Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Trying to have hope


OPINION I get it, as Harvey Milk famously said: “You gotta give them hope.” But how do you do that when the LGBT community you love so much is being priced and evicted out of the city?

When immigrants, people of color, artists, the poor and working-class, people with AIDS, seniors, persons with disabilities, and so many others are being pushed out — like you, Harvey, were forced out of your camera store and apartment on Castro Street when your rent was tripled. Just before an assassin’s bullet took you from us, you were preparing an anti-speculation tax to deal with the rising rents and displacement caused by speculators and real estate investors.

We tried to curb their dirty work via a state bill limiting use of the Ellis Act, but Democrats buckled in to pressure from the real estate industry that owns them. Shame on Democratic House Speaker Toni Atkins from San Diego, an out lesbian, whose inaction on the bill helped kill it.

Our only hope is the anti-speculation tax on the November ballot. Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance is calling it the Harvey Milk Anti-Speculation Tax.

The stakes are high right now. Our housing crisis is destroying our community. According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which tracks displacement throughout the city, District 8 (which includes the Castro) has the highest rate of Ellis Act and Owner Move-In evictions, almost 2,000 units emptied since 1997. That doesn’t include buyouts and threats of evictions, de facto evictions that have pushed out many more, most of them tenants with AIDS. Far too many people with AIDS are homeless in a city that used to be called the “model of caring.”

The motive for these evictions is obvious. A two-bedroom across the street from my Castro apartment rents for $4,200. An apartment above the new Whole Foods at Sanchez and Market can cost you as much as $8,000. A month! I don’t want to upset you, Harvey, so I won’t tell you how high commercial rents are, and how poorly neighborhood businesses are faring these days.

The economic disparity has never been greater. Two Williams Institute studies show that our community is as poor as, and in some instances poorer than, other communities. In our city’s latest homeless count, 29 percent of respondents identified as LGBT and an additional 3 percent as transgender. Other reports say that 40 percent of the city’s homeless youth are queer.

Forget Altoona, that homeless queer kid in the Haight or Castro needs a sense of hope. We have a sit/lie law similar to the one you opposed that prevents these kids from getting subsidized housing if they have an unpaid citation. They sleep in the park because they’re not safe in the shelters. Sadly, Human Rights Campaign and Equality California have never made them — or the poor — a priority.

Cranes and rainbow flags may be all the rage in Upper Market these days, but what’s being built will not be affordable to homeless, poor, or working class (even some middle-class) people. The Castro has only one affordable housing project in the pipeline: 110 units for LGBT seniors at 55 Laguna. Our D8 supervisor and City Hall have let us down big time.

Harvey, I want to think that 10 years from now, our community will still have the Castro as a refuge. I want to believe that poverty, homelessness, and hunger will be greatly reduced. That we can stop the evictions. That we can give young people a piece of the dream. That we can provide seniors a secure place to spend their final days. That we can have elected officials who truly represent us, as you did.

I really want to have hope.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime queer and housing rights activist (and an organizer of the first Philadelphia Pride march in 1972), is a grand marshal of this year’s Pride Parade.

Jazzie Collins: forever fighting the good fight


Dedicated trans rights and economic equality activist Jazzie Collins passed away this week. She was honored in June in the State Assembly for LGBT History Month, and was on the board of the annual Trans March, among many other honors and activities. There will be a legacy party and fundraiser for Jazzie’s end-of-life expenses at El Rio tomorrow, Sat/13, 3pm-8pm. Below is a remembrance from her good friend Tommi Avicolli Mecca.

Some people die, but they remain with you for the rest of your life. Death just can’t keep them away.

Such a person is Jazzie Collins, African American transgender woman and tireless fighter for social and economic justice for tenants, seniors, people with disabilities, the homeless, those without healthcare, LGBT folks, and so many others. An organizer of the annual Trans March and co-chair of the city’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, she recently received an award from the LGBT caucus of the state assembly for her many years of activism.

Born in Memphis, Jazzie, 54, died in the early morning hours of July 11 at Kaiser Hospital, leaving a huge hole in the heart of San Francisco.

I don’t remember when I first met Jazzie. I’m pretty certain it was at one of the countless demos in the late 90s we attended to protest the displacement of working-class and poor people during the dot-com boom. She was involved in so much of the incredible activism happening in the Mission at that time, whether it involved feeding people from Mission Agenda’s food pantry, planning direct action with the Mission AntiDisplacement Coalition, or helping elect fellow activist Chris Daly as the neighborhood’s district supervisor.

Our paths crossed often, sometimes at the monthly meetings of Senior Action Network (now Senior Disability Action) where she worked, or a tenants rights demo on the steps of City Hall just before we went inside to take advantage of our two minutes at the mic during public comment. Jazzie was never at a loss for words.

One of the original members of QUEEN (Queers for Economic Equality  Now), she helped organize several protests, including one outside the store run by the Human Rights Campaign in the Castro. We were furious that the national gay rights group pushed to exclude transgender people from ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), the federal gay employment rights bill.

When a call went out from the Board of Supervisors for its newly formed LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, Jazzie called me and told me in no uncertain terms that I had to apply. She had already sent in her application and wanted to make sure another strong housing advocate was on the task force.

