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Donna Personna Portraits Gallery in Tenderloin Museum captures transgender experiences

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Donna Personna Portraits Gallery in Tenderloin Museum captures transgender experiences





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By Nola Hadley

A painting of a red-haired woman wearing a black gown welcomes visitors into the Tenderloin Museum. Her elegant pose and the dark, wooden table she leans on suggest wealth and fame. However, there’s no celebrity being pictured here, but rather a transgender woman who has made her home in San Franciso. She is a focal feature of the Donna Personna Portraits Project gallery. Over a dozen other portraits of transgender locals, ranging from vibrant paintings to black-and-white photographs, are framed on the museum’s wall. The collection is just a small sample of the portraits that were created for this project.


The history of the Tenderloin district and that of the fight for transgender rights have been intertwined for nearly a century. Since its origins, the Tenderloin has been a place for people who were unwelcome elsewhere to find pockets of community. But even in the district itself, some people still didn’t belong. In the 60s (and long before), transgender women were vastly mistreated by the local police force and the general public as well. 


In the 1960s, transgender people could be arrested for dressing the way they wanted. And the trans community that gathered at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin were fed up. In the summer of 1966, the police entered Compton’s and began to arrest a transgender woman, who threw her coffee in his face. That cup of coffee blew the cork off of the transgender community’s bottled up fury. The cafeteria goers rebelled against their abusers. Using purses and high heels — the very garments for which they were persecuted — they fought back. The night ended with broken windows and unleashed anger. The uprising at Compton’s was one of the first in the modern movement for transgender rights, becoming the first queer protest in American history. 


Over fifty years later, the portrait gallery celebrates the the district’s LGBTQ+ activist history. The project was spearheaded by Donna Personna, an artist, drag queen and activist for transgender rights. According to The Guardian, she was a part of the community of transgender women who spent time at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in the 60s. 


Transgender people are rarely portrayed in the media, and when they are, it is often in a contentious political light or debate over the validity of their identities. This exhibit offers a space to simply let transgender people — and all their diverse expressions of identity — be seen just as they are. It humanizes the idea of being transgender.


For the artists behind the portraits, the project was as much about the process as it was about the art. The conversations punctuated by camera clicks and paint brush strokes had holistic depth. 

Shawna Vesco, the communications and outreach manager at the Tenderloin Museum, said a “magical art space” evolved between the artist and the subject. As the artists revealed their pieces, the subjects unveiled thei

Anthony Torres (Bubbles), 44, featured in the Donna Personna Portrait Gallery. BY NOLA HADLEY/TEAMSCOUTSTAFF

r life stories. What was planned as an art studio became a therapeutic, confidential sanctuary from the hate, judgement and misunderstanding that transgender people all too often face, according to Vesco. 


But that space didn’t always extend beyond the studio. Bubbles, a gender-non-conforming person depicted in one of the paintings, was murdered only a few blocks away from the museum. According to an SFGate article, the drag artist was killed in 2017.


The museum captures the beauty, strength and resilience of the transgender and gender-non-conforming community. Consequently, it tells the important narrative of the inherent dangers they face when living in their true identities. But perhaps, the Tenderloin has not seen the end of its trans activism.

About the Writer
Photo of Nola Hadley
Nola Hadley, Reporter

This fall, I will be in my sophomore year of high school in Crested Butte, Colorado. I'm passionate about using my writing to inspire change by telling...

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Donna Personna Portraits Gallery in Tenderloin Museum captures transgender experiences