It’s Saturday night, and the drag queens in the back of the car are impossibly young and dewy and imbued with an ostentatious teenage cynicism. They are dressed in a style popular with the drag queens of San Francisco these days, which is to say that one of them looks like the lovechild of a fierce babe from an Italian sci-fi movie from the ’60s and Björk, and the other one looks like Barbarella, if Barbarella had a really nice beard.
I can’t see them, because I’m in the front of the car, and they’re in the back seat, but I can hear them.
“Let’s make out!” says one.
“Let me pick your nose!” says the other.
I can hear scuffling. Again: “Let me pick your noooooose!”
The car that I’m riding shotgun in for the evening is a Homobile. Homobiles is a quirky, pay-what-you-will nonprofit car service in the Bay Area created by queer people (and their allies), for queer people (and their allies).
It was the bathroom walls that first clued me in to the existence of Homobiles. The year was 2011, and stickers began to appear in the bathrooms of gay bars across the city. A little while later, at a party, a friend took out her phone to call a cab, and the host stopped her and told her to text Homobiles instead. It turned out several people at the party — not all of them gay — were secret Homobiles customers.
I was working as a city reporter at the time, so I contacted them and asked for an interview. They wrote back politely to say hell no, because what they were doing wasn’t, technically, legal then. The city’s taxi companies had already clued in to their existence and freaked out, but Homobiles mollified them by explaining that its drivers only picked up people who called them first, and that they were picking up exactly the kind of people — the drag queens, in particular — that taxi drivers didn’t want to pick up. The Homobiles business model was the opposite of “too big to fail”; it was aiming for “too small for anyone to see as competition.”
William Gibson once said, “The future is here: it just isn’t fully distributed yet” — and in few situations is this more true than in the life of the visibly gay. “A lot of taxi drivers are immigrants from Middle Eastern countries,” says Rashid, a Homobiles regular. He is headed to Little Orphan Andy’s, a 24-hour gay diner in the Castro, and wearing a plastic raincoat and a peach-colored neon women’s bathing suit. “They can tell I’m Middle Eastern. They can tell I’m a faggot. It gets uncomfortable.”
The later it gets, the more Homobiles acquires an overall vibe that is one part car service, one part social services agency. Especially at night, many of the passengers have that air of emotional fragility that comes with being very young and very drunk in the big city, and the drivers have a seasoned, cool-older-aunt vibe.
A Homobiles ride is the kind where you can be hammered at the end of the night and singing along to Destiny’s Child at the top of your lungs, which happened earlier this evening. “Sorry,” the singer in the back seat, said after she had belted through the full duration at “Say My Name” and “Survivor” at a volume that makes human thought impossible. “This is just so my life right now.”
“I did all my partying years ago,” says Terry, who started driving for Homobiles six months ago, after she retired from a career as a bakery supervisor. “But I like to drive around and see what the kids are wearing. I like to watch the streets empty out.” One advantage of driving a small subset of the population around is that Terry gets to see the same people over and over again. When she gets a call from a regular, she lights up. “Willard!” she says. “I love Willard. We always have the best conversations!” It’s also one of the reasons she doesn’t drive for Sidecar anymore — back then, she never saw the same person twice.
There are educational payoffs, too. “I’ve learned so much about drag,” says D.J. Mora, who has driven for Homobiles longer than anyone else besides its founder, Lynnee Breedlove. “There are all these kinds of drag. Like Asian drag — it’s so different.” Mora got rid of her Prius and replaced it with a six-person Subaru station wagon for the good of Homobiles — the car is large enough to carry an entourage, and has enough leg room for some very high heels and a roof high enough to accommodate major wigs.
In all the time that I’ve spent learning as much as I can about Uber (and Lyft and Sidecar et al.) I have wondered: What’s next? Homobiles aren’t the future; what they do is too weird and specific and based on the personalities and ideals of the people involved to apply to an industry this large. What they are is a future — a local, grassroots alternative to the Clash of the Titans game that is playing out now between startups that are trying to become what Amazon is for books or Google is for search.
