Merchants rebuke Lesbians Who Tech after Castro confab woes

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday November 2, 2023
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Fencing with green tarps was installed on Castro Street ahead of the Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Summit. Photo: Steven Bracco
Fencing with green tarps was installed on Castro Street ahead of the Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Summit. Photo: Steven Bracco

The Castro Merchants Association issued a stinging rebuke to the recent Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Summit, voting at its monthly membership meeting to ask the organization not to shut down Castro Street for any future event.

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is president of the organization, sent a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed's office, members of the Board of Supervisors, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's street closure committee a few hours after the November 2 meeting, stating the group's concerns and vote.

There were not any no votes but there were eight abstentions. At the meeting, merchants expressed frustration with the event, which occurred October 16-20 and was put on by the Lesbians Who Tech organization. The conference led to street closures on the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street, between Market and 19th streets.

"We have a voice that goes back to the city," said Asten Bennett, co-owner of Cliff's Variety, at 479 Castro Street, before the vote was taken. "The city respects that, and we'd be sending our position to the supervisors, the mayor, and ISCOTT. I've been asked by other neighborhood associations where we stand on this."

The SFMTA's Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation, or ISCOTT, determines street closures. For the past two years it has allowed the lesbian confab to close a main artery of the city's LGBTQ neighborhood to vehicular traffic.

The imbroglio between some Castro neighborhood merchants and Lesbians Who Tech started last year. The nonprofit, which brings together lesbians and other queer women in the tech industry, has held its summit in the Castro for 10 years, as Patrick Batt, a gay man who owns Auto Erotica at 4077-A 18th Street, explained.

"We're not about being anti-lesbian or anti-anything," Batt said. "When it first started, it was the Castro Theatre: period. Second and third years, they brought in food trucks: poor planning. Then it got bigger and bigger and bigger and it became more and more difficult to deal with."

After the event started closing the street for several days in 2022, many business owners expressed frustration at last November's merchant meeting, as the Bay Area Reporter reported. At that time, business owners said the street closure hurt their profits, and that in spite of language of inclusivity, extensive fencing with tarps and major security and police presences made the Castro seem more like an "armed camp" (in Batt's words) than a beacon of queer belonging.

The merchants reached out to Lesbians Who Tech officials, who promised to ameliorate their concerns.

"The initial meeting where they asked for a vote last spring: the previous president bent over backwards saying, 'come to me, talk to me, I will give you insight as to how to make the fences,'" Batt said, referring to past president Terrance Allen. "All of it was discussed."

Castro Merchants Association President Terry Asten Bennett expressed her frustration with the Lesbians Who Tech & Allies confab. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Asten Bennett corroborated this account. As the B.A.R. reported when ISCOTT approved the confab's street closure in July, she said that merchants had asked Lesbians Who Tech to "make the barriers more attractive and fun."

"I connected them with Castro Street Seen," she said, referring to the beautification group led by gay creative director Pete Betancourt. "He curated a bunch of lesbian images to be put on the barrier. I asked him to create QR codes about lesbian tech history."

Betancourt told the B.A.R. he had indeed curated a gallery of queer women that would've been in other Castro Street Seen projects but he was saving it for a Lesbians Who Tech display after preliminary discussions with the group. However, the group never followed up, he said.

"We did in fact present a solution — a beautiful solution — for their barrier," he said. "They said 'we'll get back to you' and never did."

The barrier wasn't the only merchant concern that went unaddressed. As the B.A.R. reported in March, Lesbians Who Tech representatives came to the Castro to ask for the merchants' blessing — which was given with conditions.

Other unaddressed concerns included the impacts to deliveries to businesses and trash collection.

"I asked them to work with Recology to make sure our garbage got picked up — that never happened. I spent five days actually, literally dealing with trash," Asten Bennett said. "I asked them to create delivery points. That never happened."

Batt said he closed for five days "rather than dealing with the situation."

"Frankly, when I reopened Saturday, I heard complaints from customers of what had happened during those five days," Batt said.

Tina Aguirre, a genderqueer Latinx person who is the director of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, said that the district is 100% behind the merchants.

"There are many ways to support increasing visibility for lesbians and queer women," Aguirre said.

Aguirre said one recipient of a business grant from the cultural district, How's It Hanging at 548 Castro Street, sold a mere $29 in plants during those five days.

"It does not have to be this or nothing else," Aguirre said. "That's a binary. It's not true."

James Belisle, manager of How's It Hanging, said, "last year was horrible, this year was horrible."

"I am very supportive of their organization and I understand they have an affinity for the Castro and I understand that," Belisle said. "But the street should never be closed for private parties period. We got under a hundred dollars for the whole week. ... It's just not appropriate to have a private event in the middle of the street."

Asked about the merchants' vote, he said, "I'm happy about that and supportive of that decision."

Mary Conde of Another Planet Entertainment, which manages the Castro Theatre, pointed out that the theater might be closed in October 2024 for renovations.

Lesbians Who Tech responds
Leanne Pittsford, CEO and founder of Lesbians Who Tech, told the B.A.R. in a phone interview that "it's hard" to work with the merchants.

"I didn't know they were going to vote until late last night from a journalist," Pittsford said. "Every gay neighborhood in every city in the world mostly centers gay men and it's mostly an economic issue. It's more difficult for gay men to have kids so it's double income, no dependents, so it makes sense businesses would cater to people with economic power and it's why we try so hard to be in this space."

