New head of Peninsula LGBTQ center takes it virtual during pandemic

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday April 22, 2020
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Francisco "Frankie" Sapp is the new program director of the San Mateo County Pride Center. Photo: Courtesy Francisco "Frankie" Sapp
Francisco "Frankie" Sapp is the new program director of the San Mateo County Pride Center. Photo: Courtesy Francisco "Frankie" Sapp

Starting a new job at the beginning of a global pandemic is not an ideal situation.

However, Francisco "Frankie" Sapp, the recently-hired program director of the San Mateo County Pride Center, is leading it through the crisis in stride.

The disabled, biracial, queer, transgender man is a 20-year social justice veteran and expert in crisis management and harm reduction.

Sapp, 42, began his new job February 12.

The center didn't announce his taking over the position until a March 4 blog post. News outlets picked up the story earlier this month.

"We are so grateful to have Frankie working with our incredible team at the Pride center," wrote Stephanie Weisner, 41, chief program officer at StarVista, the organization that oversees the center.

She praised Sapp for his "passion, warmth, experience, finesse, and humor" along with his ability to step "in with such compassion and strength during the COVID-19 pandemic," referring to the illness caused by the virus.

"We are not sure what we would do without him!" she wrote in an email.

The novel coronavirus outbreak has upended Sapp's initial plans, as the state is in the midst of a stay-at-home order for nonessential workers that began just over a month ago.

Sapp credits his previous experience to deftly manage transitioning the physical center, located in the city of San Mateo, into a virtual one.

"The fact that this crisis is happening and I'm in this position ... having that harm reduction experience ... I think that I'm where I need to be," he said about quickly identifying priorities and setting up policies informed by community and staff feedback during the process.

"Fortunately, I've had the amazing privilege to work with a wonderful team who is so kind, so caring, and so thoughtful," he added.

Sapp, who has Tourette syndrome and mobility issues, has been managing the center from the distance of his Fairfield home, where he recently spoke on the phone with the Bay Area Reporter.

Sapp said that he was drawn to the center because when he first stepped into the building its staff reflected the community and instantly felt like a safe space.

"I think that there are a lot of organizations that talk about representation, but don't actually represent the communities that we serve," said Sapp. "That is not true about the Pride center. We have such a diverse staff.

"Moving forward that is everything that I want to maintain," he continued. "I hold that very sacred."

None of the staff have been laid off or furloughed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

A virtual space

The center opened to serve the Peninsula's LGBT community in 2017.

Sapp replaced the center's founding program director Lisa Putkey, a 33-year-old queer woman. She stepped down in December and moved to Marin County.

"I am overjoyed that Frankie is the Pride center's new director and wish him all the best," she wrote in an email.

Sapp swiftly got the center up and running virtually within a week. That enabled his nine full-time and six part-time staff, including interns, along with nearly 30 volunteers, to serve clients through its therapy and case management services and various programs.

The Pride center operates on a budget of nearly $1 million and serves more than 2,000 clients annually.

Sapp declined to provide his salary.

The center is a program within StarVista, a $12 million social services organization in San Mateo County. It receives one of its major grants from San Mateo County Behavioral Recovery Services.

One of Sapp's proudest achievements is his ability to build and nurture networks between professionals and communities to help them succeed. It's a skill he honed at his first position as the regional director of the Southern California Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network, then known as the Gay Straight Alliance. His most recent position was as co-director at the Ontario Harm Reduction Network in Canada.

As a result, the organizations grew and were able to help more people, he said.

Sapp is the most recent trans person to lead a Bay Area LGBT community center. In February, Kiku Johnson, a trans man of color, was hired as executive director of the Rainbow Community Center in Concord. Aejaie Sellers, a trans woman, served as executive director of the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ Community Center in San Jose from 2006-2009.


Sapp's success has not come easy. Like many gender-nonconforming people, he suffered from a crippling lack of self-esteem and body-hatred for many years.

It got so bad that he wanted to take his own life, he said.

"Most of us are very aware that we are different at a very young age, but the larger society [says we are] too young to understand and be taught about it," said Sapp, who speaks regularly about sexual orientation and gender identity. "I felt so filled with shame. I felt the weight, like the actual weight, of the shame in my body every day."

That lack of confidence in himself was compounded, he explained, by a "multitude of toxic managers" throughout his career who attacked him for being disabled, being a person of color, or being transgender.

A California native, Sapp was born at Travis Air Force Base to a Filipino mother and white father. Growing up in a military family, he lived in three countries and many different states and provinces. He returned to California and received his undergraduate degree in film and Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara.

It was at UCSB that the spark for social justice that had started in high school grew into a passion, launching him into his career.

"I was very drawn to doing this work ... even when I was making videos and films, they were very centered around social justice," he said.

It has led him to working with indigenous people, seniors, and LGBT youth, creating advocacy and leadership workshops and peer education and HIV prevention programs before moving into crisis management and harm reduction.

A majority of his career was spent in Canada. Sapp returned home to California in August 2019. He is happy to be back in the Bay Area after two decades away.

While Sapp spent his life helping others, he finally saw his own transformation when he transitioned about 12 years ago. He said that he finally felt at home in his body and his confidence grew.

"Now, I just try to role model it's OK — it's OK to be who you are," said Sapp, who believes people should have positive conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with children.

He attributes his ability to live through those darker years to the way his brain works and his personality for being "oppositional." He takes negative experiences in life and behaves in a proactive positive way, he said.

It also shaped his management and leadership style.

"That's why I think that I try to foster a supportive environment in my workplace as a manager ... as much as possible," he said.

Connecting community

His team and clients at the Pride center have not experienced coronavirus-related anti-Asian racism yet, he said, but they are prepared due to ongoing conversations about race, sexuality, and gender.

"Hate has always existed in the world, but in this period of the last few years hate has been really heightened," said Sapp.

"Why the Pride center is so important to me is that it is a safe space for so many people," he continued. "We've got to keep it that way."

He and his team are concerned about the impact self-isolation during the pandemic is having on the Peninsula's LGBT community.

But the pandemic is not about isolation or social distancing, argued Sapp.

"It's about physical distancing while making a social connection," he explained. "That's what we are really trying to do when we are being virtual at the Pride center."

The center is providing customized counseling sessions by phone or video conferencing, depending on the client's comfort level. It has virtual movie nights. The staff continue to connect weekly during video conferences and soon Sapp hopes to have the center's trainings available online too.

While the center is currently operating virtually, Sapp does have his eyes on returning to the physical space once the threat has passed and stay-at-home orders are lifted.

He sees many of the virtual aspects remaining in place following the global public health crisis.

His original goals to grow the center's offerings might have to be temporarily put on hold as the world recovers from the economic impact of the pandemic.

"I don't know how my vision has changed since the pandemic," he said, speaking candidly about not having time to adjust his original vision leading the organization.

At the moment, he is focused on keeping the doors open virtually and, eventually, the staff's return to the center.

Sapp misses the in-person interactions with the center's staff and clients despite being used to working remotely due to his disabilities, he said.

"I miss the texture of in-person meetings. I miss the energy that you get from connecting in person," he said. "That has been the biggest challenge for me."

Sapp looks forward to returning to some sense of normalcy going into the center with his dog, Avery, bringing in his baked goods to share with the staff and clients, and simply being together.

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