The first time Kenshi Westover walked into AsiaSF, an iconic transgender cabaret on this metropolis’s gritty South of Market neighborhood, it was as a closeted homosexual Mormon visiting from Utah.
That was 20 years in the past, and Westover (who makes use of they/them pronouns) remembers being shocked by the performers strutting down an elevated runway behind the bar, heels impossibly excessive, clothes dangerously low reduce, the temper ebullient.
“These are my spirit animals,” Westover thought. “And I am going to be part of that world.”
I met Westover on Sunday evening as AsiaSF celebrated its 25-year anniversary, in a room packed sardine-tight with drag queens, politicos in fits and even a few Stanford college students. Westover, who identifies as gender nonconforming, was turned out in a beaded Art Deco robe, with dangling earrings and slicked-back hair, very a lot part of this vibrant neighborhood that reveals extra about San Francisco than the alarmist tales of city doom which have come to outline its repute nationwide.
For years, the hard-right outrage machine has zeroed in on San Francisco as a “hellhole” that epitomizes every little thing unsuitable with Democratic management. They have been aided by a small but vocal cadre of native social media influencers who’ve made their model pummeling San Francisco’s public well being and public security insurance policies. They focus virtually fully on medicine and crime, which dovetails completely into the right-wing propaganda that’s stoking paranoia and panic in numerous components of the nation.
If you’re questioning why I’m not together with the often compulsory pattern posts from these influencers, it’s as a result of I don’t really feel the want to provide that false narrative extra oxygen. But their new king appears to be Elon Musk, who just lately tweeted out that “violent crime in SF is horrific,” regardless of the actuality that, with the exception of robberies, charges for violent crimes like murder and rape are so far on par or declining from last year.
Many of those proselytizers protest that they aren’t conservative, and most wouldn’t dare to the touch different points that animate the right, equivalent to the wars on transgender individuals and abortion. But they’ve a symbiotic relationship with hard-right media (assume Fox News) on crime and medicines.
In one other California city, possibly Sacramento and even Los Angeles, their vitriol could be the stuff of Nextdoor posts. But as a result of San Francisco is a goal of the right wing, these native voices have amassed energy by offering the so-called proof that this metropolis, like different Democratic strongholds, is in perpetual chaos.
They submit numerous movies on-line of what I contemplate exploitative moral-outrage porn — clips of destitute individuals utilizing medicine, splayed out on sidewalks, incoherent and misplaced. Few of those seem like filmed with the individual’s consent, but all are supposed to convey to the good of us in Iowa and Idaho simply how dangerous life might be beneath “leftist” management.
Of course, that narrative will not be new.
In 2015, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called out San Francisco and its sanctuary city policies after the horrific killing of resident Kathryn Steinle, who was shot by an undocumented immigrant with an intensive legal document and a historical past of deportations. The shooter, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was acquitted of homicide after a jury determined he had discovered the gun beneath a bench and unintentionally fired it. The weapon belonged to a Bureau of Land Management ranger and had been stolen from his automobile per week earlier.
But with the success of Trump’s political assault on the hearts and minds of immigrant-averse Republicans, the pile-on of exploiting woe has continued, culminating just lately in the aftermath of the killing of tech entrepreneur Bob Lee.
Lee was stabbed in the early-morning hours of April 4 in an upscale space of downtown. By the subsequent morning, right-wing social media have been drowning in condemnations of the metropolis that assumed Lee had been randomly attacked — the unstated implication that the assailant was doubtless a homeless drug person. Lee’s dying rapidly turned simply the newest proof of how violent San Francisco has develop into regardless of its persevering with low murder fee.
Police ultimately arrested an acquaintance of Lee’s for the killing, suggesting the assault could have been motivated by a dispute involving the suspect’s sister. Not a random killing in any respect, but that hasn’t stopped these distributors of grievance. After the arrest, one frequent social media poster prompt that it didn’t matter who did it, as a result of any kind of killing proves simply how harmful San Francisco is.
On Friday, when Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced a multiagency effort, together with the California National Guard, to focus on giant drug distributors in San Francisco, one other a kind of agitators declared “victory,” wrongly claiming that troopers could be on the streets as a result of the scenario was so dire. CalGuard will present backroom intelligence-gathering support. There might be no tanks.
San Francisco has issues, in fact. Not little ones. There’s a tech bust emptying costly workplace towers, very like the dot-com bubble did round the similar time AsiaSF first opened.
