Strength, Resilience, and Transgender History: An Oral History with Andrea Horne

Historical Essay

by Sasha Perigo, 2017

Andrea Horne is a former actress, model, jazz singer. Most recently she was a social worker working with transgender women in the Tenderloin. She is also Black transgender woman who has lived in San Francisco for the past forty years. This oral history explores her experience in San Francisco in light of the broader history of transgender women of color in the city and highlights the need for the designation of the new Compton TLGB District honoring transgender history in San Francisco.

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Interview with Andrea Horne by Sasha Perigo, March 5, 2017

Video shot and edited by Rahim Romario Ullah

San Francisco has a long and well-documented history as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)-friendly city. However, some LGBT San Franciscans find the city less safe than others. Andrea Horne is one of these San Franciscans. She is a former actress, jazz singer, model, and social worker, as well as a Black transgender woman who has lived in San Francisco for the past forty years. I met her and her pomeranian Eartha Kitt for the first time on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Women’s Building where we sat down to talk San Francisco history.

“Although San Francisco has the reputation for being one of the most liberal and progressive cities in the world, I find it to be one of the most racist and classist cities in the world,” Andrea told me. “Everytime I say that to a white gay man they just have no idea what I’m talking about. ‘What San Francisco?! This is like Disneyland.’ And for them it is Disneyland.”

Andrea speaks to the experience of many transgender people and queer people of color who have a tumultuous history of acceptance in San Francisco. Many queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) find that the mainstream LGBT rights movement has centered primarily on gay men, while more marginalized people in the LGBT community are pushed to the edges. Andrea Horne’s oral history is an example of the remarkable resilience and ability to carve out space for themselves that QTPOC have shown throughout San Francisco history.

Andrea was a fifteen year old runaway when she first visited San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967. “I was with some friends, and we did stay in the Tenderloin, although all of the action was in the Haight,” she remembers. “We were relegated to the Tenderloin.”

The Tenderloin is a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco formerly referred to as the “gay ghetto” due to the large population of queer and transgender people who lived in the impoverished community. It was around the time of the Summer of Love that the Castro neighborhood began to flourish as a home of gay male culture. While some gay men experienced newfound sexual liberation born out of a growing San Francisco counterculture, more marginalized members of the LGBT community’s movement was still severely confined.

“If you were queer and people knew that you were queer, the police could beat you down in the street,” she said. “A lot of the queer people in the 50’s and the 60’s and 70’s were limited… It’s as almost as if there was a fence around the Tenderloin, and they couldn’t go outside of it in fear for their lives. Your life was at stake if you stepped over the boundary, because then you were asking for it.”

The Castro was not a refuge to all of these queer people. “The Castro has always been a little bit discriminatory against people of color,” Andrea said. There have been protests at gay bars in the Castro against discriminatory door policies that deny entry to people of color ongoing since the 60’s (Romesburg 2004). As recently as 2005, a gay bar in the Castro was sued for enforcing such a policy. The incident prompted the San Francisco LGBT Center to launch a program fighting racism in the Castro in 2006 (Sanders 2013).

After a stint living in a castle while working as a model in France, Andrea moved to San Francisco for good in 1979. At the time she was working as an actress, model, and singer; she went on a national tour with the jazz band Pleasure after appearing as the covergirl on their 1978 album Get to the Feeling. Tired of couch hopping on tour, she decided to buy her own place and was influenced to settle down in San Francisco by her friend, disco star, and gay icon Sylvester (Miller 2013).

One of the first things Andrea noticed in San Francisco as opposed to her native Los Angeles was outward racial discrimination. “It’s harder being black in San Francisco than it is being transgender… I find in Los Angeles, as a person of color, when you go to Beverly Hills for example, they don’t know who your daddy is so they don’t fuck with you,” she said. “But in San Francisco, they know your daddy is probably not Jay-Z or Bill Cosby, so they follow you around the stores here. In LA they’d like to I think, but they know your daddy could be Will Smith. It’s not the same.”

Though she settled down in the historically Black Fillmore neighborhood, she saw the racial makeup of her neighborhood change drastically over the first decade that she lived in the city. The Redevelopment Agency bought out homeowners in the Fillmore and the Black middle class moved to the suburbs leaving a predominantly white neighborhood in its wake. Where the Fillmore Center luxury apartments stand today there used to be Black-owned Victorian houses.

Despite the lack of representation of other trans women and people of color surrounding her, Andrea found spaces in San Francisco that felt like home, though she found that the number of spaces she felt safe in was heavily influenced by the fact that she can pass as a cisgender woman.

