Forty-two years ago, leather dominated San Francisco’s South of Market district. There were 44 leather-oriented businesses ranging from leather bars and bathhouses to sex clubs and shops that specialized in leather gear. Leather permeated the old industrial neighborhood, until it didn’t.
It would have been virtually impossible for many to anticipate what was waiting.
“But in ways that were not yet obvious, the foundations of leather South of Market were being undermined by economic and political forces as well as the emerging AIDS epidemic,” wrote cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin, Ph.D., in her article “The South of Market Leather History and Guide” in SF Frontiers in September 2001.
In the 1990s, leather would make a resurgence in the old industrial neighborhood, Rubin wrote, with the appearance of bars like My Place, The Loading Dock, and The Lone Star Saloon but, as nearly anyone can attest, it’s never been quite the same. The number of leather-oriented businesses currently operating in the neighborhood is, perhaps, a quarter of what it was back in the summer of 1980.
“We currently count 11,” said Bob Goldfarb, executive director of the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District. “The leather community began locating in South of Market in the 1960s.
We don’t want to see that go away. We’re here to prevent displacement of people and businesses.”
The leather district, founded in 2018 as one of now-10 cultural districts throughout the city, has been working to change that, most notably with a business incubator program helping people to develop business ventures that tie in with the neighborhood’s leather heritage. The Entrepreneur Training Program, a nine-week class led by San Francisco LGBT Community Center veteran Eddy Tang, teaches members of the leather community how “to build their businesses from the ground up,” according to the leather district’s website.
On September 22, the training program graduated its first class of six aspiring entrepreneurs, thanks to Tang, a gay man who has led the small business program at the community center for the past five years.
“I’m also a business owner myself,” said Tang, who has lived in San Francisco for 17 years.
In fact, Tang brings a wealth of experience to his students. Besides his work at the LGBT center, he’s involved in a few other nonprofits, including the San Francisco Nonprofit Technology Center, where he helps people 50 and over start businesses. With an MBA from the University of San Francisco, he has 10 years of experience in the financial industry and, prior to that, worked as an engineer, he said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter.
The leather district isn’t the only LGBTQ cultural district offering classes to prospective entrepreneurs, however. Both the Transgender District and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District offer opportunities, if not classes, for aspiring business people.
The Transgender District, which was established back in 2017, completed its first round of classes over the summer, said Aubrey Davis, a transgender woman and executive associate for the district.
“The program started around mid-July,” said Davis. “We had about 170 applicants.”
Only six made it into the program this time, however. But those successful applicants — or cohorts — had access to what Davis described as “a four-week boot camp” in cooperation with the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has helped people, primarily women, open their own businesses throughout the Bay Area. Participants in the program have access to business coaches, financial education through US Bank, web design, and branding.
The Transgender District also offered an entrepreneurship accelerator program and that provided Melanie Ampon, a trans woman and electrologist, with a $10,000 grant to open her practice, as the B.A.R. previously reported.
While most of the participants in last summer’s boot camp were from San Francisco, the program is open to anyone in the Bay Area, said Davis. Best of all, the program is free.
Across town in the Castro, would-be entrepreneurs won’t find classes but existing businesses can find financial assistance through the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, said Tina Aguirre, a genderqueer Latinx person and director of the district.
With the assistance of Tang, who sat on the review committee for the district’s most recent grant cycle, and Rosemary Gardner, program director for the LGBT center, Aguirre “and one or two other” advisory board members sort through grant applications from various Castro area businesses, ultimately awarding $60,000 in grants.
The assistance isn’t merely financial, said Aguirre. “Post grant, we worked with small businesses if they needed our help.”
In one case, a $30,000 grant was issued to Healing Cuts, a hair salon and barber on Market Street that was having difficulty getting a parklet approved by the city, said Aguirre. When the owner asked for support, he wasn’t getting responses from the various agencies about his application, Aguirre said.
“It took several months to get an application approved, which is longer than it should be,” Aguirre said.
Ismael De Luna, the owner of Healing Cuts, said the cultural district was “very helpful. Thanks to them, I am able to provide a safe waiting space for the community.”
The parklet, designed to look like a cable car, is now used for cutting hair.
The cultural district gave out grants to four other businesses, as well, Aguirre continued. Two $10,000 grants and two for $5,000 each. Along with the money, merchants are offered an opportunity to participate in the small business program led by Tang at the LGBT center. The cultural district also continues to check in with them and offer additional support if needed.
“We are committed to making sure they get the support they need,” said Aguirre. “At the same time, there is more need than capacity for all the districts.”
Leather district graduates first class
The leather district’s entrepreneurship program graduated its first class of six at the beginning of October. A nine-week long program, the class drew participants with a wide range of professional goals but all geared toward the leather and kink communities.
One student, Joseph Valliere, a 44-year-old gay man who has lived in San Francisco for 17 years, wants to open a consignment shop for leather and kink gear. A former employee at the old Worn Out West, which also sold leather and kink gear on consignment but closed abruptly in 2018, Valliere had hoped to buy the business but gave up after what he described as “horrible communications problems” with the owner.
“I have felt SF needs another kink consignment shop and I want to get that ball rolling,” he said. The new shop, when he gets it off the ground, would offer a wider variety of styles, he added, including a bigger selection of boots for women.
“I want to do a little more towards women’s footwear and clothing as well,” he said. “I want to get some crazy-ass styles for drag queens. I think they need to spice up their footwear.”
Other proposed businesses included a plan for creating storage equipment for sex toys, to be used when traveling. One student, a photographer, specialized in photographing members of the kink community, including couples and trans folks, while yet another, a chemist and a clothing designer, invented a silicon material that makes it possible to avoid rubber sticking to one’s body. Finally, two more students, working together, are starting a practice to provide mental health therapy for people from the kink community.
The class “was very helpful,” said developmental psychologist and gay man Richard Sprott, who, with Anna Randall, a sex therapist and researcher, plans to open their specialty practice. “I would say the information was new to us and very helpful in how to propose a full business venture.
“Probably even more important was just spending time with the other entrepreneurs and hearing about their dreams and business ideas,” Sprott continued. “That sort of connection with other creative types in the leather community was definitely a highlight. And there was a lot of help and cooperation giving feedback on different ideas. That was really, really the most valuable aspect.”
The classes required commitment from the students, however. Running from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Thursday, some students said — in their efforts to fit the classes into already busy schedules — they were often rushing to finish homework assignments.
“I have to say that, each week, the homework took up a good and important chunk of the business plan,” said Sprott, who said he and Randall “basically cleared our schedules.”
“I did as much as I could and was there for every minute,” he said. “We did that because we saw the value in having that kind of support and structure. It was also doable for us because it was an eight-week, nine-week program.”
Cal Callahan, the leather cultural district manager, said he was concerned initially about retention of students in the program but was pleased with how they stuck it out.
“It’s a challenging program for the trainees,” he said. “For them to be successful, they have to put in the work. I think it’s paid off for them.”
For their efforts, students received a $500 grant, as well as feedback from professionals and the other students. By week eight, they had finished all the classwork and presented their business plans to the class and experts brought in to help.
Goldfarb said the students in the first class were all “highly engaged” and reported being very happy with the program. They learned a lot, he said.
Tang said that the participants got a lot out of the sessions.
“A lot of people join the program because they feel they don’t have the business knowledge and want more comprehensive information,” said Tang. “They’re in the process of turning their side hustle into a business but they don’t understand what paperwork they need.”
And in some cases, the program helped students wrap their heads around information they might have already known, or had been putting into practice already.
“A good amount of the info was common sense,” observed Valliere. “More of a confirmation.”
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