Office Politics

A California state senator mounts an exhibition affirming trans lives

Signage in Scott Wiener’s office.

WHEN LESBIAN AUTHOR and educator Diana Cage asked me if I’d like to accompany her to the opening of a “trans art show” at the offices of California State Senator Scott Wiener, I jumped at the chance. I have a soft spot for art presented outside the sanctioned white cubes of museums and galleries, but an official government site comes with its own baggage, its own set of priorities and prohibitions that an exhibit would have to grapple with. Diana and I had no clue what we were going to find, and that made the evening feel like an adventure.

Presented on the occasion of Trans Awareness Week, “TRANS AWARE,” it turns out, is not an exhibit of trans art, but of art that demonstrates an awareness of trans lives. While some of the twenty-four artists are trans-identified, curators Joseph Abbati and KT Siebert also include works by “queer, non-binary, and cis-gender artists.” This initially disappointed me. If I wanted to immerse myself in homogenized queerness I could just take a walk through the Castro. Since 2017, Abbati has curated several exhibits at the senator’s office, focusing mostly on politically-inflected themes such as Gay Pride, Latinx cultural representation, the Asian diaspora, global warming, housing, and nightlife. This is the office’s first post-lockdown exhibit.

On a brisk Friday evening, I met Diana at the State of California Building on Golden Gate Avenue. Once it was confirmed we were on the guest list, we were then admitted to the building; our bags and our bodies went through separate metal detectors. A guard let us into an elevator and as we rode to the fourteenth floor; a woman wearing tuxedo pants with black glitter stripes told us she had gone to many such events and you didn’t used to have to go through such bother. She blamed the heightened security on what happened to Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

Senator Wiener’s suite is comprised of a small reception area leading to a large open area flanked by a row of private offices and conference rooms. The opening was packed. One of the first things we encountered was a makeshift corkboard partition with a sign tacked up with pushpins that read MATURE CONTENT WARNING: THE PIECE BEHIND THIS STAND DEPICTS NAKED ADULTS . . . The piece in question was Michael A. Rosen’s Carimin+Erin-44, 2010, a tender photo of two naked trans women kissing. Each artist wrote their own signage accompanied by a QR code that linked to their email address or website, which made the work and its creator feel approachable. For his part, Rosen, who has been making sexual photos of people in his San Francisco community since 1977, wrote, “I present a body of work comprising a wide spectrum of plumbing and the plumbing of your partner(s), it’s all good if you’re having safe, sane and consensual fun together.” Rosen and Diana are friends from her days editing the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs. He confessed to her that he was surprised, but thrilled, to be included in the show. We urged him to stand for a photo beside his “banned art sign,” and he complied.

Michael A. Rosen.

How is queerness negotiated in a political space? It’s sanitized. The mature content warning set a prim tone for the rest of the show, which was not shabby by any means. Many of these artists have and should be supported by mainstream galleries and institutions. When I later looked them up online, they were invariably more radical, both in their politics and in their content, than their work in “TRANS AWARE” would suggest. One of the exhibit’s most striking inclusions is Jethro Patalinghug’s revolving installation Disco Ball Heads, 2022, comprised of broken drag jewelry, metallic pins, and Styrofoam heads. I took a video of the head titled Aria, Vision of the Future, which was inspired by the trans activist Aria Sa'id. Patalinghug’s drag persona, Virginia Please, posts educational videos on Tiktok that promote sex positivity and inclusivity, and as mesmerized as I was by his glitzy revolving heads, I found them kind of sad. Instead of the mouth-gaping raunchiness of a drag performance, here was an archeological assemblage of a queen’s discarded baubles.

View of Jethro Patalinghug’s Disco Ball Heads, 2022.

How do you make queer art politically friendly? You focus on portraiture, which invites the viewer to relate to the subjects on an emotional level. Fortunately, many of the works here push against such simple engagements. In Blue Titania, 2021, Tanya Wischerath reimagines the Queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “as a figure of gender fluidity.” In BEARPAD’s woodcut Best Bubs, 2022, he places two burly trans men together. According to the wall text, the goal of the piece is to “put diverse queer bodies in public spaces.” The bright, fleshy, unframed bodies of the Best Bubs have paws instead of hands, evoking a playful animality you want to jump on and roll around with.

View of BEARPAD’s Best Bubs, 2022.

With few exceptions the audience was not the usual art world chic. Casually-dressed, regular people gathered around the food table, some looking sharp, some scruffy—the sundry folks you’d expect in a bureaucratic space, where icy white overhead lighting makes everybody look a tad under the weather. The spread was perfectly low-rent San Francisco—chain store vegetable crudités served in their plastic containers, burritos cut into thick slabs, and fortune cookies. No matter what Wikipedia says, the fortune cookie was invented right here (in Chinatown or the Japanese Tea Garden), as was the super burrito (1961 at El Faro on Folsom Street).

Finally, Senator Scott Wiener gave his speech. Thin and fit and 6'7'', he’s easy to spot in a crowd. It’s hard to believe he’s fifty-two. He comes across as humble. Thankfully he didn’t make the talk all about himself. Instead he condemned violence aimed at trans people and praised California for becoming a sanctuary state for trans youth and their families. He complimented the artists who continue to survive in San Francisco despite its outrageous rents, though he made no mention of any plans to create cheaper housing. Wiener’s ties to big tech and big real estate have been criticized by housing justice activists, affiliations they blame for policies that have exacerbated the State’s affordable housing crisis.

Scott Wiener with artists and curators.

Being openly gay, Wiener has unsurprisingly been criticized by the right—like when he was photographed shirtless with a group of leather gays at San Francisco’s infamous SM-themed Folsom Street Fair. From Twitter: “I am shocked Scott Wiener, who co-authored a bill that lowered the penalty for exposing someone to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor, is angry that Americans are critical of these orgies.” This happens to be a position sympatico with the tenderqueers who want to get rid of all displays of kink at Gay Pride.

The trans writers and artists who inhabit my little social niche tend to be gloriously radical and sexually provocative, which does not necessarily reflect the realities and survival strategies of other trans people. Diana pointed out that the one photo explicitly depicting trans embodiment and desire was hidden from view in the show, a decision that exasperated both of us. But, given the political hostility and growing threats to trans lives, perhaps “provocative” is a privileged position? From inside the art world bubble, the rest of the world grows ever more remote.

When I arrived home from the opening that night, my cat Ted was crying for food, and I found myself complimenting him on “lobbying” for himself. When those government vibes latch onto you, it’s a bitch to shake them off.


The day after I turned in this review, Diana texted me: “Did you see that someone sent a bomb threat to Scott Weiner?” An email distributed to media outlets with the subject line “Scott Wiener will die today” accused Wiener of being a “groomer,” a slur right-wingers hurl at supporters of LGBTQ+ rights. The email’s sender claimed to have planted bombs at Wiener’s home, and threatened to shoot up his office. “I’m willing to die today,” they wrote. When I then read over my article, my art-world squabbles seemed so petty. After all, there are many flavors of provocative. There’s skimpily clad Instagram provocative, and there’s family-friendly provocative. Both are essential. There’s a war going on, and “TRANS AWARE” does not back down. Bravo and love to all involved with it.

“TRANS AWARE” is on view at the office of California State Senator Scott Wiener in the State of California Building in San Francisco through December 31.