We sat together at the hearing, waiting for our chance to sell ourselves to the supervisors. After we were both appointed, and as we left the room, Jazzie started talking about what she wanted the task force to do, especially on housing issues. She was always a woman with a vision. Or a cause.

Jazzie called me whenever there was something to be done. She’d say, “We gotta do something about this.” It didn’t matter how busy I was. I knew I could never say no to her.

Jazzie, my sister, wherever you are now, I know you’ll always be beside me when I’m out there fighting the good fight.

A call to arms


OPINION No one can deny that the San Francisco of the new dot-com boom is a scary place to live. Rents are astronomical: $2,353 is the median rent for a one-bedroom in the Bayview, an area that has never had high rents. Ellis Act evictions are up 68 percent from last year, and buyouts and threats of Ellis (de facto evictions) are skyrocketing. Longterm rent-controlled tenants live in absolute dread that their buildings will be sold to a real-estate speculator who will decide, a month later, to “go out of the business of being a landlord.”

Neighborhoods are being transformed, and not for the better. The once immigrant Latino and working-class lesbian area of Valencia Street is now mostly white, straight and solidly upscale. The Castro has more baby strollers per square foot than a suburban mall, not to mention a high rate of evictions of people with AIDS. Along Third Street and in SOMA and other areas, people of color are being pushed out, and the working-class is being replaced by middle-income condo owners. The African American population of the city is down to 6 percent.

Small businesses, too, are being decimated, as landlords demand higher and higher rents and chain stores try and creep into every block. If the demographics of the city continue to change and become more moderate, many longstanding political gains could be lost.

Resistance is not futile.

During the Great Depression, the Communist Party in the Bronx and elsewhere successfully mobilized the working class to block doorways when the marshals arrived to evict tenants. In the 1970s here in San Francisco, the “redevelopment” of the Fillmore and the I-Hotel was met with widespread protests. Then-sheriff Richard Hongisto went to jail rather than evict the working-class Filipino tenants at the I-Hotel. In the late 1990s, organizing to fight the evictions and displacement happening in the wake of the first dot-com boom culminated in a progressive takeover of the Board of Supervisors.

These days, there’s no mass movement to fight the evictions and displacement. Occupy Bernal, ACCE and others have successfully stopped the auctions of foreclosed homes, and even twisted the arms of banks to renegotiate some mortgages. Tenant organizations have been holding back efforts to weaken rent control for years.

Where is the building-by-building organizing of renters? Where is the street outreach in every neighborhood? Where are the blocked doorways of those being forced out of their apartments by pure greed? Where are the direct actions against the speculators and investors who are turning our neighborhoods into a monopoly game? Where is the pressure on the Board of Supervisors to pass legislation to curb speculation and gentrification rather than approve tax breaks for dot-com companies? Where is the pressure on state legislators to repeal the Ellis Act and other state laws that prohibit our city from strengthening rent control and eviction protections?

Every moment we wait, more people are displaced from their homes, more neighborhoods become upscale, more small businesses are lost. Progressives wake up.

It’s time to take back what’s left of our city.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a longtime queer housing activist who works at the Housing Rights Committee. He is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation (City Lights).


No golden years for LGBT seniors


According to studies, queer seniors are poorer than their straight counterparts. They’re half as likely to have health insurance, and two-thirds as likely to live alone. Not to mention facing discrimination in medical and social services, retirement homes, and nursing care facilities. So much for the “golden years.”
Here in San Francisco, LGBT seniors face another grave threat: evictions. Many of our elderly live in rent-controlled apartments that are targeted by real-estate speculators and investors out to make big bucks turning them into tenancies-in-common.

With median rents close to $3,000 a month and vacancy rates low, the odds are pretty good that an evicted senior won’t find an affordable place in the city. For a senior with AIDS, an eviction is especially threatening since our city offers the best treatment and services. Studies show that people with AIDS who lose their apartments tend to die sooner, especially if they become homeless. 

The only LGBT organization that actually addresses the housing needs of queer seniors is Open House. Its 110 units at 55 Laguna will be the first affordable queer senior housing development in the city. I hope it’s not the last. As for seniors with AIDS, there’s only one AIDS organization in the vast list of groups and services — the AIDS Housing Alliance — that actually finds housing for its clients. It was started by Brian Basinger, a gay man with AIDS, after he was evicted and his apartment was sold as a TIC.

No one knows how many LGBT seniors have been, and are being, evicted. Ditto for how many seniors with AIDS end up on the streets. We also don’t have stats on how many transgender seniors are victims of real estate greed or live in absolute terror of losing their homes. 

The Rent Board doesn’t break down its eviction stats by sexual orientation or even age. The city’s homeless count doesn’t mention if someone’s queer or transgender. There is no way to determine how many LGBT seniors live in SROs or with life-threatening conditions such as mold or lack of heat. Or how many live in homes that have been — or are being — foreclosed.

That’s why the housing subcommittee of the city’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force is holding a hearing into the housing needs and concerns of queer seniors. Information is power.

