Few things could be more fraught — or glorious — than the sight of a tall, busty, bewigged drag queen performing a song about tech-driven gentrification at a beleaguered gay bar in the Mission District. And few people would be fitter for the starring role than Persia, a South Central-raised diva who tutors fourth graders by day and haunts San Francisco cabarets by night. She performed the snarky synth-pop number "Google Google Apps Apps" last May at Esta Noche, offering the clientele a chance to bemoan changes on a heavily trafficked strip of 16th Street before the club shuttered.
The owners of Esta Noche sold their gritty, red-lit watering hole to the team behind Wish Bar & Lounge, a fancy cocktail joint in SOMA. At present, the venue's future is uncertain — new owner Callum Hutchins says he and the other Wish folk "do not have a firm concept, yet" — but it's unlikely to be revived as a Latino gay bar with cheap margaritas and weekly drag shows.
Such spectacles still exist, at places like Midnight Sun in the Castro, El Rio, in the Mission, and Aunt Charlie's Lounge on Turk Street, but they're starting to taper off as a once-fringey San Francisco subculture gets absorbed by the mainstream.
"We've lost the ability to have parties in small venues," famed drag performer and Entertainment Commission member Glendon "Anna Conda" Hyde says, explaining that drag, like many other swaths of San Francisco, is watching its midsection get sliced out. It's gaining acceptance in pop culture at large — particularly with the advent of the popular reality TV show RuPaul's Drag Race — but fizzling in the very nightclubs that birthed it, because so many of them can't afford to operate anymore.
"I think what's missing is a stand-out show that creates a stable of queens," Anna Conda says. "Trannyshack used to have a stable, and [so did] Charlie Horse, this punk-rock thing at The Cinch Saloon on Polk Street." But Charlie Horse ended in 2009, a year after Trannyshack became a touring revue. Another famed drag bar, Marlena's, shut its doors last year to make way for the chicer Brass Tacks.
Meanwhile, drag culture — like much of the LGBT world — has drifted from the margins to the center. More corporate parties are hiring drag acts; well-heeled crowds will pay top dollar to have this vestigial slice of San Francisco presented in a more ceremonious space.
Trannyshack host Heklina, who was recently booked to host an Academy Awards night at The Battery — a private, techie social club on the cusp of North Beach — says the new business comes with a price. "I just miss when gays were seen as deviant freaks," she says, explaining gay folk once depended on a robust nightlife scene to find dates. Now, they just use apps.
But if San Francisco's queen scene is diminishing, there's at least one silver lining, Anna Conda says: a nascent drag king subculture is blossoming in Oakland.