Remembering Hank Wilson’s Trans Legacy

by on February 13, 2017

As San Francisco’s historic Tenderloin neighborhood is slated to be the nation’s first transgender district (to be named the Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (TLGB) District), it’s a good time to recall the late Hank Wilson’s special role in the 1980’s providing Tenderloin homes for transgender people. I thought of Wilson’s efforts when he emerged as a prominent figure in gay activist Cleve Jones’ moving new book, When We Rise.

Jones discusses Wilson’s critical role in building San Francisco’s LGBT movement. As a public school teacher, Wilson helped defeat the 1978 Briggs initiative (Prop 6) on the California ballot that would have barred gays and lesbians from being teachers in the state. The No on 6 campaign was a game changer for the gay rights movement both in San Francisco and statewide, and was a political training ground for a new generation of gay activists.

I met Wilson in 1982 when he was leasing the Ambassador and Zee Hotels at Eddy and Mason Streets in the Tenderloin. There was no Google in those days, which explains why despite hours of conversation with Hank I did not know for at least a decade that he was a former gay teacher and a movement pioneer. Hank never bragged about his movement role. He was instead focused on housing two populations that were still being ignored by the broader society: queers with HIV or AIDS and trans people.

If you have not seen the 1994 documentary, “Life and Death at the Ambassador Hotel,” it is a must see. It shows how Hank was housing 1/3 tenants with HIV or AIDS and creating an early model for supportive housing. Hank used to joke that he was providing supportive housing without the government funding necessary for full staffing and maintenance.

It takes a very committed person to do that, and Hank was (Hank is interviewed in part two of the documentary)

Jones refers in his book to Cuba’s 1981 Mariel Boat lift that brought hundreds of “gay, lesbian and transsexual Cubans” to San Francisco. Most of the transgender people settled in the Tenderloin, and specifically in Hank’s Zee Hotel.

Hank knew these would not be the easiest tenants to manage, but felt that if he did not take the refugees in nobody else would.

Trans people in the early 1980’s were not as legally protected as today. That the Cuban immigrants did not know English on top of their trans orientation left them few legitimate job options. That led some to turn to drug dealing and prostitution, which they carried out at the Zee.

Hank paid a price for his humanitarian gesture. I commiserated with him, but never thought to figure out a way to help him get federal, state or local resources to help him manage a very challenging population. There were no activist groups helping the Cuban trans tenants, and Hank was left on his own.

It did not end well. As I detail in my book on the Tenderloin, the city’s treatment of the Zee Hotel tenants was an outrage. My office sued the city, Health Department and Police Department in 1984 for their violations of Zee tenants civil and constitutional rights, but in those days few in the public cared.

Thanks to Cleve Jones for giving Hank Wilson the credit for the movement’s growth that he deserves. You can learn more about Wilson from Paul Hogarth’s Beyond Chron obituary on Hank when he died on November 9, 2008.

Today, both the Ambassador and Zee hotels are owned by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. Hank’s management contributed to both ending up in nonprofit hands and housing the very poor.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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