There can also be a disaster of habit, which has led to unacceptable ranges of property crime in addition to areas of the metropolis the place medicine are brazenly offered and used, and stolen items hawked at sidewalk markets. As with so many different locations — city, suburban and rural — fentanyl has develop into the drug of alternative, resulting in skyrocketing numbers of overdoses. So far this yr, 200 people have died of fentanyl overdoses in the city in contrast with 142 deaths in the similar interval final yr.
And anti-Asian hate crimes, largely unrelated to the habit disaster, have rightfully galvanized anger — having increased 167% nationwide between 2020 and 2021, in line with FBI information, far outpacing rises for some other group. In San Francisco that has included, amongst different brazen assaults, an Asian man dying after being shoved into the street, a person throwing a brick at aged Asian individuals in a park, and an elderly woman being robbed and beaten by 4 juveniles in her senior residing middle.
Anti-Asian hate crimes appear to be declining this yr, but Asian communities have develop into extra vocal and political of their calls for to higher police the metropolis — appeals that at instances have been conflated with the far-right speaking factors but which stem from very totally different views.
A current metropolis survey discovered all residents, no matter ethnicity, really feel much less secure than earlier than the pandemic.
Only 36% of respondents stated they felt secure or very secure strolling alone of their neighborhood at evening. In 2019, 53% stated they felt secure at evening.
Despite that decline, the total grade for residents’ emotions about security got here in at a C+, which isn’t nice but isn’t a hellhole failure, both.
Which is to say, don’t consider the hype you examine San Francisco on the web.
“The real San Francisco is AsiaSF. It’s the cherry blossom parade. It’s Easter with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Dolores Park,” state Sen. Scott Wiener advised me, once we stepped outdoors the membership to speak. For those that don’t know, the sisters are a collective of activist queer and transgender nuns who’ve been round since Jimmy Carter was in the Oval Office. They wish to curler skate.
“This is a place with a soul that can’t be stifled,” stated Bette McKenzie, a former public relations govt who helped conceive considered one of the largest AIDS fundraisers on the West Coast, as we screamed over the pounding beat again inside the membership.
“In spite of all the BS you hear from the right-wing media, San Francisco is a beacon of hope for so many people,” Larry Hashbarger advised me. He’s considered one of the homeowners of AsiaSF.
He got here to San Francisco from Boulder, Colo., in 1977, a “young gay man who was not quite ready for the scene.” At 71, he is the scene, working the room in a black bedazzled swimsuit normal after a Keith Haring portray.
When AsiaSF opened, “the word transgender was not even in our vocabulary yet,” Hashbarger advised me.
But nonetheless, everybody wished to come back. “Pacific Heights matrons would bring their Dom Perignon.”
Since then, he estimates one million individuals have come by means of the doorways. On Friday, Mayor London Breed stopped by, he stated. Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco resident, despatched a proclamation “in recognition of outstanding and invaluable service to the community.” Even state Treasurer Fiona Ma was there along with her brother on Sunday.
“Everybody comes to be who they are and celebrate who they are. No matter who you are, you have to find your truth and live your truth,” Hashbarger stated.
And that’s the enduring power of San Francisco. People go to New York and Los Angeles in search of fame and wealth. People come to San Francisco in search of themselves — trying to find freedom and authenticity.
Those who discover their very own identification and their very own tribes are the true powers on this metropolis, constructing communities with clout and endurance. Just have a look at who will get elected, from Harvey Milk, the first brazenly homosexual man to carry workplace in California, to Wiener, who has championed a progressive agenda that has made him reviled by the right.
For a small minority, their fact is all the time going to be born of spite and privilege. And that minority may have its energy, as democracy calls for, particularly on this perverse American timeline through which the push towards authoritarianism requires hate and worry to justify itself. That, stated Wiener, is a “challenge,” but one San Francisco all the time has and all the time will overcome.
For the majority of San Francisco, the outrage peddlers are a sideshow, a pale whisper in opposition to the drive of the actual present in locations like AsiaSF.
Decades in the past, Westover, the closeted Mormon, discovered themselves standing on a 20-foot ladder, considering suicide — leaping to see if that might quiet the noise and the ache. They have been 23. Their dad and mom had rejected them, and being homosexual or transgender or one thing else fully appeared terrifying. Seeing the performers of AsiaSF gave Westover the braveness to outline themselves on their very own phrases.
On Sunday evening, I noticed Westover as a fantastic human wholly proudly owning who they’re, surrounded by discovered household.
“This city is a safe sandbox that allows a person to play without fear,” Westover advised me. “I think it saved my life.”
They aren’t the just one San Francisco has saved, they usually received’t be the final.
That’s the great thing about this metropolis, and no quantity of fear-mongering will change it.