All LGBT seniors — housed and homeless — are invited to come testify about their housing issues. Whether they live in an SRO or a home that they own, whether they sleep in a shelter or a rent-controlled apartment, whether they’re in a subsidized unit or an illegal in-law, the subcommittee wants to hear from them about their concerns and needs.

The subcommittee will ultimately be making recommendations that will be included in a task force report on what the city can do to address LGBT issues.
LGBT seniors deserve their golden years.

The hearing is Monday, April 1, 9am to 12 noon, room 416, City Hall. Written testimony accepted. For more info, call Tommi at 415-703-8634.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a longtime queer and tenants rights/affordable housing activist who works for Housing Rights Committee. He is a member of the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force.

TIC legislation is a rent control issue


OPINION If legislation introduced by Supervisors Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell passes the Board of Supervisors next month, up to 2,000 tenancies in common will be allowed to bypass the lottery process and convert to condominiums.

Add those to the nearly 6,000 conversions that have occurred from 2001-2011 (according to stats from the Department of Public Works), and you have a sizable chunk of rent-controlled units that will have been yanked from our housing stock in the past decade or so in a city that can’t afford to lose rental units, especially those that preserve affordability while tenants live in them. TICs are still under rent control; condos lose it when they’re sold.

Which makes the Wiener and Farrell legislation a rent-control issue. Not to mention a really bad idea at a really bad moment in time.

San Francisco’s perennial housing crisis can’t possibly get worse. Rents are the highest in the country — and still rising. The average rent in the city these days is $3,000. The vacancy rate is low.

Ellis Act evictions, a tool for creating TICs by allowing a landlord or speculator to circumvent just-cause eviction protections, are on the upswing. They’re not as high as they were at the height of the dot-com boom of the late 90s, but, considering that these days many landlords and speculators threaten tenants with Ellis or buy them out rather than do the dirty deed, the number of folks displaced for TICs is higher than what is recorded at the Rent Board. Some tenants have actually received letters from new landlords with two checkboxes — one for Ellis and the other for a buyout. Take your pick, which way do you want to be tossed out and possibly left homeless?

The folks being displaced are from every district and represent the diversity about which we always brag: longterm, generally low-income seniors, disabled people, people with AIDS, families, and people of color. And they’re less likely to find other apartments they can afford.

Wiener claims that buildings where there are evictions will not be eligible for conversion, but many of the TICs currently in the lottery, which will be eligible for conversion under the Wiener/Farrell legislation, were created by evictions. Almost 20 percent of the units in the pipeline were formed before legislation was put into place to restrict conversions if tenants are ousted. How many of the other 80 percent are the result of threats and buyouts, de facto evictions? Or were entered into the lottery even when they shouldn’t have been?

Brian Basinger, founder of the AIDS Housing Alliance, was evicted from his apartment for a TIC, yet his place was converted to a condo, despite the fact that he’s a protected tenant.

Allowing as many as 2,000 conversions not only diminishes the rent-controlled housing stock, but it also jacks up rents. Not to mention it gives speculators incentive to do more Ellis evictions or buyouts — after all, though Wiener and Farrell say this is a one-time only deal, once Pandora’s box is opened, it’s going to be hard to keep it shut. I think landlords and speculators know that.

The Housing Element of the City’s General Plan, adopted in 2009, instructs officials to “preserve rental units, especially rent controlled units, to meet the City’s affordable housing needs.”

This legislation won’t preserve rent-controlled units. It’s a bad fit for our city.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who’s worked for the Housing Rights Committee for 13 years, is a longtime queer tenants right/affordable housing advocate.

Much ado about nudity


There was no public outcry when Pedro Villamore, a 44-year-old homeless gay man, was found dead in a doorway in the 500 block of Castro Street last December, a couple of weeks before Christmas and across the street from the holiday tree that the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro puts up every year to welcome big spenders into the neighborhood.

MUMC, which in years past opposed three homeless queer youth shelters and a free meals program at a local gay church, did not decry the fact that a member of our community died on the street — and where were the city’s homeless outreach teams? Nor did any of the residents of the neighborhood express any concern that others who have a problem with methamphetamine, the area’s drug of choice, might meet a similar fate — and shouldn’t the community be doing something about it?

Of course, if he had been one of the nudists who hang out naked in the Castro these days Villamore would’ve found himself on the front-page of Bay Area Reporter, the city’s gay weekly, while he was still alive. Not to mention the target of diatribes from the SF Chronicle’s chronically right-wing columnist C.W. Nevius.  

Sadly enough, a neighborhood that once stood for sexual and personal freedom has succumbed to anti-nudism hysteria, even to the point of echoing Anita Bryant’s old rallying cry, “Save the children!”

Hysteria it is, of epic proportions. Some Castro residents and MUMC merchants actually persuaded their elected official, Supervisor Scott Wiener, to introduce anti-nudism legislation because a few naked men prance around the hood au natural, even sometimes sporting (horrors!) cock rings on their dicks. In a neighborhood where there’s no dearth of cock rings or any other sex toy, not to mention every variety of gay porn imaginable, and where guys walk around bars in underwear, residents don’t want public nudity. Huh? The neighborhood’s historic live-and-let-live attitude has obviously gone the way of Halloween and being able to walk into Pink Saturday without being scanned by a metal detector.

