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Trans woman hired to lead St. James Infirmary

by Alex Madison

Toni Newman
Toni Newman  

A former sex worker herself, Toni Newman will be able to say to her clients she has walked in their shoes as the new executive director of St. James Infirmary. This is the first time St. James has named an African-American transgender woman as its leader.

"I started from the bottom and worked my way up with hard work and dedication," Newman said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I want to enlighten and educate others to make life changes and to show them there is more out there if you are willing to put the time and effort in."

St. James Infirmary offers nonjudgmental social and health care services to current and former sex workers of all genders and their families, including primary care, HIV testing and counseling, holistic healing, a transgender hormone therapy program, and harm reduction services like needle exchange and naloxone. It is the country's only occupational health and safety clinic run by and for sex workers.

The former executive director, Stephany Ashley, who identifies as queer, left St. James in October 2017 for a job at Tipping Point Community, an organization based in the city that works to fight poverty in the Bay Area. Johanna Breyer, co-founder of the clinic, has been the interim executive director since Ashley's departure.

Newman, 55, will remain in her current position as development officer for Maitri Compassionate Care until May 8 and begin at St. James the following day, something she said she is very excited about.

"This job is something so close to my heart. I am really compassionate about the mission of St. James," Newman said.

In her first year at St. James, Newman wants to find a new location for the clinic, which is currently at 1372 Mission Street after facing eviction at its last location at 234 Eddy Street. With about three more years left on the clinic's current lease, Newman said she is just looking, but hopes to find a centralized location downtown and one near public transportation.

A boost of $300,000 on top of the little more than $1 million budget of the organization is another goal Newman would like to accomplish during her first year. The funds will be used to increase services and reach, including extended hours at the clinic. Just this year, the clinic launched mobile services in the Mission, Tenderloin, Civic Center, and South of Market neighborhoods.

As the B.A.R. previously noted, the clinic has around 5,000 people enrolled in its services and its syringe access programs serve thousands more.

Faculty and staff would also see an uptick in their wages from the increased budget. Newman stated her own salary will be $90,000 a year. Ashley reported an income of about $70,000 annually, which in 2016 was one of the lowest salaries paid to a LGBT- or health-related nonprofit head in San Francisco.

Although sad to see Ashley leave, Breyer said the clinic family couldn't be happier to welcome Newman.

"We will be welcoming, for the first time, a transgender woman of color to take the helm and it's phenomenal," Breyer said. "We hope it will send a message that transgender women of color are true leaders and that sex workers have such an amazing role model."

Newman brings years of nonprofit experience to the job. She's a former interim director of development and communications at the To Help Everyone Health and Wellness Center in Los Angeles, and worked as a strategic fundraiser and legislative aide for Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization.

"Very impressed," were the words Breyer used to describe Newman's experience and fundraising capabilities for Maitri Compassionate Care's annual gala, Bliss, which Newman has organized for the past three years, and will be held May 6.

She is also a best-selling author of her memoir, "I Rise: The Transformation of Toni Newman," released in 2011, which discusses her life and difficult 25-year transition. From Jacksonville, North Carolina, Newman spent 10 years as a professional mistress to high-end and celebrity clients.

This experience inspired her to write a screenplay, called "The Erotic Professionals," that she is trying to get made into a feature film. If successful, Newman will be the first African-American transgender person to do so.

With St. James Infirmary's 20-year anniversary taking place in June 2019, Newman will soon begin planning for that milestone celebration.

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