa’id is in conversations with developers to help build and provide studio apartments. In the next five years Sa’id would like to provide housing for at least 25 Transgender people.
“We need to get to a place where we are looking beyond these prescribed housing models. Trans people deserve to live in all the Districts of San Francisco. I want to be a leader in thinking forward on what humane housing looks like—no bed bugs, private bathrooms, a full kitchen, etc.”
Sa’id’s long term goals for the District include creating wealth and economic liberation for the Trans community – providing seed money to start new businesses and creating legislation that make opening and running a business easier.
“I’m very conscious that the Tenderloin is a diverse District.” Sa’id plans to integrate and support the broader needs of the District as well. “While everything we do is designed with Trans-history and culture in mind, we want to also celebrate all the residents of the Tenderloin.”
“We want to be a broader positive impact for the residents. We want to have safer streets for the children of the Tenderloin as well. We want to support the beautification of the neighborhood while acknowledging its rich Transgender history.”