Has gay marriage and the freedom to “be all that you can be” in the military afflicted residents of the Castro with assimilation fever? What’s next — fundraising parties for Mitt Romney or a Castro chapter of the Moral Majority?

In a community that, according to a recent Williams Institute study, is rampant with poverty and suffers a serious lack of full-time employment for transgender people (75%, according to a report from this paper and the Transgender Law Center), not to mention a major drug and alcohol problem that makes gay men easy targets for muggings as they leave the bars at night, you’d think that public nudity would the last thing on anyone’s mind.  

People with AIDS continue to be pushed out of apartments in the Castro so that landlords and realtors can make tons of dough and LGBT seniors are forced to live with little economic or social support, regular cuts to services and benefits, and discrimination and isolation in nursing care facilities.

Yet from the volume of letters in the BAR and the number of calls Wiener says he’s received, you’d think that public nudity is the biggest problem in the world.

Pedro Villamore might disagree with that.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca has been a queer activist for the past 42 years, and a Castro resident for 20. He is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation (City Lights).

LGBT Pride: the good, the bad and the ugly


OPINION No doubt about it, LGBT Pride is a mixed bag.

Long gone are the days when Gay Freedom Day, later Gay Pride, was a one-day affair, a protest march and celebration to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in New York City in June, 1969.

These days, it’s a month-long, corporate-sponsored, $1.8 million-dollar, glitzy affair with events at fancy hotels and a “parade” (not a march) that remains totally out of touch with the radical, grassroots activism that first created it. Not only are contingents charged to participate, but curbside barricades make it impossible for onlookers to jump in, and participants are asked to “donate” to enter the festival after the parade. Even if the pride committee waives the fee for small groups, why does anyone have to pay to be part of pride?

Especially given that it has corporate sponsors with very deep pockets. Some of those sponsors are strange — and ugly — bedfellows indeed. They include Wells Fargo and B of A, two banking institutions that have been foreclosing queer and other people out of their homes. Their motto might well be, “We take Pride in evicting you.” What does it say about our community that we allow these institutions to use our events to buy good PR? Banks don’t deserve good PR, especially when the government is not holding them accountable in any real way for what they continue to do to us.

Fortunately, there are pride events that remain true to the fiery, uncompromising spirit that was demonstrated by those queens who refused to go quietly into the paddy wagons 43 years ago. Including the Faetopia “pop-up queer arts, ecology, theater and community center” at the old Tower Records space at Market and Noe, with lots of great events continuing through June 22 (; and the Vito Russo documentary, Vito, at the Frameline Film Festival last week. Vito’s life of gay and AIDS activism is a reminder of why Pride month exists. It’s just a shame that Wells Fargo is a sponsor of the festival.

You won’t find banks sponsoring the Trans and the Dyke marches (Friday, June 22 and Saturday, 23 respectively). Nothing in Pride month comes closer to being like the 1970s gay Pride marches (that I miss so much) than these two grassroots efforts.

Finally, a coalition calling itself OccuPride plans to protest the “increasingly commercialized” Pride parade that caters “only to those of us with money to spend.” According to a press statement, it will also “honor our radical roots for full liberation for women, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, all the oppressed and marginalized.” Sounds like a Gay Liberation Front manifesto I helped write 42 years ago. Join up with OccuPride on June 24 at 10 AM at Mission and Main, or at Taylor and Turk at 2:30 PM for a rally on the site of the former Compton’s Cafeteria where, three years before Stonewall, drag queens rioted.

Like Vito a reminder of where we came from.

A longtime queer and tenants rights activist, Tommi Avicolli Mecca was involved with organizing Philly’s first pride march in 1972. He is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights).

SF needs healthy housing

My greatest frustration as a tenants’ rights and affordable-housing advocate in San Francisco is that, despite all the good efforts by a lot of good people, we never address the root cause of our housing crisis. We routinely enact laws and ballot initiatives, organize endless demonstrations and elect progressive politicians, but in the final analysis, these efforts are just a Band Aid on a bad system that leaves a lot of people without a roof over their heads.

A few years ago, Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance and I pushed “no fast pass to eviction” legislation to stop the eviction of seniors and people with AIDS and other disabilities through the state Ellis Act.

Ellis allows a landlord to override just-cause eviction protections and evict all of the tenants in a building. It’s often used by speculators to flip properties — that is, buy them, evict the tenants, and create a tenancy-in-common (where there’s the same number of owners as there are apartments). The new owners apply for condo conversion so that, instead of sharing a percentage in the building, they actually own their own units.

No Fast Pass says that if someone uses Ellis to evict tenants, then the building can’t convert to condos for ten years. If any of those tenants are seniors or disabled, it can never be converted. The legislation helped. There was a drop in Ellis evictions. Unfortunately, landlords and speculators now employ intimidation, harassment and buy-outs to get rid of tenants, so that they don’t have to Ellis.

It’s time to get beyond Band-Aids. Housing should be a human right, guaranteed for all, as healthcare is in other nations.