Homobiles was and remains a seat-of the pants operation, founded by Breedlove, the former owner of a bike-messenger service called Lickety Split. As far as tech goes, it is pure 2000s: Passengers request rides by texting their name and location to dispatch, and dispatch, who is usually a former bike-messenger dispatcher with a laptop, texts that information to the drivers. Whoever is closest to the call goes to pick them up. In theory, Homobiles doesn’t pick up anyone who hails cabs in the street; but in practice, it has cultivated a relationship with gay bars across the city, and its drivers frequently appear outside them around closing time.
I have looked, and have not found, any equivalent to it across the country — though the idea of running your own taxi service is so basic that it must have been created and recreated a thousand times over, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Homobiles so unusual is the degree to which it is able to operate out in the open. I also suspect that, since it began, Homobiles has had allies in city and state government who believed in what it was doing and worked behind the scenes to keep it from getting shut down.
In those ancient days of four years ago, when Homobiles first started, Lyft didn’t even exist (it was still a “true” ridesharing service called Zimride), and Uber was still a black-car service; but all that was about to change. Now these “we-say-we’re-not-taxis-but-boy-sometimes-do-we-act-like-taxis” companies are legally called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).
Homobiles is not a TNC. For one thing, it still doesn’t have an app, and its status as a nonprofit puts it under different jurisdiction. But when the TNC designation was created by the California Public Utilities in 2013, the new rules contained an unexpected shout-out to Homobiles.
Homobiles was formed to meet the needs of consumers whose transportation needs are not being adequately met by either taxi cabs or limousines. We applaud the founders of Homobiles for establishing a non-profit 501(c)(3)volunteer organization that caters to the underserved communities of San Francisco.
In California, at least, the seemingly ironclad monopoly that taxis have held over private transit in the state for decades is broken at the moment — which may have a lot to do with why, right now, Homobiles is able to operate openly. The question is, will this last? For all their talk of disruption and open playing fields, it’s unlikely that TNCs have done this without having their own monopoly dreams.
Taxi companies have not been doing right by America’s cities for a long time. They’ve used their political sway to get away with treating their employees badly, and they’ve used it to shut down potential rivals like dollar vans and jitneys in low-income neighborhoods, while continuing to ignore and underserve those neighborhoods themselves.
But however convenient TNCs are right now, a TNC monopoly is not a good idea. A TNC duopoly isn’t a good idea, either. Allowing Uber and Lyft to keep permanent records of the places that every one of their passengers has visited is a civil-liberties nightmare. So is the way that TNCs can redline certain passengers and drop them entirely from its transit network.
I am reminded of this when I tag along with Homobiles to pick up Charles. Charles is an elderly black man and lives in the Tenderloin. When we arrive, he’s not waiting outside, so the driver, a briskly efficient D.J. Mora, goes into the building he called from to find him and bring him down. Charles has trouble getting into the cab, because he is profoundly drunk. When he makes it into the back seat, Mora introduces him, warmly, as a legend of queer rights history — which I have no doubt of, since Charles is of an era where to live as openly gay (even in the Tenderloin, which was the city’s gay district before the Castro) was to be, basically, a crazy badass.
Charles mutters something incoherent and we drive him to his apartment building, where Mora helps him out of the car and shadows him on his very slow, hesitant walk to the apartment lobby. At the sight of Charles, the worker at the front desk races to the front door, flings it open, and watches him anxiously as he goes through, as though Charles were weapons-grade plutonium.
“He’s proud,” says Mora, of Charles. “So it’s hard. You don’t want him to fall, but he doesn’t want you holding him up, either.” The whole thing takes 15 minutes, and as Charles and Mora part ways, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a few rumpled singles. “Is that enough?” he says. “It’s always enough,” says Mora.
