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Community Voices: Creating San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy 

This piece was originally published in our October-December 2022 edition of SF Heritage News. To view the full issue, click here.

Shayne Watson

BY SHAYNE WATSON and Kerri Young

Shayne Watson is the founder of Friends of Lyon-Martin House, organized in 2020 to preserve the longtime home of trailblazing lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. In June 2022, Shayne was elected to the Board of Trustees for the California Preservation Foundation.

The LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy is the first citywide initiative in the country to address and identify both tangible and intangible resources in the LGBTQ+ community. Tell us how this document originated and its primary aims.

The LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy has roots extending back to 2005 when a grassroots group of South of Market stakeholders formed the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force to combat rising housing costs and displacement spurred by the “dot-com” boom of the 1990s. These “Citizen Planners,” including leaders from Filipino and LGBTQ communities active in SoMa since World War II, participated in the process leading to the development and passing of the Western SoMa Plan by the Board of Supervisors in 2013. The Western SoMa Plan was extraordinary as the first area plan in San Francisco to promote the idea of cultural heritage preservation through stabilization of the existing community’s cultural diversity. The citizens of South of Market literally say in the introduction to the Plan: “This is our neighborhood, our community, and our plan.”

Using this guidance as a jumping-off point, in October 2016 the Board of Supervisors, led by former District 8 Supervisor and now State Senator Scott Wiener, unanimously passed Resolution No. 446-16, calling for the development of a Citywide LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy. The Supervisors had grown increasingly concerned about the loss of longstanding LGBTQ businesses, particularly queer entertainment spaces, which also function as critical arts venues, social spaces, and places for political organizing and charitable fundraising. 

In response, the Planning Department, Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the Entertainment Commission convened a Working Group to “develop, promote, and expand programs to support LGBTQ nightlife and cultural heritage.” The first stakeholder workshop was held at City Hall in January 2017 and included LGBTQ+ business owners, historians, artists, community members, and members of the extended City Family.

You are a member of the Working Group that was formed to contribute to the development of the document. Tell us more about your role, and how the Working Group led the collection of community feedback. 

For those of us at the initial stakeholder workshop, we quickly agreed that San Francisco’s queer communities face greater challenges than loss of nightlife spaces, essentially saying: Nightlife is a luxury for the members of our community who can’t access basic needs such as affordable housing and healthcare. With that broader focus, the LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy Working Group formed into three committees: Wellbeing (community services and education), Culture (arts, culture, and heritage), and Opportunity (economic opportunity and equity). 

I’m co-chair with Terry Beswick (former Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society) for the LGBT+ Culture committee. Back in 2016, I founded a working group at the Historical Society focused on historic preservation. The Historic Places Working Group was composed of about 20 passionate volunteers who met regularly to discuss issues related to saving places tied to our unique history. This group coalesced just as the Strategy was getting rolling, so Terry and I were lucky to already have a great committee in place. We met in that smaller group a few times and then hosted a series of outreach events throughout the community to draw feedback on the most important issues facing LGBTQ+ people in San Francisco today – with particular focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. 

Excerpt from the community responses focusing on cultural heritage needs, collected as part of LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Survey work.

That engagement work, along with feedback from 1,500 people surveyed as part of our data collection efforts, ultimately led to five major actions we recommend the City take to support LGBTQ+ culture in San Francisco: 

  • Support LGBTQ+ Cultural Districts
  • Establish a Permanent Museum of LGBTQ+ History & Culture
  • Form a Historic Preservation Advocacy Group
  • Increase Access to Affordable Housing & Workspace for LGBTQ+ Artists
  • Create LGBTQ+ Heritage Educational Programming 

This strategy builds upon important tools developed over the past eight years to help safeguard LGBTQ+ cultural heritage in San Francisco, such as the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement (that you co-authored with Donna Graves), and cultural districts and legacy businesses. How does this document incorporate and build upon these existing cultural heritage preservation tools? 

The Board of Supervisors refers to the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement in the Resolution calling for the development of a Citywide LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy. Their assignment was clear: now that we have this guide for better understanding San Francisco’s LGBTQ heritage, what can we do to save the queer neighborhoods where this history continues to unfold? Again, we were fortunate to have existing frameworks in place to help us think through these issues, particularly the cultural district program.

San Francisco’s three queer cultural districts – Tenderloin, South of Market, and Castro – have already implemented many of the recommendations presented in the LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy, including programs focused on health, culture, and work.