When former Supervisor Tom Ammiano realized that 65,000 San Franciscans (15% of the population) were without health coverage, he (not former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who takes credit for it) introduced legislation to create what is now “Healthy San Francisco,” our city’s version of universal healthcare. It’s not perfect, but it tackles the problem the way it should be tackled: by making healthcare a human right and not a luxury.

The same needs to be done for housing.

As long as housing is a commodity, affordable only to those who have the dough, there will always be people left out in the cold — literally. Our city has more than 10,000 homeless people, not to mention scores of others living (through no choice of their own) in deplorable conditions. The city builds more market-rate housing than it needs, while units for those below 50 percent of the city’s median income fall far short of the demand.

A mandate to house everyone in the city has never been tried. I don’t have an exact plan, but a “Housing SF” (like Healthy SF) might be created by pooling together all of our housing resources and aggressively working to pull in more. If the proposed Housing Trust Fund happens, it should be initially used only for those who need it most — the homeless and the poor, remembering that shelters are not housing, even if they’re considered such under Care Not Cash.

Put a moratorium on market-rate housing. Turn all abandoned properties (both city and privately owned) into affordable units. Raise money by letting the big businesses (including the tech companies) cough up some dough. Use land trusts as much as possible to keep the new places affordable into perpetuity.

It’s time to dream big.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, is a longtime affordable housing advocate.

The price of normal


With a 2010 state proposition on gay marriage in the works and a national gay rally on the Washington Mall being planned for October 10-11 of that year, it’s obvious that more and more of the LGBT community’s resources are being funneled into the battle for marriage equality, while other causes go begging.

Already gay marriage has become a black hole that is sucking untold amounts of money, time, and energy out of our community. In the 2008 election alone, gay marriage supporters raised $43.3 million to defeat Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative that California voters passed by 52 percent. It may be the biggest chunk of change the community has ever spent for a single fight.


I’m not against gay marriage. If queer couples want to be as miserable as straight ones, that’s their choice. Marriage is a failed institution. With a 54.8 percent divorce rate nationally and a 60 percent rate here in California, there’s no doubt in my mind that heterosexual "wedded bliss" is more of an oxymoron than a reality.

What’s troubling to me as a queer activist of almost 40 years (much of that time spent on economic justice work) is that, with the tremendous amount of homelessness, poverty, and unemployment in our community, we are spending so much dough on the fight to give a minority of folks — those who opt for tying the knot — rights and privileges that straight married folks have.

Sure, it’s unfair that married straights get tax breaks, not to mention the status of next-of-kin for hospital visits and medical decisions when one partner is ill, and queers don’t. Altogether, married couples have 1,400 benefits, both state and federal, that domestic partners and single people don’t enjoy. It’s a matter of simple justice that the playing field be leveled. Only a right-wing idiot could disagree with that. Now, if only we could fight to give everyone (including singles) those 1,400 benefits.

For me it’s a question of priorities. We are living in scary times. Unemployment is sky-high; millions are without healthcare, including children; foreclosures are robbing homeowners and tenants alike of their housing; and business collapses are leaving a lot of people out in the cold and unable to pay the rent or the mortgage.


The queer community is no better off.

It’s a popular misconception that queers have a lot of disposable income. The "double income, no kids" (DINK) myth was promoted in the 1980s by gay publishers who wanted to expand their advertising base and their profits. These days, to read many gay publications, you’d think that all queers are going on fabulous vacations and buying expensive clothes, jewelry, and electronic gizmos.

That myth was easily dispelled by a recent study, "Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community," published this March by the Williams Institute at UCLA. Like "Income Inflation: the myth of affluence among gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans," the groundbreaking 1998 study by M.V. Lee Badgett of the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Williams report found that many members of our community aren’t shopping ’til they drop. They can barely afford to put food on the table.

Nationally, 24 percent of lesbians and bisexual women are poor compared to 19 percent of heterosexual women; 15 percent of gay and bisexual men are poor compared to 13 percent of heterosexual men.

Queers aren’t just low on cash — we’re homeless, too. A 2006 report, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness" from the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force and the National Coalition on Homelessness, showed that 20 percent to 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless youth in America identify as LGBT. In San Francisco, the number of queers in the homeless youth population (estimated at 4,000 by the Mayor’s Office) is "roughly 44 percent," according to Dr. Mike Toohey of the Homeless Youth Alliance in the Haight.

Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance says that 40 percent of people with HIV/AIDS, in the city once acclaimed for its care of those with the disease, are either "unstably housed or are homeless." In the Castro, Basinger said, there are only "12 dedicated HOPWA beds" for people with the disease. HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS) is a federal voucher program for low-income people with AIDS that is similar to federal housing assistance program Section 8.

Certain members of our community don’t fare much better in the area of employment. A 2006 survey by the Guardian and the Transgender Law Center reported that 75 percent of transgender people are not employed full-time, and 59 percent make less than $15,299 a year. A mere 4 percent of respondents earned more than $61,200, the then-median income average for San Francisco.

Fifty-seven percent of trangendered people said they suffered employment discrimination, demonstrating the need for the inclusion of "gender identity" in the federal Employment Non-discrimination Act. Human Rights Campaign, a national gay organization, and out Congress member Barney Frank (D-Mass.) cut transgenders out of that legislation the last time it was up before Congress.

It could all get a whole lot worse.


