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Longtime lesbian tech conference exits San Francisco after locals blast Castro ‘takeover’

Two people sit onstage at a "Lesbians Who Tech" summit, engaged in a discussion surrounded by branding banners.
Writers Roxane Gay, left, and Debbie Millman speak on stage during the 2022 Lesbians Who Tech at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The longtime tech conference is decamping to New York City. | Source: Courtesy Funcrunch/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

After a decade in San Francisco, Lesbians Who Tech, the longtime conference for lesbians and allies in the technology industry, is exiting the city’s Castro District for good and moving on to New York—an end to a rocky few years for the event in the historically gay neighborhood.

In an email sent last week, Lesbians Who Tech announced that it would move—just months after local business owners had asked for the conference to cease shutting down two full blocks of Castro Street, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare. The news was first reported by the Bay Area Reporter. 

The group’s flagship summit has expanded as it’s grown in prominence, becoming one of the Castro’s highest-profile events catering to lesbians. Past conferences have featured Vice President Kamala Harris, soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe and famed technology journalist Kara Swisher. Last year’s event in October boasted an estimated turnout of 15,000. 

Even before Covid, the Castro had long suffered from commercial vacancies and concerns surrounding public safety. But many business owners and locals routinely decried Lesbians Who Tech as an unwelcome disruption, citing reduced foot traffic and repeated nuisances with garbage and deliveries. Residents further griped about inconveniences such as golf carts parked on sidewalks and obstructive fencing curtailing access to the historic neighborhood and its bars and restaurants.

“The number of attendees and the usage of the street was disproportionate to what it did for the community,” said Terry Asten Bennett, the president of the Castro Merchants Association.

Bennett, a co-owner of longtime Castro retailer Cliff’s Variety, said that frustrations had been years in the making, especially as Castro businesses continue to reel from the pandemic’s long-tail impacts.

She alleged that Lesbians Who Tech had been largely uncooperative in dealing with delivery and garbage issues that popped up during the 2022 event and that “absolutely not a single one” had been resolved for last year’s event, even though the merchants association agreed to support the conference “against most of our better judgment,” Bennett said. 

That was despite reaching out multiple times to invited conference leaders to Castro Merchants Association meetings to discuss the event in the interim, she said, and asking for the organization to meet to address core logistical issues with the event.

“I worked with them nonstop to try and make it better and just got blown off,” she said. “The attendees are amazing human beings, but having the middle of the street taken over for a week in the middle of October was just devastating.”

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last year, Lesbians Who Tech CEO and co-founder Leanne Pittsford took umbrage with claims that conference coordinators did not work to address the Castro Merchants Association’s concerns. She also brought up challenges she faced working with the association. Pittsford did not respond to a request for comment from The Standard.

The Castro Theatre's neon marquee that reads "CASTRO" lit up during evening hours as cars pass by.
The Castro Theatre has hosted the Lesbians Who Tech conference for a decade but is now the site of an extensive renovation effort by Another Planet Entertainment. | Source: Getty Images

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose district includes the Castro, acknowledged the ongoing constituent concerns, telling The Standard, “The last two years have not been ideal from my perspective.”

“In both years, it went down in ways that left many folks in the neighborhood, many businesses in the neighborhood, with a bad taste in their mouths,” he said.

But Mandelman noted that the upcoming yearlong renovation of the historic Castro Theatre—where the summit’s speaker events were held—likely contributed to the decision to relocate Lesbians Who Tech’s summit.

For local conference attendees like Tessa Brown, the San Francisco-based founder of encrypted messaging platform Germ Network, the conference’s exit is a real blow to the lesbian tech community, especially in an industry that remains so dominantly male and heterosexual. 

Brown, who held a workshop at Lesbians Who Tech’s summit on communication and artificial intelligence, acknowledged that the event was, in fact, likely outgrowing the Castro.

“There’s an irony there, because the Castro is for everyone who needs it, whatever your gender identity,” she said. “The Castro is public space, and for a few days, it’s really not public space.”

Mandelman expressed hope that Lesbians Who Tech’s move to the Big Apple would be temporary—and proposed ironing out a solution to bring back one of San Francisco’s flagship professional conferences for lesbians to the city. So, too, did Brown, who appreciated only having to take a bus from her Twin Peaks residence to attend the summit.

But any return to Castro Street would likely have to go through a disgruntled Castro community, one that has felt burned by the summit.

“We don’t welcome an entire takeover of our neighborhood to the exclusion of our entire community,” Bennett said.