I'm waiting for my man. A red sedan with pink-and-black car seat covers, an altar on the dashboard, and punk-rock buttons pinned to the visor, pulls up to the curb. This is my Homobile. Inside sits my driver, Lynn Breedlove, who is all aviator shades and black denim and the founder of this queer donation-based car service. He kills it with the slogan — "Moes gettin' hoes where they needz to goes." When I get in, I notice a tiny palomino pony sitting on the dashboard, its gold coat shining in the sun. Breedlove explains, "It's a reminder of one of my best friends who died, Chloe Dzubilo, a trans woman who had an equestrian program for kids with HIV. I always imagine myself driving in the middle of a herd of wild mustangs, safe and protected."
"Safe and protected" is exactly what Homobiles is all about. It began when Breedlove was driving some "babes" to a conference in August 2010. "All of a sudden the butches and trans guys who saw me wanted to drive, and all the babes and drag queens wanted rides, and then I realized that this was a serious need that had to be filled."
Part of that need stems from the fact that traditional forms of public transportation and taxis aren't always a safe option; whether it's discrimination based on appearance, gender identity, or even costume, queer riders often face unique challenges to traveling, even in a private cab.
"I've been performing for a gazillion years and in my experience, a lot of cab drivers are not very comfortable with a man being in drag," says Krylon Superstar, a performance artist and member of local band Double Duchess. "A lot of times they would get close enough to see that I wasn't a woman and then they would just drive away."
Breedlove adds, "Also it's not just queer people. No one's going to pick you up if you're black and live in the Bayview. If you are a person of color in this town, you're going to have to get one of your white friends to flag the cab while you hide and jump out at the last minute. Because they aren't stopping for you or taking you to Hunter's Point. Sadly it's a story I hear over and over again. That's why we are here — to give everyone a safe ride."
In 2012, San Francisco resident Aaron Endré recounted how he and his boyfriend were told to get out of a cab because the driver noticed them holding hands and exchanging affections. "Our behavior was surprisingly innocent, given his reaction. This is the place gay people from all over the world come to escape the tyranny they face in their close-minded hometowns, and even in San Francisco, LGBT people aren't safe from homophobia."
Breedlove's heard similar stories from riders, "Everyone who got in my car had a story about either being mentally or physically endangered because of their gender or sexuality; they either got something from mild shade-throwing to being thrown out of a cab or even beaten up. I had never realized there was that big a problem. I thought, San Francisco is queer-friendly, but then I realized that even in San Francisco, it's not all good. Shit happens here like everywhere else."
Breedlove couldn't afford to build a fancy app for Homobiles, but that didn't stop him from starting the donation-based ride service in 2011, using a simple system based on texting a cell phone number. "I realized that people couldn't afford to take a cab but they desperately needed one. That's when we pulled out the whole '90s-style, 'no one turned away for lack of funds' thing. I decided this was going to be a sliding scale, suggested donation service and that no one would be turned away."
Not having to pay makes the ride possible for a demographic of the queer community that lacks the funds to travel safely. For example, as we drive down Divisadero, Breedlove says, "Right now we're going to pick up a few trans women in the Tenderloin who do not have any money ever, not a cent. They don't pass, and so that means that sometimes people feel entitled to beat them up because these ladies are gender outlaws. They're not protected by the police, and that's why we get those ladies where they need to go for zero money."
Passengers who can afford to pay more get a chance to share their wealth. "People love Homobiles because it's about a social system that works in an economy that doesn't," Breedlove says. "Just the other night, a rich guy made a donation that was big enough to pay for those women I mentioned who can't afford it. That's the beauty of this whole thing."
Breedlove says at first cabbies accused the Homobiles of being a shady business operation. "We put a flyer out with a picture of me on it saying, 'Are you a big homo? Do you like rocking out to Le Tigre? Then we got you.' Cabbies weren't thrilled, but I said, 'We're the people taking the people you don't want to take because they're in ass-less chaps or glitter and they don't have any money.' A taxi will not take you home if you don't have money."
But Breedlove isn't against cabs. "I want people to get off the corner safely — I don't care who gets them there. I didn't start Homobiles to get rich, but to provide a service to people so they can be safe. We all need lots of options and we have a lot of options these days. The difference between Homobiles and a cab is that a cabbie needs to make it worth his while, because it's his job. As a nonprofit, our job is to simply get people in danger who are gender or sexual outlaws — or even just women, which is apparently some kind of outlaw — where they are going safely."
