Political Notebook: SF supervisors reject mayoral historic panel nominee

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 7, 2023
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Victoria Gray was rejected by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a seat on the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo: Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV
Victoria Gray was rejected by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a seat on the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo: Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV

A mayoral appointee to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission was rejected Tuesday by a majority of the city's supervisors, who cited her lack of qualifications to serve in the historian seat on the oversight body for the reason behind their decision.

As the Bay Area Reporter first reported online last week, Victoria Gray was facing a rough road to being confirmed after several supervisors spoke out against her being confirmed to a term in the preservation panel's Seat 4 through the end of 2026. Earlier this year Mayor London Breed had nominated Gray, a native San Franciscan, to serve in the seat specifically designated for a historian.

Yet Gray is employed as the vice president and director for Bonhams and Butterfields auction house and heads its San Francisco office. And while she earned a B.A. in art history from Bucknell University and completed a six-month course of intensive historical research studies at Syracuse University in Florence, Italy, according to her professional bio, critics contended she did not meet the Secretary of the Interior's professional qualifications standards to be deemed a historian.

Board President and District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who wrote the ballot measure that created the advisory panel and set out who should serve on it, argued as much when the supervisors' Rules Committee considered Gray's appointment on February 27. While he felt she would bring needed expertise on historical interiors of buildings, one of Gray's areas of focus, as an at-large member of the commission, Peskin contended she should not be approved for the historian seat.

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, a rules member, had voted to recommend that the full board reject Gray's being seated. Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman had told the B.A.R. last week he would also vote to reject her nomination.

The full board voted 7-4 at its March 7 meeting to sink Gray's appointment. As gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton had done at rules, on which they serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, they voted to approve Gray's nomination.

Joining them were gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio and District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani. She did join in the 8-3 vote, however, to amend the agendized motion from approving Gray's appointment to rejecting it. Dorsey, Walton, and Engardio opposed doing so.

Gray had drawn opposition from advocates working to preserve the seating inside the Castro Theatre. At the rules committee hearing, she had said that she agreed with the Historic Preservation Commission's recent vote supportive of preserving the balcony seating inside the venue as well as its determination that the ground floor seats are not historic since they were installed in 2000.

But several people opposed to the plans by Another Planet Entertainment to replace the current seats contended to the B.A.R. that Gray had incorrectly summarized the oversight panel's decision. In addition to the commissioners recommendation to preserve the interior of the Castro Theatre with the "presence of seating," advocates also contend an accompanying fact sheet calls for the current seats to be saved due to them being "a defining characteristic" of the movie house.

Although it may appear to be a matter of semantics, the advocates for saving the seats had raised concerns about Gray being seated on the commission in time for it voting on a certificate of appropriateness being sought by Another Planet in order to change the configuration of the auditorium seating. A joint hearing between the preservation panel and the planning commission on the matter is expected to be held on April 13.

Gray's comment about the seats was "a red flag," said Stephen Torres, a queer man who is executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

A number of preservation groups had called on the board to reject Gray, including San Francisco Heritage, the San Francisco Land Use Coalition and the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. San Francisco State University professor emeritus of history Robert W. Cherny also had urged the supervisors not to confirm Gray in order for someone who met the historian qualifications to be nominated.

He spent five years on the city's landmarks preservation advisory board, which became the Historic Preservation Commission. While Cherny had sought being appointed to the seat, he had stressed to the B.A.R. that his objection to Gray wasn't personal but based on wanting to see a properly qualified person be seated.

As Cherny noted in his letter to the supervisors, "there are residents of this city who fully meet the professional standards set by the Secretary of the Interior" to serve in the historian designated seat.

Queer historians interested in seat

Two members on the faculty of the history department at San Francisco State both told the B.A.R. last week that they were interested in being nominated by the mayor to serve on the commission. It is believed either would be the first out female member on it.

When the preservation panel's architectural historian seat was up for appointment in 2021, Nan Alamilla Boyd, Ph.D., had expressed interest in being nominated but nothing came of it since her background didn't exactly line up with the qualifications for it. A queer woman whose relatives emigrated from the Central American country of Belize, Boyd has graduate degrees in American Civilization from Brown University and earned her B.A. in History from UC Berkeley.

She has long studied the history of the local LGBTQ community and wrote the 2003 book "Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965." In addition to her academic work, Boyd founded the GLBT Historical Society's oral history project in 1990 and is a former member of its board.

"I would be very happy for the mayor to consider my qualifications if the board rejects her nominee," Boyd had told the B.A.R. last week. "I have a lot of knowledge about San Francisco's diverse communities. I think it would be a benefit to the commission to have someone with that history on the board who could be an expert."

Sue Englander, who is bisexual and well known in local queer political circles, has taught at SF State since 2012 and prior to that had taught at City College of San Francisco since 1995. A particular focus of her career has been local labor and union history in addition to LGBTQ history.

Like Boyd, Englander has helped curate exhibits at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in the city's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. In addition to writing the supervisors to ask them to reject Gray's appointment, Englander also told the B.A.R. she is interested in being considered for it.

"I would be a good fit, but I just missed the deadline," she said of submitting an application for the seat to the mayor's office. "I got interested in historical preservation because of a number of issues in San Francisco I have been active on, most recently the seats at the Castro Theatre."

Following the board's vote Tuesday, Englander said she would "happily support" Boyd's being appointed to the seat or Cherny, whom she noted was "a great colleague and friend" whose recent biography "Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Leader" had "added to the literature" on the city's history.

Both Castro LGBTQ Cultural District Director Tina Aguirre and queer historian Gerard Koskovich expressed support for seeing Boyd be appointed to the seat in letters they sent to the supervisors ahead of Tuesday's vote.

"Prof. Boyd has a distinguished record of teaching as a historian and of publication on the subject of San Francisco's LGBTQ history," noted Koskovich.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on the lack of LGBTQ judges on the majority of trial courts in California.

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

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