Pittsford said, "We're looking at a total economic impact on San Francisco of $3.2 million from our event and over $1 million for the Castro. ... It might be more, we're still looking at numbers."

Pittsford said that she is "pretty saddened" she did not get the chance to provide this information. She said the organization was "not allowed" to speak at the event.

Asked about the allegation, Asten Bennett told the B.A.R. that Lesbians Who Tech was allowed to attend, though it was not invited initially.

"As I said during the meeting I did not invite them. This was about how we felt. When I asked them to present updates before the event they declined every time," Asten Bennett stated. "Yesterday, Leanne asked me if they could attend and I said 'yes' and two representatives were at the meeting. But this was 100% about how the merchants felt and what they want for our community. That does not require input from LWT. They had a year to respond to our concerns from the previous year and did not make any of the corrections or take our recommendations."

Pittsford said the merchants don't know the whole story.

"There's a lot they don't know," Pittsford said. "They don't know the number of times we've called Recology. We're only one part of a puzzle — we're not the trash company, we're not the delivery people. I actually think we worked incredibly hard to address most of those concerns."

She said she still has to call SFMTA to find out what happened with the street signage. She took particular issue with the B.A.R.'s editorial, published online Wednesday, opposing a street closure.

"Every year there's an article posted lesbians outgrow the Castro by one of the two local papers," she said. "We didn't want to remove the Harvey's decal but we got pitched by a local person to do something together and we were trying to be supportive. The real estate person for the building ... is supposed to put them back up. I don't know why he didn't put them back up. I don't know why you all reported — it's a big assumption to say we don't care about the Castro because we didn't put the decals back. Big picture: my team hired a full-time person to help address these concerns: delivery, trash, communication, signage. We did a pretty good job. A huge improvement, obviously not perfect."

Pittsford was referring to how the historic photos in the now-closed Harvey's bar and restaurant at 18th and Castro streets that had been installed by Castro Street Seen earlier this year were removed for the conference. A photo taken Tuesday showed a decal for Lesbians Who Tech and empty windows.

The fence situation, she said, is "really nuanced."

"It's not Pride or the Castro Street Fair," Pittsford said. "We would never be able to produce it if we didn't sell tickets. Even so we gave away 1,000+ tickets and scholarships. We are very, very generous with anyone who wants to learn to be a part of it. ... But there's no way for us to have all this equipment without protecting it."

She called requests for a see-through barrier "voyeuristic."

"People would be looking in and it would not feel safe and special," Pittsford said, adding that the fence tarps were green this year instead of black.

"There's a lot of opportunity for the Castro to be a safe space for women and queer, nonbinary leaders," she said. "There's literally nothing that centers us. There's a reason it's challenging for us to have space in the queer community, but my team works incredibly hard."

Merchant pushes back on anti-confab sentiment
Not everyone had such a negative assessment of the conference. Gay Academy co-founder Nate Bourg reported that he was among those who benefited and asked by a show of hands who else had. Five went up.

"I'm raising my hand because we hosted the afterparty," Bourg said. "It was the biggest event we've ever done at the Academy in all these years."

Bourg asked Batt if the question is whether the event has outgrown the neighborhood or if it's limited to the street. Batt said it's his understanding that "they've outgrown the neighborhood."

Responded Bourg, "I'm just worried. We don't want to send the message we don't want economic activity in our neighborhood. ... I really worry, as a body, we don't want to send a message that we're anti-lesbian or anti-any group within the queer community, but I worry that by taking this vote, no matter how hard we try, that's the message that's going to be sent."

Batt's position is, "I don't care who comes to the neighborhood and closes it down for six days" and that "it's now a negative influence on the Castro, not a positive influence."

"You're not voting against lesbians," Batt said.

Asten Bennett said the wording could be worked on.

Lauro Gonzales, founder of ArtyHood, said that the merchants should send a welcoming message even if a street closure is out of the question.

"I do agree with Nate [Bourg] a little bit about saying no to the business," he said. "What we can do is build an amazing experience in the Castro for Lesbians Who Tech so they can come party here. The Castro Theatre, parking lots, the Academy, restaurants, and business owners. That's what we want, for them to party, to come. We can put banners up welcoming Lesbians Who Tech."

Ultimately, the merchants voted only to oppose any future street closure.

Lesbians Who Tech board member speaks
A self-described newer board member of Lesbians Who Tech gave remarks, saying that she was speaking for herself and not the organization.

"It's incredibly soul nurturing to be able to come to the Castro — to come to this historical place for which I hold such reverence," the board member said.

She said she patronized several local businesses.

"We had 2,000 attendees and what I will tell you is out of those 2,000 attendees, Lesbians Who Tech had 800 for free," she said. "There's not a lot of safe places for lesbians, specifically, to come to."

At this point, the B.A.R. took a photo of her speaking, but was asked by her to stop photographing. She subsequently declined to give her name, saying she did not want to be quoted in this or any report. (This reporter's presence was announced by Asten Bennett before the confab discussion began, with the merchants' president saying remarks could be quoted in the press unless otherwise stated.)

Aguirre said to the board member, "This is indicative of the lack of engagement from Lesbians Who Tech" and that the organization should have sent someone to represent it in an official capacity.

"This is about the institutional memory of what happens with Lesbians Who Tech and they have not fulfilled a basic premise of partnership, which is open and regular communication, following through on what they've promised," Aguirre said.

Shortly thereafter, the vote was taken.

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