San Francisco's Transgender District and Participatory Memory in the Living Archive

Curator's Note


The Stonewall Riot – which reached an apogee from 28 June to 3 July, 1969 during a conflict between police and LGBTQIA2S residents in New York’s Greenwich Village – is typically remembered as the most consequential moment of queer liberation in the United States. But as journalist Raquel Willis writes, “Three years before the Stonewall Riots lit the flame of the LGBTQ+ Movement, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 poured the lighter fluid on the pavement” (n.p.). The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot took place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, a longtime bastion of queer life whose constitutive lifeblood was fostered by transgender folks, mostly transgender women of color. They once called the confluence of Turk and Taylor streets in the neighborhood “trans central” (Levin, n.p.). When masses of queer immigrants settled in San Francisco following World War II, trans sojourners moved into the Tenderloin. Of the neighborhood’s importance, trans activist Janetta Johnson notes “a lot of people who came to San Francisco came here broken and looking for a better quality of living. The Tenderloin was a passage that a lot of trans people went through” (Willis, n.p.).

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, residents of the Tenderloin were tormented, arrested, outed, beaten, and oftentimes killed by police forces intent on either removing trans people from the neighborhood or “sending them a message” that they did not belong. Compton’s Cafeteria was a late night hang at Turk and Taylor where mostly transgender women would gather after a night out to nurture their community of new residents, young people, and elders. Often targeted by police at Compton’s, one night in August of 1966, the women had had enough; trans women led mostly by trans women of color fought back with their voices and bodies. Historian Susan Stryker helped resurrect the Compton story in the 1990s, and her book Transgender History and documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria are high water mark accounts of this generative episode in queer resistance.

In recent years the Tenderloin and its trans spaces were marked for gentrified development. However, in 2017 after years of labor, transgender rights activists Aria Sa’id, Janetta Johnson, and Honey Mahogany convinced the city of San Francisco to designate a six block section of the Tenderloin as The Transgender District (TTD) (Ferrannini, n.p.).

TTD, which was officially opened in 2019 as the nation’s first historical site for trans people, functions in two main ways for queer public memory. First, the district preserves the rich history of the Tenderloin, including the Compton’s story and the lived experiences of trans people who helped build the community. Of these trailblazers, longtime resident Donna Personna notes, “These ladies took bullets for us. Everyone in our community stands on their shoulders” (Levin, n.p.). A non-profit organization led by trans women of color and also called The Transgender District (TTD) was created to do just that: ensure that trans folks in the Tenderloin are given “back their rightful place in history” (Wilson, n.p.). Second, though, TTD commemorates the past by actuating a real-time program of support for transgender people. The organization makes clear that it provides “innovative solutions for our community, ensuring the viability and stability of our project, our mission, and our goals in creating an atmosphere that celebrates and affirms the ongoing presence, resilience, contributions, and culture of transgender people" (The Transgender District, n.p.). From securing trans peoples’ housing and fighting city land use to sponsoring job placement programs and organizing arts and political events, TTD’s activities run deep. Co-founder Sa’id asks, “What does it look like to honor the legacy and culture we’ve inherited as trans people?” and answers that it means “creating a world where we are economically and culturally and socially empowered” (Levin, n.p.).

The creation of TTD is certainly steeped in queer world making, “a bottom-up engagement with the everyday” queer ways of knowing and being (Morris and Nakayama, v).  And, its epistemological and ontological imprimatur involves the archive. Oftentimes, we envision an archive to be comprised of antiseptic documents and ephemera – restricted places where only the “learned” seek answers to questions that are rarely asked in the general public. The archive, however, is so much more. An archive assails the bounded walls of repositories; it transcends written and physical artifacts (Black and Morris). And, archives “can also serve as opportunities for social intervention and critique” (Houdek and Phillips, n.p.). They can be vernacular, oral, experiential, and performative. In short, an archive can be living rather than fixed and stagnant.

A “living archive” is one where people co-create memories through their own discrete voices and individual experiences. Haskins calls such memories “participatory” in that they also provide community members avenues to experience citizenship together in shared spaces and through collective performances (14). TTD’s preservation of the Tenderloin’s memories and its effort to engage present transgender folks’ stories of their own becoming in the neighborhood’s social sites marks this overall heritage space as participatory and living. The latter is done by gathering present voices that reflect, and are built on, queer memory.

One campaign, the Visual Storytelling Project (VSP) is an exemplar of the TTD’s living archive. The digital collection of transgender voices archived through video journals on YouTube are able to stand on their own, allowing individual experiences of coming into being while coming to the Tenderloin neighborhood to rise ascendant. At the same time, the overlap of the discrete voices into a collective story contributes to the Tenderloin’s narrative arc as a space of emancipation and siblinghood, of liberation and fortitude, of queer world making and love. The VSP is reminiscent of Charles E. Morris’s concept of the archival[ly] queer. He writes that an archive’s role “as an inventional wellspring is inextricably linked to queer movement: traversal of time and space, mobilization and circulation of meanings” (147-148). That is, such projects are fashioned upon the promises of queer world making. In the case of the VSP, as emblemized by Amber’s story in the opening vignette, individuals are able to tell their stories, which for living memory, really harkens to elders’ stories, as well. Personna calls out to those pathfinders of the past: “Ladies, you didn’t live in vain. Your life is serving a bigger purpose now…And your story is never going to die” (Levin). In many ways, their voices are Amber’s and other VSP participants’ voices. Amber’s and VSP folks’ agency is made electric because elders fought for generations with all the agency they could muster in the Tenderloin.

In talking about the TTD, San Francisco City Supervisor Jane Kim opined that the Tenderloin “is one of the most important neighborhoods in America for transgender history, culture, and civil rights” (Medina, n.p.). But this importance is not limited to remembrances of the past as a mark on a timeline. Rather, the TTD is a living archive: a space that serves as a refuge for trans folks, whether for the preservation of their forebears’ experiences or for their own self-preservation as they navigate their present and presence. As Johnson puts it, the TTD’s participatory memory in its living archive creates “a space without violence, discrimination and over-policing…a space to visit and visualize what our future could be” (Willis, n.p.).


Jason Edward Black and Charles E. Morris, III., An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Martin Duberman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America (New York: Plume, 2019).

John Ferrannini, “SF Transgender District Drops Cafeteria Owner’s Name,” Bay Area Reporter, 20 March 2020.

Ekaterina Haskins, Public Memories: Commemoration, Participatory Culture, and Democratic Citizenship (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015).

Matthew Houdek and Kendall Phillips, “Public Memory,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Sam Levin, “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot: A Historic Act of Trans Resistance, Three years Before Stonewall at 50,” The Guardian, 21 June 2019.

Sarah Medina, “San Francisco Announces Nation’s First Transgender District,” 7x7 Media, 31 January 2017.

Charles E. Morris III., “Archival Queer,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9 (2006): 145-151.

Thomas K. Nakayama and Charles E. Morris III., “Worldmaking and Everyday Intervention,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2:1 (2014), v-viii.

Victor Silverman, Susan Stryker, Jack Walsh, Sophia Constantinou, Laurie Schmidt, Heikki Koskinen, and Ray Baxter, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria (San Francisco, CA: Frameline Films, 2010).

Susan Stryker, Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, 2d. ed. (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2017).

The Transgender District, “About,” website,

James Van Buskirk and Susan Stryker, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1996).

Raquel Willis, “Black Trans Women Created the World’s First Trans Cultural District,” Out Magazine, 18 February 2019.

Emily Wilson, “San Francisco Creates World’s First Ever Transgender Cultural District,” The Daily Beast, 18 December 2018.

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