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A Look Inside San Francisco's Transgender District05:44
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LGBTQ activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
LGBTQ activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Aria Sa'id moved from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco at age 19 to seek refuge in the city because nowhere else in the U.S. felt safe to her as a Black trans woman.

But the reality of living in the city didn’t meet her expectations. Now, Sa'id is the founder and executive director of Compton's Transgender Cultural District — the world's first legally recognized transgender district which spans four blocks in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood.

When she first moved to the city, she says she never saw other Black trans people with stable employment or housing. This left Sa'id and her Black trans sisters in the Tenderloin with no choice but to engage in survival sex work.

“Even coming to San Francisco, I would interview for jobs and people would start laughing as I entered the room, or I wouldn't get hired because I was trans,” she says. “And it was very obvious that that was happening.”

By founding the district, Sa'id says her team is facilitating a conversation about radical solutions that address the disparity trans people face. The district is not only a cultural safe space — but also a resource.

Plans to open a community center have been delayed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The district is also working on an economic empowerment program that will provide seed grants to launch trans people into entrepreneurship, she says.

“Our effort is really about evaluating ways to cultivate long-term stability and empowerment of trans people,” she says. “We figure if the world won't hire us, then we have to hire ourselves.”

Over the past four years, the Trump administration has rolled back protections for transgender people. Most recently, a newly proposed Housing and Urban Development rule could allow homeless shelters to turn away transgender people based on their physical appearance.

With more access to trans people’s stories, some people get a false sense that the community is a large population that’s “taking over,” Sa'id says, which frustrates her and others. Social service providers should try to help everyone in need, so “gatekeeping” shelters and giving people the power to discriminate is “an act of violence” by the Trump administration, she says.

“I also think that President Trump is highlighting what I believe to be America's subconscious — which is that there is a way in our culture that intensely discriminates against trans people,” she says. “And I think we see that more often than we care to talk about.”

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Kamala Harris, the vice-presidential candidate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has vowed to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community in her bid for the White House.

But some voters are skeptical because of her record as California's attorney general. During that time, she defended the state's Department of Corrections decision to deny reassignment surgery for some inmates in the state prison.

Sa'id says she doesn’t expect politicians to have a perfect record with marginalized communities because they need to make compromises in office. When Sa'id spoke with Harris in San Francisco during the California senator’s presidential campaign, Sa'id felt Harris and staff were evolving to advocate for trans people.

“The only thing that we can do is continue to hold accountability and continue to demand that [politicians] expand their promise and framework of what LGBT equality looks like,” she says, “and specifically for transgender people.”


Cristina Kim and Ciku Theuri produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 13, 2020.

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