If you are wondering about the strength of Homobiles’ pay-what-you-can business model in one of the most expensive cities in the country, you would be right to wonder. In the early days of Homobiles, the system worked pretty well: More solvent passengers tipped generously, which made up the difference for passengers who were more financially marginal. But the solvent customers have been disappearing — probably poached by Uber and Lyft, which have been racing to cut prices with the hope that, when the dust settles, they’ll be the last app standing.
Homobiles can’t match Uber and Lyft either in the number of drivers or in technological sophistication. Developing its own app is probably the service’s best way to survive, but paying for that is proving to be a challenge. Its main advantage is that it actually is the convivial, community-oriented “your friend with a car” thing that TNCs like Lyft are trying to position themselves as.
Lyft in particular is making a big push to court the city’s queer population, both as drivers and passengers — I recently got a Facebook invite to the funeral of a local queer icon, and the comments section was full of people offering Lyft coupons to anyone who attended. A few weeks ago, I was walking through Soma just as the bars let out, and the man in front of me started talking to his friend about how, when he got to his car, he was going to turn on the Lyft app in the hopes of catching a fare home — but also on the off chance that he might pick up a hunky, end-of-the-night hookup. “But it’ll probably be some straight girl,” he said, sighing. “That would be just my luck.”
“We’re in trouble,” says Mora. “If this keeps up, we’re not going to survive for much longer. Us old-school folks remember when all we had was each other,” she says, reflectively. “But our children — they’re captivated by the new and shiny thing.” She wonders out loud about what it would take to keep the operation going: A less edgy name, maybe? Would the professional gays with their professional dollars take a taxi called Homobiles?
Mora pulls up to the Brava Theater on 24th Street. Someone has called for a ride to the East Bay away from the theater, but the show, based on the life of disco icon Sylvester, hasn’t yet ended. Fifteen minutes later, the doors open and the audience pours out. Two young women spot the sign on the side of the door and collapse with laughter. “Homobiles?” one of them says, reading the magnet on the side of Mora’s Subaru. “I’m going to put this on Instagram! I’m going to promote the shit out of this! Fuck Uber! Do you have Twitter?”
“Sort of,” says Mora. There is a Twitter account, but no one has posted anything on it since 2012.
“Thank you!” the woman yells, striding away into the night. “Get all the homos!”
The ride from the theater turns out to be a former member of the San Francisco drag troupe the Cockettes, who tells us to check out a film somebody made about him. “It’s the story of an elusive countercultural pioneer — me!” he says, by way of introduction.
We drive him to Oakland, where Mora waits to make sure he has unlocked his front gate before driving away. “It’s important to do that,” she says. “Both for safety, and because you won’t believe how many times people forget their keys and you have to drive them all the way back to wherever they were to look for them.”
Around 11:30 p.m. ridership hits a lull — just about everyone out tonight has settled in until last call. I head over to Oasis, a new bar on 11th Street, where there’s a drag show in progress. The opening number is a riff on Mario Kart, and the performers are dressed as different transportation modes in San Francisco. Someone’s wearing a giant Muni bus made of cardboard; someone else is a BART train; and there’s a Lyft, an Uber, and a taxicab. They all jostle each other for first place. Uber is declared the winner, after which the other forms of transit tear the trophy from her hands and beat her to death with it.
When the show is over, there are three Homobiles cars and a score of Ubers and Lyfts idling outside. I tell Mora about the number.
“What?” she says, outraged. “Homobiles should have been in it!”
By 3 a.m., the city is a ghost town, and the doors to the bars are all padlocked shut. Everyone is either going home, going to the diner, or moving on to a secret party. I am falling asleep.
Terry insists on driving me home. “It’s what I do,” she says, cheerfully. She’ll be up until at least 6 a.m. She pulls up right in front of my apartment, and I step outside. When I open the gate, I turn around and she’s still there, watching me to make sure I get inside safely.