Merchants think lesbian tech confab has outgrown Castro

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Thursday November 3, 2022
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Castro Street was fenced off during the October Lesbians Who Tech conference in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Heather Cassell<br>
Castro Street was fenced off during the October Lesbians Who Tech conference in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Heather Cassell

Members of the Castro Merchants Association and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman seem to agree that the recent Lesbians Who Tech conference has outgrown the LGBTQ neighborhood and should look to hold future events elsewhere in San Francisco.

The merchants had a robust discussion of the conference at their November 3 meeting, which was held in-person at the Academy and virtually.

Mandelman said that while Lesbians Who Tech, which was held October 12-14 and drew upward of 3,000 queer people in tech and their allies to the Castro, was potentially a benefit, it impacted many businesses. Most of the criticism was around the fact that Lesbians Who Tech organizers erected fencing along Castro Street, shutting down the busy thoroughfare to vehicle traffic.

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

One merchant said the Castro Street closure "was terrible" for his business, which he estimated was down 20% and "directly related to the conference." Another meeting attendee said it was "not ideal" to block Castro Street and noted their deliveries "were ridiculous," an apparent reference to vendors not being able to access shops.

Members said that outreach by Lesbians Who Tech was not what it had been in the past. The organization last held its conference in the Castro in 2019, before the COVID pandemic. Last month's return was the first time in three years the in-person event was held in the LGBTQ neighborhood, Lesbians Who Tech founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford said during the conference, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

The B.A.R. also reported last month that Castro Merchants Association co-President Dave Karraker said that overall, he was pleased with the conference and that he received few complaints.

But Patrick Batt, who owns Auto Erotica on 18th Street, referenced the letter to the editor he had written to the B.A.R. last month that was critical of the gathering. "Touting being inclusive in nearly all its branding, the recently departed Lesbians Who Tech conference in the Castro appeared to be anything but," Batt wrote in his letter.

"This began with the overnight Monday erecting of fencing with tarps blocking all views outside of its footprint of the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street," he wrote. "Thus, with the presence of security guards and uniformed San Francisco Police Department officers, the public right of way was limited to admission by only those people who had paid $700 to $1,200 for that exclusive privilege."

Batt also referenced that last spring, Lesbians Who Tech representatives addressed the merchants group about the event and sought the group's approval for closing Castro Street but "without many of the details," he wrote in his letter.

"They've clearly outgrown the Castro, and good for them," Batt said at the meeting. "The fences made it seem like an armed camp."

One idea raised was for Lesbians Who Tech to hold its event at a larger facility, like Moscone Center, and then have some events in the Castro.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Audrey Joseph, a lesbian and producer with a long history of working in the Castro and other LGBTQ events, addressed the merchants' group March 3 with some plans for the conference. Parking was a major concern among business owners. At that meeting, Joseph, a former member of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, laid out the plan for reserving parking on the street and in the parking lots behind the Castro Theatre and Walgreens, with its entries at 18th and Collingwood streets. She identified areas where unloading and reloading the trucks for setting up and tearing down the event would take place, as well as described the plans for a closure of 18th street at the Castro intersection.

But that didn't seem to happen at the actual conference. Mandelman said Thursday that "Audrey is in no way responsible for what happened at Lesbians Who Tech."

In an email, Joseph wrote that she parted ways with Lesbians Who Tech shortly after that March 3 Castro Merchants meeting.

"I can't really comment [as] I have little knowledge of what they did — Leanne and I parted ways in late winter/early spring 2022 — I do know that because of the parklet situation in the Castro they could not use 18th Street as they did before nor were many of the merchants willing to lease them their bars or restaurants — I was amazed that they got all of Castro Street from Market to 19th," she stated. "I also know that they did not use any of my vendors nor my designs — I did not attend the event so I know nothing just what people have told me — some of the attendees and some of the merchants."

Pittsford did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Mandelman said that he has contacted Jeffrey Tumlin, a gay man who is director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, to discuss his concern that closing down Castro Street for that length of time "is just not good." He also suggested it might be a good idea for merchants group representatives to meet with SFMTA.

SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato responded that the agency's Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation, or ISCOTT, has a process in place to make sure the community "knows about and has the opportunity to voice their concerns when an event in their neighborhood is taking place."

"Our team ensured that the organizers of Lesbians Who Tech posted public hearing notices around the neighborhood to alert those in the area of the event and potential impacts," Kato wrote. "This year, the event was also required to present to the Castro Merchants, CBD, cultural district, Supervisor Mandelman's office, and Eureka Valley residents prior to the ISCOTT hearing," she wrote, referring to the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

Kato acknowledged that Mandelman had contacted SFMTA.

"We appreciate hearing from the supervisor's office and receiving input from the merchants to make sure the event fits the needs of the neighborhood, and will continue to work with stakeholders to incorporate their feedback," she stated. "The consensus of the feedback we heard from the public at the ISCOTT meeting was that the conference could move forward and be held with little objection from the community. We encourage neighbors and business owners to make their voices heard at our hearings, as we are always looking for solutions that best fit the needs of the city and its residents."

The Lesbians Who Tech conference even impacted LGBTQ young people in the area. Laura Lala-Chávez, a nonbinary person who is the executive director of LYRIC, was at the merchants meeting to introduce themself. Lala-Chávez said that youth were also dismayed by the fencing.

"It was hard for our young people to see the Lesbians Who Tech conference and see that barricade there," Lala-Chávez said.

Updated, 11/3/22: This article has been updated with comments from SFMTA.

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