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Kids on the Street explores the informal support networks that enabled street kids to survive in tenderloin districts across the United States, and in San Francisco’ Tenderloin in particular, over the last century. I combine archival, ethnographic, and oral history research to explore the social trauma inflicted on street youth and the ways they have worked, collectively and creatively, to reframe and reinterpret those brutal realities.


I focus on four world-making practices: queer kinship networks my informants call “street families,” which resemble the moral economies common among people with severely limited resources; syncretic religious formations I call “street churches,” which are often based on a streetwise, gothic Catholicism bent toward the redemptive power of abjection; performative storytelling, narrative strategies that enabled youth to secure employment in the district’s vice and bar economies and, at times, to reinterpret the abuse from which they were running; and migratory circuits that connected far-flung tenderloin districts across the country and the people who traversed them, all the while fostering alternative socialities, cooperative economies, and novel forms of mutual aid. 


Critical praise: 

Kids on the Street is a beautiful, powerful contribution to an inspiring tradition of activist queer and trans public history scholarship. It’s about people marginalized by gender and sexuality finding each other in abjected urban places, sinking down and rising up over and over again, individually and collectively, each time with a promise—partially fulfilled yet never fully realized—of forging new socialities that repair the injustices of the dominant social order.” — Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution

“Representing an innovative approach to queer history, Kids on the Street challenges LGBTQ historiography that often privileges trajectories of community formation and political development that fail to capture the experience of people living in precarious circumstances. Writing with fluidity, beauty, and clarity, Joseph Plaster offers a stunning analysis of the contested processes of memory making and public historical and preservation practices in the context of neoliberal urban development. One of the most exciting and innovative interdisciplinary queer historical works I’ve read recently, this fascinating book makes a major contribution.” — Kevin P. Murphy, author of Political Manhood: Red Bloods, Mollycoddles, and the Politics of Progressive Era Reform

This “academic but highly accessible new book…doesn’t shy away from the more brutal and exploitative risks of this life, one mostly foisted on young people by a conservative society that shuns them. But it does show the remarkable resilience of poor and housing-unstable queer family—a 'moral economy of reciprocity' as the book puts it—that has held strong in San Francisco's Tenderloin and other 'tenderloin' zones throughout the country, and which has 'been overshadowed by major narratives of gay progress and pride.' Along the way, and through dozens of fascinating interviews, we get colorful histories of organizations like Vanguard; descriptions of the scene around the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and other historic moments of resistance; and indelible characters like Reverend River Sims, the “punk priest of Polk Street.'" – Marke Bieschke, author of Into the Streets: A Young Person's Visual History of Protest in the United States

Journal Articles

“‘Homosexuals in Adolescent Rebellion:’” Central City Uprisings During the Long Sixties (forthcoming, April 2023, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies)

In the late 1950s and 1960s, street youth staged a multitude of food riots, sit-ins, and pickets in downtown vice districts across the United States. We cannot appreciate the rage that sparked these rebellions without understanding the moral values and economic norms shared by those who took collective action: the self-defined “kids on the street” who migrated from central city tenderloin to tenderloin, connecting far-flung districts through migratory circuits. Sustaining themselves through sex work and other criminalized economies, street kids created in downtown districts a distinct counterpublic with its own rituals for renaming new members, conventions for collective housing, and networks for pooling resources to increase the chances of mutual survival. If we can understand the anger that prompted street kids to rebel, we can grasp what I call their performative economy: the reciprocities, obligations, and moral norms shared by the kids on the street and the ways they were materialized and transmitted intergenerationally via performance, broadly defined to include religious ritual, storytelling, kinship terms, and gesture.

I reflect on the Peabody Ballroom Experience, a public history collaboration I launched between Johns Hopkins University and the queer and trans people who make up Baltimore’s ballroom scene. Like many elite institutions, Johns Hopkins tends to vacillate between viewing its black neighbors as a potential danger to be policed or, at times, the beneficiaries of charity. Academics too often approach public history as another form of charity: we create knowledge in the academy and then bestow it on those who, we imply, do not have knowledge of their own. The Peabody Ballroom Experience took a different approach by cultivating an exchange of knowledge between Johns Hopkins and Baltimore’s ballroom community, bringing together faculty, students, and ballroom leaders as partners in education. Crucially, the project approached performance as a repository for history and knowledge, expanding what “public history” can look and feel like.


I reflect on my experience as director of Polk Street: Lives in Transition, a project that drew on oral histories to intervene in debates about gentrification, homelessness, sex work, queer politics, and public safety in the highly polarized setting of gentrifying San Francisco. From 2008–10, I recorded more than seventy oral histories from people experiencing the transformation of the city’s Polk Street from a working-class queer commercial district to a gentrified entertainment destination serving the city’s growing elite. Oral histories enabled me to document a local past rich in non-biological family structures, which I interpreted through public “listening parties,” professionally mediated neighborhood dialogues, a traveling multimedia exhibit, and radio documentaries. The project challenged gentrifiers’ claims to be promoting “safety” and “family” by positing alternative understandings of both concepts drawn from oral histories with transgender women, queer homeless youth, sex workers, and working-class gay men who had made Polk Street their home.

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By connecting homeless youth with a history stretching back half a century, the public humanities project Vanguard Revisited encouraged them to imagine their lives and political organizing as part of a historical lineage in which young people mobilized to confront the poverty and stigma they experienced on the streets of San Francisco. Instead of simply transmitting history to contemporary queer homeless youth, Vanguard Revisited sought to enlist today’s queer homeless youth in documenting the past — indeed, to enter into conversation with that history and to position themselves as part of that lineage. Youth broadcast their own stories and organized political actions in the spirit of the original Vanguard, prioritizing economic justice at a time when representations of GLBT life increasingly revolved around privatized family life and conspicuous consumption.


Blogs and Public Writings

“Black Queer Performance in Baltimore’s ‘Cathedral of Books,’” The Abusable Past, digital venue for the Radical History Review, Oct 2019.

Three-part blog post about the Peabody Ballroom Experience: part one, the ball; part two, Peabody Dance; part three, the oral histories, 2019.

Co-editor (with Megan Rohrer) of Vanguard Revisited: The Queer Faith, Sex & Politics of the Youth of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (San Francisco, CA: Wilgefortis, 2016.)

Co-editor of youth zine “Walking Down the Avenue,” an arts and humanities zine about Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore’s historic black arts district.


Co-editor of Vanguard Revisited Magazine, Feb 2011

“Polk Street: Lives in Transition,” commissioned by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s OutHistory Project, published online, Apr. 2009.


“Behind the Masks: GLBT Life at Oberlin College,” thesis-length historical narrative written under the direction of Prof. Carol Lasser, 2001, revised 2007.


“LGBT Pride Parade: A History,” commissioned by the University of California's Calisphere Project, published online, 2011.


“The Rise and Fall of a Polk Street Hustler,” San Francisco Bay Guardian cover story, Mar. 18, 2009.


“Importing Injustice: Deregulation and the Port of Oakland’s Neighbors,” San Francisco Bay Guardian cover story, July 18, 2007.

"Calling in the Feds," San Francisco Bay Guardian, 2007.


“The Ruckus Society at a Crossroads,” Z Magazine, Feb. 12, 2004.


Editor, Undisclosed Recipients, student publication addressing intersections of race, class, and gender within queer communities, Oberlin College, Feb-May 1999.

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