“I can go anywhere I want to,” she said.“That’s not the same for my sisters and brothers who are clocky.” The term clocky refers to transgender people who are easily “clocked,” or identified as transgender. “I can say that now as a senior citizen, my beauty was my ticket to the world, and that’s just by accident of birth. That’s nothing I had anything to do with.”

Local spaces where transgender women can feel safe have come and gone over the years alongside funding for AIDS research. “There used to be several a few years ago. The funding for any sort of trans spaces was sort of predicated on AIDS research funding. Since that’s diminishing now with the advent of PREP and less people are getting the virus, so is that funding that allowed us to create a safe space for trans people.”

The API Wellness Center, a health organization for LGBT people and people of color that provides STD testing, hormone therapy, and HIV treatment among other services, as one of the few spaces left today (API Wellness). In the past, Andrea liked City of Refuge, a self-described “radically inclusive” African American church (Faith Street). City of Refuge also ran a program called Ark of Refuge which provided a homeless shelter and addiction services for HIV positive African American Transgender women (Bay Area Homeless Resource). Andrea mentioned City of Refuge has now lost its funding.

One commonality between all these spaces was that the only way a space could be safe for transgender women and people of color was if transgender women and QTPOC were involved in creating the space themselves.

Andrea explained: “Trans women are the ones that have it the worst. On a college campus today in 2017, a butch woman that looks like a man on a college campus, as long as she kept on the softball team or on the basketball team it’s all gravy. But still today, a boy that looks like a girl, they still get shade, let’s face it.”

Andrea’s statements are based in facts. Though it’s important to note that transgender women are themselves women, not boys who look like girls, this transphobic misconception causes trans women of color to face rates of violence far above and beyond the rest of the LGBT community. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that between 2012 and 2015, the vast majority of the LGBT people murdered in hate crimes were Black and Hispanic women (Park and Mykhyalyshyn 2016). Trans women and a QTPOC have a shared lived experience of these statistics that others in the LGBT community lack.

Later in life, Andrea went back to school and started a career in social work where she worked to provide a safe space for other transgender women. Andrea grew up in a well-educated family that expected her to go to college, but her plans changed when she came out as transgender.

“I transitioned when I was 15, and although that doesn’t seem like a big thing today, forty years ago that was a hell of a big thing,” she said. “My mother had a PhD in psychiatric social work. She had pull in the state and the county so I had electric shock therapy and the beat down.”

Electric shock therapy is a form of conversion therapy that involves providing electric shocks to the brain in order to condition the subject to associate their gender identity with pain. The National Center for Lesbian Rights views this treatment as “extremely dangerous and, in some cases, fatal” and it is now outlawed in several U.S. states.

Lack of parental support is unfortunately common for transgender youth. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that over half of trans people have faced “significant familial rejection.” This leads an astounding 57% of trans youth without parental support to attempt suicide, as opposed to just 4% of trans youth with supportive families (Trans Student Educational Resources). In Andrea’s case, lack of parental support caused her to run away from home and put her education on hold for over a decade.

She was working in the restaurant business when she was first inspired to go back to school.

“I was just trying to make it. I was working in a strip bar as a cocktail waitress. These men always used to give me their cards, and they were all doctors and lawyers. These idiots couldn’t even put a sentence together!” she recalled. “Their ignorance inspired me. I thought, ‘I can do that too!’”

Following her career experience, Andrea received a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. Soon after, Andrea fell into social work by accident. When an opportunity opened up for her in social work, she jumped at it.

“About 15 years ago, social help organizations realized that they needed to actually hire people that looked like the clients,” she said. She found her time in social work meaningful, and she keeps in contact with many younger trans women today acting as an informal mentor.

“I do know that everyone needs a cheerleader,” she said. “Everyone needs a little loving guidance. When so many trans kids and trans people are rejected by their families and kicked out into the street to fend for themselves in this fucked up world, they spend their youth and all of their energy just trying to survive. They don’t have the resources to educate themselves, and they don’t have the support to elevate their position.”

The number one piece of advice Andrea has to offer a younger trans woman today is to get an education. She clarified that she did not necessarily mean going to university, but it does mean learning a marketable skill. “That way you’re not relegated to a back alleyway existence. And so many trans-women are relegated to back alleyway existences, they still are today.”

Though Andrea has since retired from social work, she acknowledges that this kind of community-based work still needs to be done. Transgender women and QTPOC in San Francisco continue to be treated differently than their peers in the LGBT community. A debate within the San Francisco LGBT community broke out in 2016 when San Francisco Pride released plans to increase police presence at the annual pride festival in response to the anti-LGBT mass shooting in Orlando earlier that year. Though the decision was intended to protect parade attendees, many transgender people and QTPOC felt alienated by this decision, as their communities have a long history of harassment and violence at the hands of police. San Francisco Pride ultimately ended up maintaining the planned police presence at the parade, causing Black Lives Matter to pull out as a parade sponsor (Wong 2016).