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to lop at least $81 million from California’s AIDS budget, including money for AIDS drugs, leaving low-income people stranded without their medication. Senior services are also on his cutting block, including $230.8 million from in-home services and $117 million from adult health-care programs. (As we go to press, the state Legislature is working to restore the AIDS money to the budget.)

Mayor Gavin Newsom, in his proposed city budget cuts, is axing $128.4 million from public health and $15.9 million from human services. There’s no doubt these cuts in health and human services will severely affect people with AIDS, seniors, youth, the homeless, and others in our community who can least afford to pay for the city’s budget shortfall.

The millions spent on gay marriage in the past few years could have gone a long way in these lean times. It could have helped make the proposed queer senior housing project, Open House, a reality. With 88 units in the works at 55 Laguna St., the site of the old UC extension, it will be the only such housing for LGBT seniors in San Francisco.

The money also could have funded housing in the Castro for homeless queer youth or people with AIDS. It could have been used as seed money for a much-needed war against poverty in the LGBT community.


The queer movement hasn’t always been this obsessed about getting hitched. Forty years ago this week, drag queens and others fought back against the cops who were raiding a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s West Village. Three days of protests led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a revolutionary group dedicated to the sexual liberation of all people. GLFers weren’t looking to walk down the aisle or form binary couples. In a desire to "abolish existing social institutions," as the NYC branch of GLF said in its statement of purpose, some GLFers explored polyamory (more than one relationship at a time).

That’s why I edited Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, just published by City Lights Books, a collection of writings by former GLF members and other gay liberationists. I wanted to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall and the birth of GLF with a reminder of who we were and what we did. After all these years, I still don’t want to head to the chapel to get married.

When it really comes down to it, gay marriage is a conservative issue. It’s about wanting to fit in, to be like everyone else. Beyond the important issues of tax breaks and next-of-kin status — and the fact that if any institution exists, it shouldn’t discriminate against queers — marriage is ultimately a means of normalizing binary queer relationships, especially for gay men who have always enjoyed the freedom to be promiscuous. It’s a way to try and rein in our libidos, though the prevalence of extramarital sex among straight couples — 50 percent for women, 60 percent for men, according to a recent issue of Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy — shows that marriage doesn’t come with a chastity belt.

It also doesn’t come with any guarantees, as researchers discovered in Sweden, where queers were able to contract for same-sex partnerships from 1995 until recently, when full same-sex marriage was instituted. According to a study by the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Swedish queers have been divorcing in high numbers, like their straight counterparts, who have a divorce rate that’s just a little higher than the United States.

For queers in Sweden, that’s the price of being normal.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who has been a queer activist since he was involved with the Gay Liberation Front at Temple University in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights Books).

JROTC is not a choice


OPINION To hear proponents of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) talk, it’s a matter of personal choice for 14- and 15-year-olds to sign up for the Pentagon’s military recruitment program, which is being phased out of San Francisco’s public schools June 2009. The San Francisco Board of Education also recently voted to remove physical education credit from the program this school year. It had to: the retired military officers who teach the course don’t meet the educational standards of state law, and the course doesn’t meet state physical education standards.

Supporters of JROTC are taking the issue to the November ballot. Their initiative, albeit non-binding, would put San Franciscans on record as in support of the military program.

As Democratic clubs and other political organizations begin their endorsement process, progressives need to understand the importance of defeating this initiative. It’s not a harmless measure. If it passes, the new school board can use it to reinstate JROTC. If it loses, it’s less likely the board will change its course. Thankfully, last week the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) voted overwhelmingly not to endorse the measure.

JROTC is not summer camp or a harmless after-school activity. It is one more way the military finds bodies for its illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Denisha Williams can tell you that. The African American high school senior in Philadelphia told the City Paper that she left JROTC and opted out of the military having her contact info. It hasn’t made any difference: “I have received phone calls, e-mail, three letters and a 15-minute videotape. I even received a phone call from a female recruiter asking if I was still interested in the Navy. I told her I wasn’t and hung up. A week later I received another letter and the tape.”

Capt. Daniel R. Gager, commander of the US Army recruiting station in south Philadelphia, said he and other recruiters were ordered by the US Recruiting Command to put more time and energy into recruiting high school upperclassmen such as Williams.

In San Francisco, at least 15 percent of the cadets have been placed in the program without their consent. It seems the military will do whatever it takes to get in front of our youngsters in our public schools.

Pressuring kids to join the military is wrong. International law says kids under 18 should not be recruited at all, and the ACLU agrees (see Recruiters in every high school and at every mall in this country break that law every day.

Nationally about 40 percent of JROTC kids end up in the military. In San Francisco, proponents claim only 2 percent go on to military careers. They are wrong. According to the school district, no tracking of JROTC students is done.

Please work to defeat Proposition V, the pro-JROTC initiative.

Mark Sanchez and Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Mark Sanchez is President of the San Francisco Board of Education and an eighth grade science teacher. Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical queer activist and writer whose regular columns appear at

JROTC must go now


OPINION In November 2006, San Francisco made history when the school board made this the first big city in the nation to ban JROTC [Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps]. The board’s resolution, which called for phasing out JROTC from high schools this June, stated that “JROTC is a program wholly created and administrated by the United States Department of Defense, whose documents and memoranda clearly identify JROTC as an important recruiting arm.”

