A new startup is raising eyebrows over its links to Peter Thiel and its decision to open in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood
This article titled “San Francisco activists see irony in Yass, a queer startup backed by tech wealth” was written by Sam Levin in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th December 2017 13.00 UTC
One by one, San Francisco’s iconic gay clubs and queer centers have shut their doors: the Lexington Club, the city’s last lesbian bar; the Lusty Lady, a unionized strip club; Different Light bookstore, a Castro institution.
“Those were spaces that saved my life honestly, and the lives of many people I know,” said Lorelei Lee, a queer sex worker who lived in San Francisco, but recently moved away.
While longtime LGBT residents have said they long for more community spaces, some were not pleased this week when they learned of the newest gay venture in the neighborhood: a queer co-working space backed by tech money and linked to Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.
A venture capital firm co-founded by Thiel, a gay conservative who donated $1.25m to Donald Trump and joined the president’s transition team, is the sole investor behind Yass, described as a “headquarters and hangout for a new generation of queer people”. Yass, announced last month and set to open in the spring, will provide LGBTQ people who pay membership dues access to events and a co-working space and social club, according to founder and CEO Brian Tran.
The ties to Thiel and Silicon Valley and the decision to open in the Mission, a historically Latino neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified amid the tech boom, means Yass is sure to be controversial. Even before its physical launch, the project is already inspiring backlash in San Francisco, a city that is known internationally as a gay mecca, but has the most expensive real estate market in the country, leading to the rapid displacement of cultural spaces, LGBT nightlife and longtime queer residents.
“The LGBT community in San Francisco, we need a space. But we don’t need a space that is tainted by the hate of Donald Trump,” said David Campos, a former elected supervisor who represented the Mission and is gay. He said the neighborhood should reject a project linked with Thiel, who infamously funded a lawsuit that destroyed the news organization Gawker.
“This is a president who has tried to disenfranchise members of the LGBT community, especially the transgender community,” said Campos, who protested outside Thiel’s house earlier this year over one of his companies making software that helps the US government round up immigrants for deportation. “When a gay man essentially becomes a tool of someone who is prosecuting people, that gay man needs to be called out.”
It’s an unexpected project to be associated with Thiel. The PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor has complained about giving women the right to vote, has called date rape “belated regret” and has railed against political correctness on college campuses.
Yass’s board includes Arielle Zuckerberg, a venture capitalist and sister of the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
Tran, 25, said Thiel was not involved in the project, which he said was being funded by Cyan Banister, another partner at Thiel’s firm Founders Fund. Tran insisted that Yass, financed through FF Angel, the firm’s early stage investment vehicle, was dedicated to being inclusive and accessible to a diverse group of queer people, not just tech workers.
“My commitment is to serving the queer community and their needs. And that is separate from what individuals at Founders Fund believe,” he said, adding that although Thiel is a “controversial figure”, “I don’t know what his real intentions are, and it’s hard to make a judgment … Undeniably, he has made a large impact in our economy.”
Links to Thiel aside, some longtime queer San Francisco residents and activists said they were skeptical about funding going toward an LGBT space that required dues and could end up catering to more middle-class and wealthier people, in a neighborhood where low-income people have been pushed out and in a region that has lost numerous historic gay institutions in recent years.
“Conservatives like Thiel are at the center of a movement that really doesn’t support queer communities. There’s some irony from trying to then profit from queer communities,” said Andrew Jolivette, a San Francisco state professor of Native American studies, who is gay and grew up in the city.
Jolivette was also critical of the name Yass, which is based on a phrase rooted in the drag ball culture, linked with black and Latino queer communities in Harlem. Recently, some queer people of color have criticized white people for using the term “yass”, citing it as another example of cultural appropriation.
“This is Gay Inc 2.0 where now we’re not only sort of commercializing gay community and spaces, now we … take their expressions and their terminology.”
Honey Mahogany, a well-known San Francisco drag queen, said she was not opposed to tech innovation, but noted that there were longstanding community organizations and spaces serving the queer community that are in desperate need of financial support.
“Queer people and people of color are constantly being pushed out,” she said, adding of Yass: “It seems like giving people who already have a leg up, more of a leg up.”
Tran said he was not ready to announce Yass’s exact location in the Mission, which has been at the heart of protests against gentrification and tech’s role in rising income inequality. Tran said the tech community was only one part of Yass and that he was not concerned about criticisms: “Gentrification has already happened … We’re not exacerbating that.”
Debates about Yass resemble the annual tensions that arise at the Pride festivities where tech companies have a huge presence, prompting some longtime activists to criticize the corporatization of a parade rooted in resistance and civil disobedience.
Kiara Harris, a founding member of Yass and longtime friend of Tran, said Yass would work hard to be open to all kinds of people and may provide scholarships: “It’s going to be that place where we bring great minds together and beautiful things are going to be born from that.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: A rendering of Yass, a San Francisco co-working space and social club that plans to charge its members $150 a month. Photograph: Yass