Ed Wolf, writer and longtime AIDS activist and educator, uses Homobiles when he's leaving for the airport, often traveling to places where queer people aren't free to live openly. "Just six weeks ago I used Homobiles when I was on my way to St. Petersburg, Russia, a place where it's dangerous to be gay. My Homobiles driver on the way to the airport was the last person I saw before going to a place where it's not OK to be who I am. It was like this final queer blessing, a really wonderful send-off."
Breedlove notes that he's become more open-minded since founding Homobiles. "I used to think straight white dudes were the problem. My heart has swelled from the size of a chia seed to an organic frozen pea. Some of my riders are the raddest straight guys. It's not just LGBTIQQLMNOP riders."
Take for example, Jay Beaman, a straight male bartender who likes to ride Homobiles because he says it's "so San Francisco. Queer, DIY, casual, funny, and egalitarian. I never felt like it mattered that I was straight. It reminds me what I love about this city; it doesn't matter what I am or who I fuck — they happily give me a ride."
Additionally, Homobiles allows riders to share their trip with other riders who put an order in for a car, thereby allowing them to split the ride. It's called Homoshuttling. "Homoshuttle is where two different rides who are going in a similar direction can get together and share the car," Breedlove says. "It's a great chance for people to talk and understand each other. Sometimes they even hit it off and become friends or lovers."
As San Francisco deals with the pressure of an influx of new tech wealth, Breedlove consistently hears about displacement. "People get into the car and talk about gentrification a lot, being displaced, evicted, and how hard it is to be here. Just five years ago we felt like San Francisco was our home, and now we're teetering on the edge. There's a lot of fear in the air right now."
Tanner Burke, 28, started off as a rider, then became a driver, and now dispatches for Homobiles. He commented on the changing cultural landscape. "Every week you hear about queer people being displaced; most specifically performers and entertainers, which is sad because that's what makes San Francisco have such a magical essence; if those people aren't able to be here, then this city is going to lose a lot of its flavor."
Lynn takes me to meet another Homobiles driver, Sean Kelly, who happens to not only be straight, but also works in the tech industry.
When I ask Kelly what it's like being a straight white tech-guy driving for Homobiles, he says, "Sometimes when a rider figures out I'm straight they withdraw, so I try to keep the space in the car neutral. I'm not forthcoming about being straight but the sisters can figure it out right away."
He notes that driving for Homobiles has broadened his perspective. "Driving for Homobiles, you meet people that are totally underserved by the city, public transportation, and taxis. I've realized just how good I have it and how bad some people have it."
It's these stories of connecting people who are otherwise turned away that makes all the drivers and riders I talked to so committed to using Homobiles. Breedlove notes that Homobiles has changed him for the better. "I've become more loving and less judgmental. I laugh and cry every day because of the people that get into my car, and the gratitude to be of service in this way. This has been offered to me. So many people have jumped into be a part of this and I feel so blessed by that."
Going forward, Homobiles needs more drivers, to keep up with the ever-increasing demand, and there's a plan eventually build an app. Breedlove says, "We're always in need of great drivers. There's a huge demand from riders that we can't fully meet, and we want to keep the wait times short." Also, as the company awaits nonprofit status, Breedlove says that donations help make Homobiles sustainable, and notes that a large donation from a company or private individual would greatly help secure its nonprofit status.
Breedlove also thinks that donations are one way that tech companies can give back and help keep San Francisco cool. "You know how to keep artists in the city, and preserve San Francisco as a diverse and interesting place? Donate to nonprofits like Homobiles, queer youth organizations, free health clinics, and other arts organizations. Not only will you be cool, you'll set an example of how to respect diversity instead of the same old march in, fuck shit up, and displace everyone thing that people have been doing for way too long."
Tanner Burke agrees, "I don't think that people realize that while San Francisco might be an open-minded city, in the end it's the queers that are going to look out for the queers. No one else is going to do that."
Krylon Superstar confirmed, "Homobiles is a reminder that we still do have that communal glue that's holding us together."
When I voiced my fear of being driven out of the city I love, Breedlove leaned over and said, "We're not going to be here for long. It's going to be a diaspora, so you have to create queer culture wherever you go. We just have to proliferate everywhere; you have to carry the culture in your heart."
For our last ride of the day, we picked up a young trans man and his mother who was visiting from out of the country. They were clearly having a bonding experience; the pair held hands in the backseat, and were silent as we drove through the San Francisco sunset. I glanced at them in the rearview mirror, two faces backlit by the sun, a bit of tears welling in the mother's eyes; then I glanced back to the golden pony on the dashboard, feeling pretty certain that we'd all be taken care of, one way or another.