A poison pill was added to the resolution at the last minute: it called for a task force to be set up to find an “alternative” program to JROTC. The school district administration, in a particularly despicable move, set up the task force with more than 10 members supporting JROTC, and only one member opposed.

Surprise! After sitting for almost a year, the task force failed to come up with an alternative, so the school board rolled over and, except for two courageous members — Mark Sanchez and Eric Mar — voted last December to extend JROTC for another year.

In 2005, San Franciscans passed Proposition I by almost 60 percent, declaring it “city policy to oppose military recruiting in public schools.” That same year, by the Army’s own report, 42 percent of JROTC graduates across the nation signed up for the military. As this country enters its sixth year of the illegal occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s time for the school board to go back to its original decision to kick the military out of our schools.

The school board must end JROTC — now. JROTC is currently scheduled to be “phased out,” but not until June 2009. By then both Sanchez and Mar will be off the school board, and there will be little to prevent the military from orchestrating a vote to extend JROTC indefinitely. If, on the other hand, the school board votes to end JROTC this June as their original resolution required, JROTC would be gone.

Two progressives on the board must be convinced to send the military packing: Kim-Shree Maufas and Green Party member Jane Kim.

Both received endorsements from progressives. To convince them that they risk such endorsements in the future, the JROTC Must Go! Coalition is circuutf8g the following statement: “We will look very closely at the next school board vote on JROTC and will consider the votes carefully when making any endorsements for future candidates.”

Within a week, the Tenants Union, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and the San Francisco Bay View newspaper signed the statement. If Maufas and Kim join Sanchez and Mar, we’ll make history again.

Riva Enteen is the former program director for the National Lawyers Guild and the mother of two San Francisco school district graduates. Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a southern Italian queer atheist writer and activist. For more information contact the JROTC Must Go! Coalition: (415) 575-5543 or


Where’s the beef on LGBT issues?


OPINION Common wisdom says that Mayor Gavin Newsom has forever endeared himself to the LGBT community by issuing marriage licenses to queer couples shortly after coming into office in 2004. Even though a state court later declared those licenses invalid (the city is appealing), Newsom’s popularity among queers doesn’t appear to have diminished. This is despite the fact that the Newsom administration has actually done little in terms of some of the major issues facing the community.

Let’s take a look at a few of those issues:

Housing for people with AIDS. A couple months after the "winter of love" at City Hall, Newsom appointed Jeff Sheehy as AIDS czar. An AIDS activist and former hate-crime-victim advocate in the District Attorney’s Office, Sheehy was supposed to help the mayor formulate AIDS policies. But it was a volunteer position, and the major concern of people with AIDS — affordable housing — was never addressed. Two years later Sheehy resigned the post. Meanwhile, the city’s affordable housing crisis still leaves many low-income people with AIDS desperately scrambling for a place to live after they are evicted by real estate speculators looking for a quick buck in the tenancy-in-common market. The situation is so bad that the AIDS Housing Alliance dubbed the Castro "the AIDS eviction capital of the world."

Liaison to the LGBT community. Apparently, former mayor Joe Alioto initiated this position in 1973. Newsom’s appointment was not a community activist but someone who worked in advertising. Founder of Gays for Gavin in the 2003 mayoral election campaign, James "Jimmer" Cassiol served for almost two years before he too resigned. His major duty seemed to be representing the mayor at LGBT functions.

Homelessness among queer youth. While Newsom is quick to tout his Care Not Cash and Operation Homeless Connect programs as solutions to one of the city’s most enduring and heartbreaking problems, he failed to mention youth in general and queer youth in particular in his recent state of homelessness address. To date, only a handful of queer youth have received city-sponsored housing — in a hotel on Market Street, which Castro supervisor Bevan Dufty secured. More hotel rooms are supposedly on the way.

Affordable housing for seniors. A proposed Market-Octavia Openhouse project for queer seniors won’t actually provide housing for those who need it the most: people with incomes below 50 percent of the area median income. The Newsom administration has done little to alleviate the lack of affordable housing for seniors, especially queer ones.

As the old woman in the ’70s commercials used to ask, where’s the beef? When it comes to queer issues, there is none. There’s certainly a lot of talk, many public appearances by the mayor and his representatives at queer functions, and the general promotion by Newsom and his staff of the idea that in San Francisco the LGBT community matters.

