Political Notebook: Queer nightlife advocate Torres seeks SF Mission district supe seat

  • Wednesday November 29, 2023
Share this Post:
Stephen Torres has announced his candidacy for San Francisco supervisor in District 9. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Stephen Torres has announced his candidacy for San Francisco supervisor in District 9. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

For more than a decade Stephen Torres has been a fixture in San Francisco's Castro LGBTQ district. He has tended bar at the neighborhood's famed Twin Peaks gay tavern the last 12 years.

As a member of the board of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club throughout the 2010s, Torres helped put on its events such as the annual vigil honoring the club's late namesake, the city's first gay supervisor, and the late mayor George Moscone. (Monday marked the 45th anniversary of the assassinations of the progressive political leaders on November 27, 1978.)

And since 2020 Torres has had a leadership role with the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District. Over the last two years he has served as its board co-chair, a position in which he took a leading public role in advocating for the preservation of fixed seating at the Castro Theatre as it transitions from a movie palace to more of a live events venue.

Due to his events planning and nightlife experience, Torres was named to the city's Entertainment Commission last November. His joining the oversight body came as the local nightlife industry was still struggling to recover from the impacts of the COVID pandemic, which Torres had been working to address in the Castro via his leadership role with the cultural district.

Now Torres is aiming to take his experience gleaned from being a neighborhood and nightlife leader, as well as a local political insider, to the city's Board of Supervisors. He is running for one of the seats that will be open due to term limits on the November ballot in 2024.

But it is not to represent the Castro, as he doesn't live in the neighborhood. A resident of the Mission Bernal area along outer Mission Street, Torres is seeking election to the District 9 seat being vacated by termed out Supervisor Hillary Ronen.

"I have lived in this district for the majority of my time here in San Francisco. I know what it is like to be a District 9 constituent," said Torres, 45, who largely grew up in Los Angeles and relocated to the Bay Area 25 years ago.

Torres, who identifies as both queer and gay, noted that the issues he has been tackling in the Castro, from preserving its identity as an LGBTQ neighborhood to addressing a glut of empty storefronts, overlap with the concerns Mission district residents and business owners have in wanting to maintain its being a Latino neighborhood with vibrant commercial corridors.

"We are all connected. All of our neighborhoods are connected," he said. "We do not live in silos."

And his focus on entertainment issues dovetails with both the Castro and Mission districts, he added, as they are draws for nightlife in the city.

"At the core of why I am running for supervisor is we rely so heavily on service workers, also teachers and police and all these other support workers throughout the city, and none of us ... we are all struggling to survive," said Torres. "Most of us can barely survive. We are all a paycheck away from being homeless."

Due to his decision to run for the supervisor seat, Torres will be stepping down at the end of the year as co-chair of the cultural district. He also resigned from his Entertainment Commission seat the day he filed to run, which he purposefully did on Halloween due to the holiday's long association with the LGBTQ community as well as it being on the eve of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Latino community. Due to a voter-approved measure, city commissioners seeking public office must step down from their oversight bodies.

"My work at the commission was very important to me," said Torres, who told the Bay Area Reporter that he didn't come to his decision to enter the supervisor's race lightly. "I had to think about this. I had to consider this very carefully."

When he first joined the Milk club and its board, Torres said he was often asked what office he planned to run for, but at that time he had no plans to do so. His thinking began to change as he gained more experience working with city leaders and department heads via his various leadership roles of recent years.

"I had felt there were people better equipped than I for that work. After working so closely in the city with all these different programs and departments, I began to think that is not necessarily true," said Torres. "I am very equipped for this role. I can do this job; my work ethic speaks to that."

Crowded field

Torres is the fourth out candidate to pull papers for the District 9 seat. Earlier this year two other gay men had done so: Trevor Chandler, who serves on the advisory board for statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, and longtime AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist Michael Petrelis.

