With queer historians interested, SF supes face calls to reject mayor's pick for historic panel

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday March 3, 2023
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Victoria Gray spoke at the February 27 San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing about her nomination to serve on the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV
Victoria Gray spoke at the February 27 San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing about her nomination to serve on the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV

San Francisco supervisors are facing calls to reject a mayoral appointee to the city's Historic Preservation Commission over questions about her qualifications to serve in a seat designated for a historian. Meanwhile, two out female historians who have studied the local LGBTQ community and that of other minority groups have expressed interest in being nominated to the oversight body.

Earlier this year Mayor London Breed nominated Victoria Gray to serve on the commission for a term that ends on December 31, 2026. A native San Franciscan, Gray is employed as the vice president and director for Bonhams and Butterfields auction house and heads its San Francisco office.

Whether she meets the criteria to be confirmed by the supervisors to the commission's Seat 4 has been called into doubt by not only historic preservationists but also 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. Although it is up to the mayor to appoint the Historic Preservation Commission's seven members, the supervisors have the authority to either approve or reject the nominees.

Speaking at the supervisors' Rules Committee hearing February 27 on Gray's appointment, Peskin said he felt that the committee members should recommend to the full board that it reject seating Gray. He argued that she does not qualify as a historian who meets the Secretary of the Interior's Professional Qualifications Standards for history with specialized training and/or demonstrable experience in North American or Bay Area history.

"I think you would be well seated for one of the at-large positions on the commission, not for this one," Peskin told Gray, since he explained it "is really envisioned to be" for someone with a strong academic career in the field of history.

While District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said he felt "a bit conflicted about it," he agreed with Peskin and voted in support of rejecting Gray's nomination. The other committee members, chair District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey and vice chair District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, voted in support of recommending that she be seated.

"I am inclined to support this," said Dorsey, one of three gay supervisors now on the board, who made the motion to advance Gray's nomination.

The full board is set to vote on it when it meets Tuesday. Peskin told the Bay Area Reporter March 2 when asked if a majority of the 11 supervisors would vote to reject Gray's nomination, "I hope so."

Having met privately last month with Gray, Peskin stressed that she "seems like a very nice person." Nonetheless, he said he doesn't see anything in her academic background or professional career that makes her qualified for a seat specifically designated to be filled by a historian.

"This seat is for someone qualified as a historian under federal standards. These are set forth in the secretary of the interior's standards for what is a historian," said Peskin. "Those standards are very clear, and it is clear to me the mayor's nominee does not conform to those standards."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the B.A.R. he agrees with Peskin and would be voting to reject Gray's nomination next week. While he hadn't met with Gray or had time to review her testimony at the rules committee, Mandelman said he doubted it would change his vote.

"I am suspecting when I do, I will conclude she is not qualified," he said. "I believe Peskin has the votes to reject her; I would count myself among those votes."

The B.A.R. reached out to Dorsey and gay District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio to inquire about how they plan to vote next week. Dorsey said he plans to vote in support of Gray, though he acknowledged about the board vote, "I am not sure how it is going to go."

Engardio said he is set to meet with Gray on Monday and would make a decision on her appointment afterward.

A spokesperson for Breed also has yet to respond to a request for comment. Gray has support from Diane Matsuda, president of the preservation panel, and the commissioner she would replace, Richard Johns, who has served in the historian seat for 12 years.

"I think there is absolutely no question that Victoria Gray is well qualified to occupy the seat of the historian. She gave, I thought, an impressive history of her accomplishments," said Johns, who called in during public comment at the Rules Committee.

Previous fights over commission seats

Two years ago the supervisors rejected another straight female mayoral nominee for the commission due to Breed's decision not to reappoint its two gay members, which would have left it without LGBTQ representation. It led to Breed nominating Jason Wright, a gay man who is a conservation and preservation specialist, and he subsequently won approval from the board.

This time the opposition to Gray is centered more on her professional background, though her being cisgender and Caucasian has also been brought up in respect to the fact that the preservation panel several years ago endorsed the planning department's plan to address racial and social equity. (The commission is under the planning department.)

Gray noted during her rules committee hearing that she has a particular background in the historic significance of interiors of buildings as well as monuments and objects. She contended such expertise is not only lacking on the Historic Preservation Commission but needed during a time when there are ongoing debates about protecting interiors and what monuments there are in the city. Publicly accessible interiors of buildings are eligible for landmark status, though there are few such designations in the city.

In particular, Gray said she agreed with the oversight body's recent vote in support of preserving the balcony seating inside the Castro Theatre as well as its determination that the ground floor seats are not historic since they were installed in 2000.

"I have dedicated my life's work to the preservation, protection, and promotion of our city's cultural icons and artifacts," said Gray.

But Gray didn't help herself when she was unable to list the four criteria used to evaluate if a property should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places when asked to do so by Peskin. San Francisco Heritage, a leading voice for historic preservation in the city, is opposed to her being confirmed.

Also calling on the supervisors to reject Gray are 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 told the B.A.R. Having spent five years on the city's landmarks preservation advisory board, which became the Historic Preservation Commission, Cherny also has contacted the supervisors to urge them to reject Gray's appointment.

Passed over by successive mayors for appointment to the oversight body's historian seat, Cherny had again applied for the seat but didn't receive a response from Breed's office. He stressed to the B.A.R. that his objection isn't personal but based on wanting to see a properly qualified person be seated.

"It is clear that Ms. Gray really doesn't fit those qualifications," said Cherny. "I know nothing about her, and she may be a perfectly nice person and be perfectly competent in the job she does. She just doesn't fit what the charter says it is supposed to be."

Queer historians interested

He said there are a number of historians living in the city who could be appointed by the mayor. In particular, he mentioned two members on the faculty of the history department at SF State Sue Englander, a former student of his, and Nan Alamilla Boyd, Ph.D.

Englander, who is bisexual and well known in local queer political circles, has taught at the four-year school 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.

She also has written to the supervisors asking them to reject Gray's appointment. While Englander hadn't submitted an application for the seat, she told the B.A.R. she would be interested in being named to it.

"I would be a good fit, but I just missed the deadline," she said. "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."

Boyd, a queer woman whose relatives emigrated from the Central American country of Belize, 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. (Both she and Englander have helped curate exhibits at the archival nonprofit's museum in the city's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood.)

When the preservation panel's architectural historian seat was up for appointment in 2021, Boyd had expressed interest in being nominated but nothing came of it since her background didn't exactly line up with the qualifications for it. Should the supervisors once again reject the mayor's nominee, Boyd has again put her name forward to be considered.

"I would be very happy for the mayor to consider my qualifications if the board rejects her nominee," Boyd told the B.A.R. "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 on the history of all our funky neighborhoods and the people who built them."

Should either Englander or Boyd be named to the Historic Preservation Commission, it is believed they would be the first out female member to serve on it.

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