But if you’re poor, a senior, or homeless, it’s a different story altogether. *

Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, southern Italian, working-class queer performer, writer, and activist whose work can be seen at

Divorcing Columbus


OPINION This year may go down in history as the one new immigrants reignited a civil rights mobilization in the United States. Their efforts, like those of the black liberation movement of the ’60s, will certainly become a catalyst for progressive action from many communities. As southern Italian Americans, this Columbus Day we have to ask our community the age-old question — which side are we on? Unfortunately, many of us have chosen exactly which side we are on: supporting racist immigrant bashers, whether they are legislators in the halls of Congress or vigilante Minutemen. As progressive Italian Americans, we support new immigrants because of the simple fact that our folks were once in the same situation that newcomers find themselves in: overworked, exploited, and demonized for quick political gain. It’s time for the Italian American community to finally reclaim our social justice tradition, divorcing the dazed and confused explorer who discovered a country that was already inhabited. Instead of Columbus, we honor the Italians, Cubans, and Spaniards of Ybor City, Fla., who worked in the cigar industry and were able to create a Latin culture based on values such as working-class solidarity and internationalism (see “Lost and Found: The Italian American Radical Experience,” Monthly Review, vol. 57, no. 8). We also remember the Italian American radicals who were a part of labor actions in the early 1900s, including the Lawrence textile, Paterson silk, Mesabi Iron Range, and New York City Harbor strikes. This year, instead of conquest, we acknowledge those who stood up for justice. Everyone knows about Al Capone, but what about Mario Savio, a founder of the free speech movement in Berkeley in the ’60s? Most people can recite the names of Italian American singers such as Madonna and Frank Sinatra, but they don’t know Cammella Teoli, the 13-year-old southern Italian girl who appeared before Congress in 1912 to testify in her broken English about the horrible working conditions in America’s sweatshops. It’s not surprising that Italian Americans forgot those things. We faced a lot of discrimination when we arrived: two unionists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were falsely accused of murder and executed. Italian Americans in the south were lynched by white supremacists. During World War II, thousands were relocated or jailed on suspicion of being enemy aliens. After the war, the anticommunist witch hunts began with the arrest and deportation of Italian American radical Carl Marzani. Today, Italian Americans don’t have to face these threats, yet those who immigrate from Central and South America, Asia, and the Middle East do. It is unlikely that Congress will pass any form of legislation reform this year, and many cities have instituted local statutes designed to run immigrants out of town. Minutemen and similar groups are harassing day laborers in the Bay Area and beyond. As Italian Americans, we call upon our paesani and paesane to remember our roots. Emboldened racists can be stopped — when those of us they claim to represent support the work of grassroots organizations of color bravely confronting these throwbacks. By divorcing Columbus, we start to break down the logic of conquest, which invariably leads to wars abroad and repression at home. SFBG Tommi Avicolli Mecca and James Tracy Tommi Avicolli Mecca and James Tracy are Italian American radicals who organize the annual “Dumping Columbus” reading. This year it’s Oct. 9, 7 p.m., City Lights, 261 Columbus, SF, featuring the legendary Diane DiPrima.

The case against the JROTC


OPINION Make no bones about it: the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) is a program of the US Department of Defense. Its purpose is clear: to recruit high school students into the military. Two years ago, 59 percent of San Franciscans demonstrated their disapproval of that sort of recruiting by supporting Proposition I. It’s time for the Board of Education to follow the wishes of those voters and phase out the JROTC in favor of a nonmilitary program.
On Aug. 22, it’s very likely that the San Francisco school board will do just that. Before the board is a proposal to not only ease out the JROTC but also form a blue-ribbon panel to find an alternative.
It’s not a new idea. In the mid-1990s, a similar board proposal failed by a 4–3 vote. This time the vote will probably be reversed. Phasing out the JROTC in San Francisco should be a breeze. Two years ago, a measure to put the city on record as wanting to bring the troops home from Iraq passed by 64 percent. Since Sept. 11, hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans have protested the wars in the Middle East. There’s no other city in this country with so much antiwar activity. So what’s the problem?
It’s the kids. The JROTC has successfully organized scores of young people (mostly white and Asian) to attend school board meetings to testify about the benefits of the program. A few LGBT kids have said that the local chapter of the JROTC does not discriminate, which JROTC officials confirm. What they don’t talk about is the fact that a queer kid can’t be out (or found out) in the armed forces. Since 1994, when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was first implemented, more than 11,182 queers have received the boot. There are also beatings and harassment to contend with in the military if you’re suspected of being queer. It’s not a pretty picture.
The JROTC doesn’t tell kids that a lot of what the recruiters promise is a lie — the kids might not get the educational benefits and job training promised in all the promotional materials. As Z Magazine reported (August 2005), 57 percent of military personnel receive absolutely no educational benefits. What’s more, only 12 percent of men and 6 percent of women who have served in the military ever use job skills obtained from their service. As Lucinda Marshall noted in an Aug. 24, 2005, article on ZNet, “According to the Veterans Administration, veterans earn less, make up 1/3 of homeless men and 20% of the nation’s prison population.” Be all that you can be?
Education was never the point of the military, of course. As former secretary of defense Dick Cheney once said, “The reason to have a military is to be prepared to fight and win wars…. It’s not a social welfare agency, it’s not a jobs program.”
Let’s not sell our youth short. Or make them fodder for oil wars. Or subject them to antiqueer discrimination and hate crimes. Let’s give them all the skills they need to make their lives the best they can be. We can do that without the military. SFBG
Tom Ammiano, Mark Sanchez, and Tommi Avicolli Mecca
Tom Ammiano is a queer former school board president and current supervisor of District 9. Mark Sanchez, the only queer member of the current San Francisco Board of Education, authored the current anti-JROTC resolution. Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a queer antiwar activist who was recently honored by the American Friends Service Committee.