OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - You’ve most likely used or at least heard of Uber and Lyft, but before those apps hit millions of cell phones around the world, there was Homobiles, a Bay Area-based ride sharing non-profit that only takes donations and is only reachable via call or text message.
Our journey starts with a love tap near Lake Merritt. It’s an unusually warm February afternoon in Oakland. I meet Lynn Breedlove, founder of Homobiles at the BART station and get in his car, a small older red sedan. Just as soon as we’ve found a spot to park, we feel a bump, but it’s not the curb. He gets out to clear a discrepancy with a fellow motorist. The fender bender is minor, probably not even a scratch.
In this high-tech world, Breedlove’s low-tech ride-hailing service’s mission since 2010 has been to protect and serve the LGBTQ community, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“Trans people often have a long ride to their surgeries. They don’t want to call Uber or Lyft because it’s going to be $40 minimum,” Breedlove says.
“Emotional safety” of riders is their primary focus. In some instances, Breedlove says travelers from around the world find Homobiles to be a perfect fit when they need a ride.
“We’re super lucky to be living in a gay area, you know? People come here from around the world and they’re queer and they’re not allowed to be queer where they are. It’s against the law,” Breedlove says.
One particularly compelling story he tells features two Iranian transgender men, who he had picked up from the airport to take to a clinic for their “top or bottom” surgeries, a common reference in the trans community. They said they felt comfortable in Breedlove’s car even though they were in a foreign land.
“To come here to a different culture, different religious paradigm, they had to learn the language and norms, [they] don’t have a family [here]. When I travel, I call my dad and he’ll have some advice. They don’t have that. You can go to an LGBT center, but it’s not the same,’’ he said.
Breedlove said that over the years, it’s become increasingly obvious how important Homobiles is to LGBTQ travelers.
“[It’s important] to have somebody who cares about them and can listen to them and talk to them and have a real conversation with them, not about the weather,’’ Breedlove said.
“It was more than just a car service to me. It was safety, non judgment and it was from our community, somebody like me,” says a trans woman identified only as Tomeka in a testimonial video Breedlove shared.
“You’re a target, especially now this last year. Your target status is way up if you’re trans, you’re visibly queer or non-conforming in any way, especially if you’re a trans woman of color. [like Tomeka] Now you’ve got a triple target on you,” says Breedlove.
The road to Homobiles wasn’t a direct one.
During the 1990s, Breedlove ran an all-female bike courier service while also touring the world for a comedy show about gender and sexuality. But then his mother, who was living in Berlin at the time, had a stroke and everything changed.
“I thought ‘Oh lucky me. It’s time to move back in with my mom.’ But that didn’t really last because I couldn’t really take care of her because it was a big job,’’ said Breedlove, who ultimately moved his mother into his own San Leandro home.
That’s when he got the idea for the ride service.
“I started at Femme Con, which was right around the corner--Oakland-- and I took a bunch of my friends from the gig that was a few blocks away and then I’d zip ‘em back to the hotel, yelling
‘Free rides!’“ he said.
“I thought, ‘Well, I always wanted to drive people around instead of packages’, so it was called Homobiles.”
Femme Con was a conference for queer femmes, Breedlove explains. “They all get on stage and have workshops about how badass of chicks they are. I always say chick because I was in a chick band and the most badass people I knew identified as chicks. Now that I use male pronouns, I want to be clear that I’m a feminist still.”
Commenting on his own appearance, Breedlove says everybody’s still “maam’ing” him to death on the street, but wants to give some leeway and allow people to call him ‘they’. “I identify as male, but I guess it’s GNC [gender non-conforming]. He, they.”
So how does a non-profit, volunteer fleet of drivers co-exist with the TNC (Transportation Network Companies--like Uber and Lyft) giants in the Bay Area?
“It’s kind of a small operation now. It’s about the size it was shortly after it started in August 2010,” says Breedlove. “If you pre-book it we’ll guarantee a ride based on our availability. We don’t have ubiquitous drivers.”
The Public Utilities Commission, which regulates TNCs does not have a record of Homobiles since it is a nonprofit, (they did ask Homobiles to cease and desist in 2011) but Breedlove says they have had more than 100 drivers over the course since its inception.
When Lyft introduced their app, Breedlove says they made Homobiles an offer in 2012 to join them and asked for their client list. Breedlove says he declined that offer.
Homobiles has been grant writing and seeking funds for a $40,000 app in order to keep up.
“We’ve survived because we do have our regulars. Sometimes they spread the word and people go, ‘Oh wait, are they still around?’ and then we get a little flurry. Right now I’m trying to breathe life back into it,” Breedlove says.
But he knows with the app providing convenience and less waiting time on the corner that the funds are crucial.
“[With an app] you can be in a car in three minutes, but every now and then [with Lyft and Uber] you get a crazy mo-fo who didn’t get properly vetted. That can be true anywhere. They’ve [Uber and Lyft] actually contributed to the safety of women and queers,” he says.
But a profitable business model was never the priority.
"For the people that we’re trying to serve, a surgery like that [gender reassignment] can relieve depression, stress and anxiety and help you to get on with their life."