Castro Merchants back lesbian tech confab — with conditions

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday March 2, 2023
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John Juarez, left, of Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, joined Castro Merchants Association President Terrance Alan at the business group's March 2 meeting to discuss the tech group's plans for its fall conference in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: John Ferrannini
John Juarez, left, of Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, joined Castro Merchants Association President Terrance Alan at the business group's March 2 meeting to discuss the tech group's plans for its fall conference in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: John Ferrannini

After bitterly criticizing last year's Lesbians Who Tech and Allies' confab in the Castro, the merchants association decided Thursday to back the group's return to the LGBTQ neighborhood this fall — with conditions.

Last November and again last month, members of the Castro Merchants Association were vocal about how the tech confab has outgrown the neighborhood. Chief among the complaints was that fencing erected along Castro Street last year shut down the street and impacted businesses.

After a spirited discussion at its March 2 meeting, the merchants membership voted 17-2, with one abstention, to endorse the 2023 plan if Lesbians Who Tech & Allies modifies it so that the fencing is removed and barricades are instead erected.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the fencing installed for the 2022 event kept people out of the neighborhood, with one merchant — Patrick Batt of Auto Erotica — comparing the scene to an "armed camp." Other objections included a lack of engagement with neighborhood businesses, lost revenue due to the street closures required, and the exodus of attendees in the evenings while the fences remained standing.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said at the merchants' November meeting that changes would need to be made.

"It's potentially a benefit, but they can't do it that way again," Mandelman said of the tech conference. "The engagement with the area will have to be different. I have my doubts with the footprint."

John Juarez of Lesbians Who Tech & Allies was at Thursday's meeting of the association to assuage concerns about the return summit — the 10th annual — scheduled for October 16-20. Juarez also wanted the merchants association's backing before the group's plans go before the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation on March 15. The committee, known as ISCOTT, is responsible for deciding upon street closures in the city.

A look at ISCOTT's website shows it isn't scheduled to meet March 15, but is scheduled to meet March 9. The agenda that day shows no mention of the Lesbians Who Tech and Allies' street closure proposal. The organization has not responded to multiple requests for comment made as of press time to explain this discrepancy.

SFMTA confirmed March 8 that a formal application has not yet been made and thus there is no scheduled hearing date for an application.

Mandelman did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether he'd oppose a street closure permit for the confab if the area had to be fenced off.

In a statement after the initial online publication of this story, Mandelman wrote that he is "hopeful that LWT will be able to return to the Castro this year."

"That said, there were significant issues last year, and I believe LWT has some work still to win the support of merchants and the broader community," he continued. "My understanding is that conversations are ongoing, and my hope is that LWT will successfully address concerns of the merchants and other key stakeholders."

When Juarez got up to speak, lesbian Castro Community Benefit District Executive Director Andrea Aiello asked, "Where are the women? Where are the lesbians with this organization?"

Juarez replied, "I happen to be from Los Angeles so it's easier for me to come by here," and reminded the association that queer women from the group had visited last month.

"It was a joke," Aiello responded.

Juarez replied, "It's Lesbians Who Tech and Allies, so it's important to recognize we are an inclusive organization."

Juarez said that the group has tried to do a better job of reaching out to the community than it had last year. It's in contact with 52 area businesses, Juarez said, and is trying to facilitate partnerships with bars and restaurants and are planning to provide their menus to conference attendees.

Terry Beswick, a gay man who is on the merchant association's board, said, "I don't understand why it's legally required" for fencing to be in place for the entirety of the event due to the service of alcohol, when other large events in San Francisco where alcohol is served outdoors don't require fencing.

Lesbians Who Tech's current plan calls for fencing again, which is the part the board asked it to change and replace with barricades and, in lieu of that, transparent fencing.

Jenn Meyer, a straight ally owns Local Take and is the board chair for the Castro Street Fair, chimed in that events like the annual street fair are "grandfathered in" and don't have to follow this fencing requirement because they have an established track record with the city.

Batt, one of the biggest critics of the summit's continuance in the Castro, repeated his assertion that the event has "outgrown" the neighborhood.

"How does your group see the Castro?" Batt asked. "As a pretty backdrop?"

Juarez said in response that the group does not see the neighborhood as only a backdrop. Part of the reason the event closes the street "is that the Castro Theatre is where we have our keynotes and big events."

Terrance Alan, a gay man who's president of the merchants association, responded to Batt that with many of the civil rights struggles that put the Castro at the center of the LGBTQ universe in the past, it's proper the neighborhood celebrate the community's successes, like the tech confab.

"I think it'd be a big mistake to move the 10th anniversary of Lesbians Who Tech to Moscone," Alan said, referring to the South of Market convention center. "That would be a disaster! A pretty backdrop or not, it's how the world knows about the Castro's preeminent position for LGBT people.

"I think we have enough political power to push the fence away and put barricades in its place," Alan added.

Another concession the association asked for is for conference events to be held in Castro businesses.

A second vote was taken to see what the membership would think about transparent fencing in the case barricades are not approved. Of those who raised a hand, 10 voted in favor of transparent fencing as the No. 2 option. Four voted no, and one abstained.

Juarez said that Lesbians Who Tech has to discuss revisions to its plans in light of the merchants' vote.

"We'll have to go back and talk about this," Juarez said.

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is general manager of Cliff's Variety and who'd had some issues with last October's summit, said she supports the return of the tech group. In a cautiously optimistic statement she wrote, "I support Lesbians Who Tech coming to the Castro again. I think they are working very hard to mitigate the issues we experienced last year. I hope this can be a win-win for everyone."

Updated, 3/6/23: This article has been updated with comments from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and Terry Asten Bennett.

Updated, 3/8/23: This article has been updated with information from SFMTA.

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