Queer progressive Jackie Fielder is also seeking the seat and secured an early endorsement from Ronen for her candidacy. Ronen had also endorsed her legislative aide Santiago Lerma, but he has since opted against running for the seat.

Roberto Hernandez, known as the mayor of the Mission, is seeking to succeed Ronen. Should he or Torres be elected, they would return Latino leadership to the District 9 seat. In Torres' case, he would be the third out male leader to represent it.

Since the return of district elections for the board's 11 seats, gay supervisors Tom Ammiano and David Campos both served two four-year terms as the District 9 representative. Ammiano was first elected to it in 2000 and Campos first elected in 2008.

They also early endorsed Fielder in the 2024 race. As for Torres, he launched his campaign with the backing of District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the board's president who is also termed out next year, and gay former District 8 supervisor Bevan Dufty.

Under the city's ranked-choice voting system, where voters can select up to three candidates in a supervisor contest, Dufty endorsed Torres as his number one pick and also endorsed Hernandez as his second choice.

"I think Stephen has distinguished himself as a community leader," Dufty told the B.A.R. "He also has been involved in city government as an entertainment commissioner. I think his leadership qualities are stellar. I believe he will make good decisions and be very customer oriented. I think he will be fantastic."

Dufty leant Torres his support even though they were on opposite sides of the Castro Theatre fight, with Dufty supporting the plans of its new management team at Another Planet Entertainment to install flexible seating that can be removed for concerts and other events. He noted to the B.A.R. that he doesn't base his support of a candidate on if they agree with him on every issue, more so on how they conduct themself during the policy or political debate.

"Stephen and I looked at the Castro Theatre issue differently. I hope my endorsement underscores the fact he conducted himself with a lot of integrity and thoughtfulness," said Dufty, who lives in the Castro. "I appreciate that I am not looking for somebody who is going to vote all the time the way I am going to vote."

Also backing Torres' candidacy is nightlife impresario and drag queen Juanita MORE!, who will be giving him "a full-fantasy drag makeover" at her Powerblouse party at the South of Market gay bar the Powerhouse this Saturday, December 2. She has promised that his signature moustache "will begone!" For Torres, whose roommate is the drag queen Per Sia, it will be his first time appearing in drag.

In an emailed pitch for people to make a donation to Torres' supervisor bid, MORE! noted how she used to live in the Mission back in the early 1990s and has seen how it has changed over the years. Many of the issues its residents face, Torres has worked directly on since moving to San Francisco, she noted.

"Over the years, I've seen how quickly this neighborhood has changed due to gentrification compared to other areas in the city. It's essential to have a representative who understands the challenges and can work towards creating a better future for all residents," wrote MORE!, saying of Torres that he "is an out queer Latino who has been a great advocate for the community."

Born in East Los Angeles, Torres moved with his family to the Central Coast after his father enrolled at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. After he graduated, the family moved to Simi, California and Torres graduated from a high school near the San Fernando Valley.

He shortly thereafter moved to the Bay Area because his coming out to his family "was not the easiest thing," said Torres, who had friends at the time attending San Francisco State University. While his mom, who is English American, was supportive, his Mexican American father was not. His parents are now separated, and he hasn't spoken to his father for "some time," Torres told the B.A.R.

"It was just hard to really grow as a young queer person in the environment I was in at the time. This provided a path by which I could be that person. I could be myself; I could find happiness," he said.

Seeing an anti-LGBTQ backlash again gaining ground in the country's political discourse, and seeing how divided the city has become on various issues, Torres said his aim in wanting to be a supervisor is to help find common ground and unite people on a path forward for addressing the city's myriad concerns.

"I want to try and find a path forward where we focus on our commonalities and desire to live here in San Francisco. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I want to make it a place for all of our community, you know," said Torres. "I want to make everyone feel a connection again to their community. So many people feel discounted from their community now."

To learn more about Torres' candidacy, visit his campaign site at stephentorressf.com.

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, returns Monday, December 4.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

UPDATED 12/1/23 to clarify Torres lived in Simi, California during high school.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!