SF trans district chief stepping down

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday April 26, 2023
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Aria Sa'id, co-founder, president, and chief strategist of the Transgender District, will step down in October. Photo: Karen Santos Photography
Aria Sa'id, co-founder, president, and chief strategist of the Transgender District, will step down in October. Photo: Karen Santos Photography

The second official head of the Transgender District in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood has announced that she will be stepping down this fall.

Aria Sa'id, a Black trans woman and co-founder of the district, wrote on social media April 20 that she will be leaving the post.

In the LinkedIn post, Sa'id, 33, wrote that after six years she would no longer be the Transgender District's president and chief strategist.

"I am honored to have been able to serve my community as best as I possibly could," she wrote. "All that magic has to come from somewhere, and truthfully — having to lead the organization during a global pandemic and now again in a recession — I am exhausted and have been hanging on by a thread since 2020."

Sa'id will depart from the Transgender District in six months. Her last day is October 30.

The post generated much buzz on social media, prompting questions if the Transgender District was going to close and if Sa'id was leaving San Francisco.

Sa'id was clear that the Transgender District was not closing. She is also not leaving the city.

"I still live in the Tenderloin," she said, responding to confusion about her comments about working with transgender communities in the South. "I don't have any plans to move."

"I'm very privileged to have been able to lead the Transgender District, but it's not a miss to me that the concept of the Transgender District could only sort of exist and thrive in a San Francisco setting the way that it has," Sa'id stated. "It's because of our values as a community in the city.

"That is unfortunately not the same reality for trans people in Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama," she continued, stating that transgender people in the South are being arrested for fraud for changing their gender markers on their driver's licenses, seeing health care banned for transgender adults and youth, and not able to use the bathroom according to their gender. "Trans people are being heavily criminalized for the virtue of being trans."

For the next six months, Sa'id said she will prepare her six-member team for the transition and continue the work that still needs to be done to improve the lives of the Tenderloin's transgender residents. The Transgender District's new board of directors and her team are looking at its options after her departure and the Transgender District's future under a new leader.

The Bay Area Reporter talked with Sa'id during a phone interview April 21, the day after her announcement and just before she left for Dallas to work with more than 400 transgender leaders from across the country to strategize combatting the tsunami of anti-LGBTQ bills. Sa'id talked about her accomplishments with the Transgender District, the challenges and work that remains to be done, the opportunities the role gave to her, and her plans for the future.

The Transgender District

Sa'id co-founded the Transgender District, the first legally recognized transgender district of its kind in the world, in 2017 with fellow Black transgender activists Honey Mahogany and Janetta Johnson. Since then, she's led the organization through COVID-19 and San Francisco's struggle as the city continues to find its footing to rebound after the pandemic. (Mahogany served as the district's first executive director and stepped down in 2019, when Sa'id was hired.)

Mahogany currently serves as chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, and is the new district director for state Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), for whom she used to work when he was the District 6 supervisor. (Mahogany ran unsuccessfully for D6 supervisor last year.) Johnson is currently the executive director of the TGI Justice Project.

Sa'id, Mahogany, and Johnson's goal was to push back against the wave of gentrification coming to the Tenderloin, according to KGO-TV's special report, "50 Blocks: Stories from the Tenderloin." They wanted to create a safety net, support, and opportunities for the largest population of transgender people in San Francisco, and celebrate the community through art and culture. For more than a century, transgender San Franciscans have called the six blocks that encompass the southeast part of the neighborhood, and two blocks of the South of Market District home. Many are still living in dire poverty despite progress in recent years.

"While we have hundreds of trans people in this neighborhood, over 70% of them are living in abject poverty," Sa'id told the B.A.R., explaining that the majority of trans community members are living in shelters or single-room-occupancy hotels. "The work of the Trans District was also designed to address real-time social issues that impact our community."

Mahogany and Johnson did not respond to the B.A.R.'s multiple requests for comment. San Francisco District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, an ally, also did not respond to the B.A.R.'s multiple requests for comment. The Tenderloin was added to his district last year during redistricting.

Sa'id is proudest of creating the Transgender District, its diverse staff, and the innovative programs she and her team developed.

"I think I'm most proud of the fact that the [Transgender] District was actualized and to what it is today. You know you are in the [Transgender] District from the signs to the trans flag painted on the [light] polls," said Sa'id. "My work at the Trans District has been quite radical — even sometimes for San Francisco."

"We have, I think, amazing programs that no one else has been doing in the country and we've helped other organizations replicate," she said, noting the mutual aid and guaranteed income programs.

While she got into trouble from a city official she would not name at the beginning of the pandemic for distributing cash grants to the neediest transgender residents in the Transgender District, she later got an apology from other San Francisco officials. That single act recognizing their privilege and the need for transgender residents of the Tenderloin opened the door to creating the Transgender District's Mutual Aid Program and partnering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she recalled.

"We were able to provide up to $1,000 in cash grants per person for over 2,000 trans people across the United States who needed it," Sa'id said. "At the same time, we worked with 32 other nonprofits across the United States and replicated mutual aid."

The success of scaling that program, which had never been done before, inspired the guaranteed income for transgender people and the entrepreneurship accelerator programs, she explained.

Sa'id got the idea for the guaranteed income for transgender people from former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who now is an economic adviser to California Governor Gavin Newsom and launched the nonprofit organization, End Poverty in California. With San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Pau Crego, executive director at the city's Office of Transgender Initiatives, and Lyon-Martin Community Health Services, the Transgender District was able to pilot the guaranteed income program. Currently, 55 transgender people — many who are only Spanish-speaking, survival sex workers, or formerly incarcerated — are receiving $1,200 guaranteed income a month for 18 months, she said.

