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Queens Vs. the Machine: Drag's Long Fight for Acceptance Lands It in the Weirdest Place of All — the Mainstream 

Tuesday, Oct 14 2014
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This summer's equivalent of a Stonewall or Compton's Cafeteria riot did not involve handcuffs, or flying beer bottles, or police truncheons. It was not spearheaded by an eccentric messiah like Jose Sarria, the 1961 cross-dressing supervisor candidate who later proclaimed himself the widow of Emperor Norton. It did not produce any iconic photographs of drag queens being shepherded into paddywagons or bashing police officers with their stilettos.

It was, in comparison, a more mannered and decorous uprising, leveled against the Silicon Valley network Facebook, which in August began a purge of drag queen profiles. Facebook says the profiles — of people like Sister Roma, BeBe Sweetbriar, and Lil' Miss Hot Mess — didn't conform to its long-held company policy of only publishing "legal" names. Drag queens call that policy a form of blanket discrimination.

A three-week fight ensued, as drag queens pushed their cause via a catchy #MyNameIs hashtag (which spread virally, on Facebook), and held colloquies with the enemy (or rather, the enemy's "directors of community engagement") at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters. (Protest leader Sister Roma described the place as "a really really cute college campus-slash-maximum security prison.")

This month, Facebook caved and offered to revise the real-name rule, which led to many celebratory status updates (posted on Facebook) and a victory rally at City Hall (publicized via Facebook). Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club President Tom Temprano couldn't resist Stonewall comparisons, though other activists acknowledged that this protest had been a lot more sterile, if no less spirited, than its antecedents.

The battles of the '60s and '70s were about basic civil rights; the battle of today is about getting caught in the crosshairs of a corporate reorganization. On one level, that illustrates how far drag has come. On another, it suggests that the scene has grown less radical. It's hard to overlook the irony that drag queens were rallying people on social media to fight for their right to stay on social media. Or that the real reckoning took place not with Facebook capitulating to an army of drag queens with bullhorns, but during a perfuctory boardroom meeting.

Still, a perfunctory meeting on a tech campus might be an apt culmination to more than a century of civil disobedience.

Drag has thrived in San Francisco since the Gold Rush, and over that time it's evolved from proclivity to performance to political statement to profitable business. And in recent years, it's suffered the same fate as many other performing arts in a rapidly changing city: The smaller clubs are closing down, the corporate gigs are proliferating, and the more enterprising queens are catering to tourists or techies. While some hail this as a moment of opportunity, others worry that drag is going the way of the sourdough bread bowl or the cable car — that it's not perceived as a countercultural art form so much as it is an homage to San Francisco's past.

During the real-name flap, Facebook came to symbolize the perniciousness of the tech economy writ large. The company's initial compromise was to allow performers to replace their original profiles with "fan pages" that promoted their avatars. It was a way to enshrine the style of drag without the substance, to separate the commodity from the individual.

That's a dicey proposition for a group that's still adjusting to mainstream acceptance.

"My personal situation is that I do have a page with my 'real' name — well, the name that's on my Social Security card — and Peaches Christ is my public page," 40-year-old veteran Peaches Christ (aka Joshua Grannell) explains. "But I feel so guilty about it, because I don't support what Facebook [was] doing."

Treating drag strictly as a business is fine for those who don't mind separating their brand from their human identity. But for many, the two are still inextricably linked; prospering in the world of Facebook means selling off your sequined soul.

As recently as the early aughts, drag events happened in holes-in-the-wall on Polk Street, with rowdy onlookers and "what-the-fuck-you-want" types of bartenders, and music cranked up to teeth-chattering levels.

Today, drag queens lead walking tours through North Beach and Chinatown.

Local historian Rick Shelton charges $20 a pop for these two-mile junkets, which he advertises to any out-of-towner he sees hanging around on the sidewalk — a doughy Midwesterner, a German tourist, a middle-aged couple from Sunnyvale. Shelton spent 16 years as a children's clown, but says his "Drag Me Along" tour business is more interesting, and potentially more lucrative. He leads these tours dressed as the Countess Lola Montez, an Irish courtesan with an imposing wig and lacy black gown. It's enough of a spectacle in Chinatown that passersby stop to snap photos with their cellphones. Lola hands each of them a tour flier.

Meanwhile, she delivers a chatty recap of the city's Gold Rush history — which, in a sense, is also the history of drag.

"San Franciscans love theater, and men would always dress up as women," Lola explains in her fake Irish brogue, adding that cross-dressing was a natural outgrowth of a society of bachelors. The local prostitutes might service 150 to 200 men a night ("which was how they wound up bow-legged," Lola adds with a saucy wink); the saloons would book drag performers in order to compete with one another. The word "drag" was actually sailor-slang for "clothing," she says, and the first documented drag queen sashayed through Portsmouth Square as early as 1850. In the 1870s, a local barrister used to wander through the bordellos on Commercial Street, dressed as a French maid.

"We were a dirty town," Lola says. Her audience titters.

In the 20th century, San Francisco and other cities put laws on the books to eradicate cross-dressing. For years, drag went underground. By the 1960s, it had spawned an incipient social movement.

In 1966, police clashed with transgendered people who congregated at Compton's Cafeteria in the Tenderloin, a melee that ended with windows shattered and furniture overturned. The Compton's Cafeteria riot inspired a similar uprising in Greenwich Village three years later, when members of the LGBT community fought cops who'd raided the Stonewall Inn. Both events are remembered as shots that set the gay rights movement in motion, establishing New York and San Francisco as twin capitals of the drag universe.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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