Andrea herself has experience with police violence. When she was 17 years old she and trans woman friend of hers were assaulted by police while walking down the street in broad daylight.

“We’re walking down the street, and the police come out of nowhere. Twenty cars. They beat us with billy clubs in the middle of the street. In the middle of the afternoon. They arrest us for prostitution, and they take us to jail. My friend’s father got her out of jail, so I was left there by myself. The police said, ‘You can’t go to court dressed like that.’ I just had on a t-shirt and jeans. They said, ‘You have to put on this.’ As I turned around over there, there was a dead body laying on a cart with the toes up and a tag on the toe. They made me put on the dead person’s clothes, and then they laughed at me when I was naked changing. They said, ‘What kind of broad are you going to make? Ha ha ha!’ They made me put on the dead person’s clothes which were filthy and covered in bugs.

“The police said that my friend ran up to their car and said, ‘I know what you Paddies want in this neighborhood! I’ll give you a blowjob for $15.’ Then they said I ran up to the car, moved her out of the way, and said, ‘I’ll do it for $10.’ So they just made me a ten dollar hoe with these clothes on. The public defender, the way he looked at me I’ll never forget it. Of course he believed it. Everyone believed that I said that. What can you say when you’re 17, and you’re in jail?”

“That’s just one example of what the police do to trans women when they think they can get away with it.”

Andrea is one of many transgender women in San Francisco who have had an experience with police harassment or violence. For much of the twentieth century, “female impersonation” was outlawed in San Francisco. Police would use this ordinance to harass and arrest trans women off the streets of the Tenderloin simply for being themselves (Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria). Transgender sex workers in San Francisco have reported multiple recent instances of police officers abusing their power to sexually assault them before or during an arrest (Hay 1994). A study conducted by the San Francisco LGBT Center in 2015 found that just 40% of transgender people of color thought that police would help them if they were in need.

There is one recent development in the fight for transgender rights in San Francisco that Andrea is excited about—the designation of the Compton TLGB District. When private developers proposed a new building within the Tenderloin neighborhood last year, local activist Brian Basinger of the Q Foundation and SF AIDS Housing Alliance and others kicked off a campaign to preserve sites that are historically significant to the transgender community (Pershan 2017). Most notably, the site of the former Compton’s Cafeteria at Turk and Taylor Street marks the spot of a 1966 riot where transgender women, sex workers, and queer people fought back against police harassment in the first act of documented queer militant resistance in the United States (Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria). The Compton’s Cafeteria riot was a revolutionary display of queer self advocacy. While often overlooked in history books, it actually took place three years before the much more widely recognized Stonewall Riot that took place in New York City in 1969.

Basinger won his battle and the first transgender historic district in the country was designated in the Tenderloin by Supervisor Jane Kim earlier this year (Flores 2017). In memory of the riot that took place at the Compton’s Cafeteria, the district is named the Compton TLGB District, TLGB standing for transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual, a variant of the more frequently used initialism LGBT which centers transgender people. The designation requires developers to set aside $300,000 for the creation of a transgender community center in the city and a fund to support businesses and nonprofits serving the transgender community (Pershan 2017).

Janetta Johnson, Executive Director of the local nonprofit Transgender Gender-Variant Intersex Justice Project and a founding member of the Compton's Historic District Coalition, emphasized the mission of the district to grant opportunities to a historically neglected population.

“We’re taking a neighborhood where we were trapped and abused and turning it into a place of healing and opportunity. Part of the reasoning for the Compton’s District is to give a type of reparations to black and brown transgender women, who were the subject of great violence here for so long,” Johnson said.

Andrea agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s more than a step in the right direction. It’s more than revolutionary. I think it’s epic, and I think that it will affect the economic future of transgender people [in San Francisco],” she said, expressing her gratitude to the grassroots activists, many of whom are friends of hers, who have fought for the designation of the district.

As for the politics of now establishing the district, Andrea herself has not gotten involved. She joked that she tries to stay out of politics, “because I’m not power mad. I’m already fabulous. I don’t need anything to make me important. I’m already important.”

This teasing comment gets to the heart of an important trend in San Francisco history: transgender people and queer and trans people of color’s remarkable resilience. No matter the political climate, trans people and QTPOC in San Francisco have carved out safe spaces for themselves within the city. The Compton TLGB District is noteworthy because transgender people are finally receiving recognition, but the strength and fortitude that has guided the establishment of this district and that has helped trans communities thrive in otherwise hostile spaces? That’s always been here.

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