Summit Highlights Castro Dichotomy

By Commissioner Leslie Katz

(Editor’s Note: The recent “Lesbians Who Tech” summit, held February 7–March 2 at the Castro Theatre, focused on increasing visibility and tech participation in two historically underrepresented communities: the women’s and queer communities. We spoke with Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford, who said that, in Silicon Valley, women make $.49 compared to every dollar a man earns. The economic difference is magnified all the more for lesbian couples. She spoke of how important it is for women to take risks. Pittsford exemplifies that, having made a life-changing $100,000 investment a while back, which she indicated has really paid off.

San Francisco is itself taking a risk, by paving the way for tech workers and businesses, such as exempting Twitter from the city’s payroll taxes on new hires. As these forces move in, longtime residents are being forced out due to Ellis Act evictions, the ever widening economic divide and other factors. It remains uncertain how the gentrification will leave San Francisco neighborhoods and culture, once the silicon dust settles.

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Commissioner Leslie Katz represented the Bay Times at the recent summit. We asked her to consider the multiple issues to determine how- or even if- the profound changes can intersect or co-exist with stated LGBT values, such as diversity and inclusion.)

The housing crisis brought about by our City’s desirability as a place to live and work impacts our entire community. How do we embrace people wanting to move into SF, yet not displace those—such as artists, immigrants, LGBT people and people of color— who have made San Francisco a desirable place? What impact will this influx have on the Castro, considered the epicenter of our LGBT community?

The recent “Lesbians Who Tech” summit highlights a dichotomy. The Castro Theatre was filled with over 800 lesbians “and those who love them” listening to a diverse array of speakers from the tech industry offering advice, wisdom, telling their stories, encouraging girls to study engineering and computer science, yet also providing some bleak statistics about the dismally low numbers of women (and obviously, by extension, low numbers of lesbians) in the technology sector. At the summit we heard from women making change by being visible in the technology industry, and “making change in a way you get invited back”- being thoughtful, strategic, intentional and influential. The opportunities for LGBT people to work in the technology field were more than apparent.

This is an industry that is traditionally much more supportive of LGBTQ people, bases opportunity on ability, and indeed, tech companies were amongst the first and loudest voices to demand that the Governor of Arizona veto a homophobic and discriminatory piece of legislation. There is no doubt that the tech industry has helped the Bay Area come back from the economic downturn.

The tech sector has helped many in the City -not just those who work in technology- out of financial hardship. Restaurants, retail, and transportation workers have all benefitted from these companies coming in. Yet, we all see the increasing inequality, the housing crisis, and the very real concern that what has made our City special is in danger of changing irrevocably. Is it all the fault of the tech sector? Certainly not. The issue is far more complicated than laying the blame on one industry. So how do we balance the positive aspects of the tech industry with its impacts on the City? Can the entry of the tech community into the Castro co-exist with our “gay values?”

The adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” certainly holds true when it comes to the changing face of San Francisco and its neighborhoods. San Francisco has a history of being on the frontier of new things- first the Gold Rush, then the railroads, then banking, the dot com boom…so it is no wonder the tech industry has found a home here. Innovation, creativity, diversity and breaking the norm are all values supported by the tech industry, but also by San Franciscans for generations.

San Francisco has been at the forefront as a gateway for immigrants and, of course, a mecca for the LGBT community. Neighborhoods have seen these changes as well. The Mission was once the hub for the Irish American community. As the Mission now struggles with the changes coming from the tech sector, so too does the Castro. Can we find ways to maintain our unique neighborhoods and communities while balancing these changes?

The Castro, like the entire City, is facing a crisis of rising prices—for purchase of a home as well as to rent—which only results in an increased economic divide. We have many long-term residents who are now “millionaires” due to the rise in value of homes in Noe and the Castro, yet we have many others, including those who are older or ill, in rental units, living in fear of having to move. Who will be coming in to the Castro? Will we lose our sense of place and history, given that individuals like Harvey Milk, Mark Leno, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, all broke barriers and came from this community?

We want these technology companies to be successful, for not only have they helped SF on many fronts, but also, these are truly international businesses providing valuable services around the world. These are the kinds of corporations we as LGBT people can find support from, rise through the ranks in, and gain mobility in the work world.

Can we all co-exist? Yes, but we must ensure that we examine the impacts of this influx to keep our city vibrant. Not only must we work to stop Ellis Act evictions, but also, urge these companies to hire and train women, people from communities of color, immigrants, and the LGBT community.

The City’s finances have benefited from these companies, but we must be vigilant to ensure that we retain our values as a community, ensuring that all are included and given opportunities. Google recently donated funds to enable low-income youth to ride Muni for free. Mark Benioff of Salesforce has been a generous donor to numerous causes, including to the UCSF Children’s hospital. If more companies follow these examples, we can certainly find ways to co-exist and share what has drawn us all to San Francisco.

So how do we protect our community’s values? Addressing the housing crisis is paramount, but also, we must support our local businesses to ensure they can stay in the Castro, support those groups providing for the less fortunate in the community, and make sure we keep this discussion alive. Nobody seems to have all of the answers to our housing crisis—there certainly is not just one easy fix—but providing security for those in fear of losing their home is important, as is finding ways to create and maintain reasonable cost housing for those in that vanishing “middle income” bracket.

Inequality in SF is growing dramatically. No one who lives here can deny that. The question is, can we find a balance before it is too late? Placing blame is not a solution. All working to find ways to keep our community strong, vibrant and diverse is essential. We need to quickly figure out how to have it all: a strong economy and a City that supports, embraces and protects its diversity.

Weigh in with ideas that can help.

Commissioner Leslie Katz, current President of the Port Commission, served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 1996-2001. She convened Health, Multimedia and New Technology Summits, and successfully introduced groundbreaking legislation in areas of technology, environment, economic development, human rights and labor. She serves on the boards of numerous community and non-profit organizations including the Victory Campaign Board, Equality California Institute, and New Leaders Council.