Aria Sa’id is an advocate for all trans women, but she’s hyperfocused on trans women of color, especially those in San Francisco. Sa’id made waves in February 2019 when she, along with two other trans women, founded the city’s first transgender cultural district in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to celebrate the culture of trans people and honors the rich history of trans activism and advocacy in the city. We discussed how this Bitch 50 nominee arrived at this incredible point in her career, what it looks like to champion trans people, and what true, tangible empowerment feels like.
You have been advocating for trans women of color in San Francisco for a long time. How were you initially introduced to that work?
Advocacy fell into my lap; it definitely wasn’t an aspiration I had at the time. I was in art school studying fashion, and I had to drop out because I was homeless and sleeping on the BART train at night. Eventually, I got into the sex trade. My life was really chaotic; I would live in a hotel for a week, and then the next week I would be sleeping at Carl’s Jr. My life was always really unpredictable.
At the time, I was part of this transgender youth empowerment program, and I was asked to volunteer once a week. It gave me a sense of purpose and something to be accountable to. Before we had the transgender visibility that we have today, the only jobs Black transgender women could get besides sex work would be at a makeup counter or at a nonprofit as an outreach worker. I realized at some point that I was meant to do this work in this season of my life. I started working trans youth advocacy and my work evolved to advocating for sex workers, the transgender community, and Black trans women. Most of my work has really been inspired by my lived experience and the girls I knew on the stroll in the Tenderloin.
If efforts that are championed to address transgender issues don’t have transgender people leading them, then they’re absolutely ineffective.
You’re one of cofounders of the world’s first transgender cultural district. How did the district come to be?
I don’t think [my two cofounders and I] truly knew the scale when we were advocating for the city to legally recognize the history and presence of transgender people in the neighborhood. I’m so glad we’re able to bring hope to the community. [San Francisco already has] cultural districts, like Chinatown and Old Ukrainia, and the transgender district is similar in that we aim to be a hub of economic development, community development, and arts and culture. Initially, I said no to the leading the project; my cofounders had to convince me that I was ready to lead. I was so unsure of my ability because I didn’t know anyone my age leading a project who was also Black or a transgender woman. Some days, I feel like I’m failing, but I’ve learned so much and [the work] keeps me on my toes.
You’re very busy, as you’ve also created the Kween Culture Initiative, a social and cultural empowerment project for Black transgender women. Can you tell me more about that project?
[Laughs.] I am so busy [that] sometimes it’s overwhelming, but [the work itself] is super gratifying. I created Kween Culture Initiative when I was in a deep depression and facing suicidal ideation. At the time, I was in city government, and a huge part of my job was discussing the disparities that Black transgender women face—from homelessness to murder to unemployment to discrimination. I would get on stages and panels and talk to different audiences about how hard it is to be a Black transgender woman and those narratives just really affected me. It was always mental fight; who wants to own these narratives every day? So the purpose of Kween is to cultivate joy and memorable moments, sisterhood, and camaraderie. and shift our disempowerment toward celebrating resilience and our power in the world. I truly believe we are more powerful than our minds can digest and I wish the broader public could witness how multifaceted we are.
You’re a writer. Why are you so passionate about writing? What are you most interested in writing about?
I wish I wrote more. I used to have a blog years ago, and that led to me contributing [an essay] to the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology, Nerve Endings: The New Trans Erotic, about a situationship I was in. [The piece was also about] how intimacy for trans women can always feel compromised [by the] cisgender men we fall in love with. These days I’m almost always writing grants and reading government contracts, but as a creative writer, heartbreak is my inspiration and a constant motif in my writing.
On your website, you write, “I feel most happy when I am empowered.” How do you define empowerment?
People don’t realize that words and narratives affect transgender women in many ways. The most frequent messages we get about transgender women of color [focus on the] really difficult parts of living in a world that doesn’t want us to exist. Yes, we know that life is extremely difficult for Black transgender women, [and also], there is no feeling [better than being] respected, loved, celebrated, and treated like a human. Those are the things we deserve in life. That’s what helps me lead a fulfilled life.