Like the Citizen Planners of Western SoMa, I’m heartened to see the cultural districts taking ownership over the buildings and spaces that they identify as their most important cultural assets. For the last few years, I’ve worked with cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin to develop a database of significant queer sites for the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District in SoMa. The District uses the database to make decisions about projects proposed for buildings in the area and to inform educational and interpretive programs, including an extensive sidewalk plaque program and a historical walking tour. Queer cultural districts in the Tenderloin and Castro have implemented similar programs to preserve their unique characters. 

San Francisco’s cultural districts provide a bridge between the tangible and intangible by helping us preserve the physical spaces as well as the people and businesses who use them. Our committee wanted to bolster the LGBTQ+ cultural districts by including city support for the program as one of our five major recommendations. 

What are a few other Strategy recommendations that you’d like to highlight? Have any of these recommendations aided city policy around LGBTQ+ sites since the document’s publication?  

The recommendation most crucial to San Francisco’s extraordinary collection of LGBTQ+ sites is Action C3 – Form a Historic Preservation Advocacy Group. This is something I’ve been toying with since finishing the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement in 2016. How can our community of queer historians and scholars support the Historic Preservation and Planning Commissions in making informed decisions about preserving San Francisco’s fabulous queer landscape? We believe that an LGBTQ Historic Preservation Advocacy Group would be a solid first step.

I talk a lot about changing our approach to LGBTQ heritage preservation from reactive to proactive. One of the ways the Strategy supports this is by ensuring that LGBTQ history is incorporated into the Planning Department’s impending citywide survey. Historically, we’ve had to scramble to save buildings already going through the permitting process. Looking at LGBTQ sites holistically in the citywide survey – using the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement for necessary historical background – would provide Planning with a priority list of significant LGBTQ+ sites that merit additional scrutiny when proposed for demolition of substantive alteration. 

The Embarcadero YMCA (169 Steuart Street) was a center of gay life in San Francisco as early as World War II. 

An adhoc Advocacy Group already exists and developed organically, which I love. Planning has consulted with leather scholar Gayle Rubin on sites in SoMa; transgender scholar Susan Stryker on sites in the Tenderloin; and historian Gerard Koskovich on the Castro Theatre. This is a direct connection between the decision-makers and the people who know this history the best.

A long-awaited hearing on the completed document was held on July 25, 2022 at the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee. What does this mean for the future of the document and its recommendations?   

My Working Group co-chairs and I wanted to convey one overarching message to the Supervisors and that is this: the Strategy published in August 2020 is a snapshot of pre-Covid queer life in San Francisco. It’s great data, but it’s just data. And the data is problematic because the unprecedented events that unfolded throughout the world in 2020 changed everything. The Planning Commission’s adoption of Resolution No. 20738 centering the Planning Department’s work program and resource allocation on racial and social equity shifted things even more.

It’s complicated and it’s more work than a tiny team of volunteers and city staff with limited budget can (and should) handle, so we asked the Supervisors for the city’s help in figuring out what to do next. 

I’d like to see an office of LGBTQ initiatives that uses the Strategy as a starting point. The Office of Transgender Initiatives is one of our tireless partners on the Strategy; that office, which currently oversees all-things LGBTQ+ in San Francisco, could be looked to as a model for how to design a broader department within the city. We’d also like to see the city update the Strategy every few years like they do with other planning studies. 

This is a milestone document in the preservation of LGBTQ+ places and cultural heritage, identifying strategies across arts and culture, health care, education, human services, and business and economic workforce development. What does it say about how historic preservation work has expanded, and where it is headed?

In a place like San Francisco that’s infamous for its unaffordability, the buildings don’t matter if there’s no one left to enjoy them. The Uptown Tenderloin Historic District provides a level of protection for over 400 buildings for their architectural significance, but what’s a Tenderloin without its historic transgender community? Some of those National Register-listed buildings, especially around the intersection of Turk and Taylor Streets, had a critical role in this country’s transgender history. What’s happening in the Tenderloin right now with the Transgender Cultural District bridges the gap between preserving the buildings (the tangible) and stabilizing and supporting what’s left of a very fragile transgender ecosystem of the Tenderloin (the intangible). I find the work of the cultural districts to be encouraging because it’s absolutely grassroots but it’s funded by the city. 

Cultural districts, which address everything from landmarking to healthcare to workforce development, are a glimpse at the future of historic preservation. Let’s keep rallying the troops to save our beloved queer buildings, but let’s also stabilize and support the vibrant queer communities that continue to live, play, and work in those buildings. It’s the people who make San Francisco the city we adore. 

LGBTQ+cultural districtsCommunity Voices

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