"It's been a blessing to be able to put that program forward," she said.

Nearly 40 participants have graduated from the Transgender District's entrepreneurial program, Sa'id said. She is most proud of Melanie Ampon, owner of Hearten Electrolysis, and Fluid Cooperative Cafe. Ampon was profiled in the B.A.R. last fall and Fluid Cafe was covered in 2021.

Sa'id was upbeat about these two success stories. She said Ampon was able to open her own hair removal clinic in the Tenderloin. The clinic has been so successful that she is not only on her way to opening another location, but she has employed other transgender people and provided vocational training scholarships in electrolysis for other transgender people.

Fluid Cooperative Cafe is now searching for its first storefront after successfully operating out of San Francisco-based nonprofit kitchen incubator La Cocina, Sa'id continued.

Ampon and Fluid Cooperative Cafe owners Shannon Amitin, Santana Tapia, and JoJo Ty did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment by press time.

The successes are only the Transgender District's beginning.

"I have to often fight and yell [and] kick and scream at City Hall to get people to understand what the trans community is often having to navigate in the city just to survive," Sa'id said. "Even in a space where people love trans people and queer people there's still a lot of public education that has to happen on nuance and disparity."

Sa'id explained that thousands of trans people are in need of housing and programs have long waitlists. There is an ongoing need for employment training and opportunities because transgender people still aren't being hired, she said. There is also a need for free community spaces for transgender people to gather safely.

"That work still has to continue," she said.

Breed praised Sa'id and the work she has done at the Transgender District.

"Undoubtedly, she has helped secure San Francisco's place globally as a city that not only welcomes and accepts every person, but a city that stands up for fundamental human rights and freedoms," Breed stated to the B.A.R. "Not to mention her sense of style that is unparalleled by almost any fashionista in San Francisco.

"The critical work the Transgender District does to foster culture, champion economic advancements and leadership development within our trans community, is a direct result of Aria's leadership and we will always be indebted to her for this work," she continued.

Crego, a trans and nonbinary person, wrote in a statement to the B.A.R. that he was "truly saddened" by Sa'id's pending resignation.

"Sa'id is a fierce, brilliant, and caring leader, who has dedicated herself and her career to social justice," he wrote, stating that she made "significant contributions to trans communities locally and nationally," citing the mutual aid and entrepreneurship programs and his work with her on various projects for a decade.

"I will miss working with her in this role, but I look forward to seeing what she does next," he wrote.

Aria Sa'id, president and chief strategist of the Transgender District, stands beside lamp posts painted with the colors of the trans flag. Photo: Sa'id's Facebook page  

The toll
The Transgender District and Sa'id's work took her to places she never imagined being, but it also took a toll on her mental and physical well-being from death threats to her workaholic tendencies.

The job catapulted Sa'id, her staff, and the Transgender District into the global spotlight, something she never expected, but appreciated. She was able to meet and work with royalty, celebrities, diplomats, and politicians, and transgender community leaders across the United States and around the world. She was part of a select group of local LGBTQ nonprofit leaders who had a one-on-one chat with Queen Máxima of the Netherlands during the royal's tour of the city's LGBTQ Castro district last fall, as the B.A.R. reported.

The recognition also made Sa'id and the Transgender District a target for the right-wing. That brought death threats, false claims being made about the Transgender District in conservative documentaries, like Candice Owens' "The Greatest Lie Ever Sold," she said.

"The Transgender District and its founding made me more visible than I ever anticipated," Sa'id said. "I think a consequence of that visibility is I am forever critiqued [and] I've had my information leaked, so I've had to move.

"We've received death threats for the past few years," she continued, especially with the launch of guaranteed income that has gone "viral because of right-wing extremist influencers" to the point that the Transgender District has "had to hire security."

Then with budget cuts, she and her staff took significant salary cuts, up to $40,000 each, to keep everyone at the Transgender District employed. The district operates on a $1.1 million budget, Sa'id said. The Transgender District is fiscally sponsored by St. James Infirmary and it is funded by the City and County of San Francisco; corporate, community, and foundation grants; and individual donors, Sa'id said.

"I woke up one morning and I was like, at this juncture in my life, I can't keep working 60 hours a week," she said, stating she needed to step down to take time to focus on her health and envision her future. "My doctors are telling me I need to slow down and that I need to work less, but when it comes to the [Transgender] District, I've never had a good work-life balance."

Sa'id noted that she's been working for transgender social justice at a breakneck speed since she was 17 years old as self-preservation for herself and her community, but it wasn't what she originally aspired to do with her life.

"I think people forget that it just so happened that I came into leadership," she said. "I didn't aspire to be an activist. I wanted to work in fashion. That was my dream. That's what I went to school for. It just happened that I was also a Black trans woman at a time that I had to fight for my own rights and then my community's rights at the same time, because I didn't want to be mistreated, and that evolved to me working in social change.

"The visibility has been very difficult for me to navigate in my own personal life," said Sa'id, explaining that she never signed up to be so publicly visible like celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, but that's what happened. It has had a negative effect on her outgoing personality.

"The unfortunate reality is that you get isolated when you are visible and in leadership somewhere in San Francisco," she continued. "I often don't feel safe, even in LGBT spaces, and I tend to be isolated and a hermit. When I'm not working, I'm at home. As extroverted as I am, that has had negative consequences on my mental health."

The future
Sa'id doesn't have immediate plans for her future after she leaves the Transgender District.

"It is quite scary," she said. "I honestly don't know yet. I don't have another job lined up. Everyone thinks I'm crazy."

"I love working in social change. I'll jump back in for sure. I just need some time," she said.

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