It was a sunny August afternoon at the intersection of Turk and Taylor Streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district when drag queen and transgender activist Honey Mahogany took the stage to speak at the Riot Party, a celebration of the city’s trans community and its role in LGBTQ liberation.
Fifty-five years earlier, an actual riot had taken place at that same intersection: In August 1966, three years before the Stonewall uprising, drag queens, trans people and other outsiders fought back during a police raid at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, an all-night diner that was one of the few places they could congregate.
Had they seen what was taking place more than a half-century later, those bold resisters — who were arrested en masse and loaded into paddy wagons — might not have believed their eyes: A celebration of the trans community, with a diverse crowd mingling in broad daylight at the center of the Transgender District, the first legally recognized cultural district of its kind in the world.
The small but energetic event closed out Transgender History Month, proclaimed at the start of August by San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
“It was such a great celebration,” Mahogany told LGBTQ Nation. “Amidst all the craziness of the pandemic, it was nice to be able to gather outside with friends and family and celebrate trans history. The performances, the music, the community, they all came together in a way that felt joyful, and, thankfully, wasn’t too overwhelming.”
The former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant was one of a trio of Black trans activists who first lobbied the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to designate the district in 2017.
Mahogany addressed the crowd as the newly elected chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, speaking of the history of the Compton’s riot and the Tenderloin, and encouraging audience members to vote against the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a trans rights advocate.
After decades of pushing boundaries, drag queens are taking center stage — not just on Drag Race, but in activism and even mainstream politics.
Mahogany, 38, worked her way up through San Francisco’s legendary Democratic machine, which begat Newsom, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Harvey Milk, and many others.
She’s making her mark outside City Hall, too: In June, Mahogany sang the National Anthem before the San Francisco Giants’ annual Pride night game.
She’s just one example of how drag performers continue to press for social progress, even as the art form reaches new heights of mainstream success.
Thanks in large part to Drag Race, drag queens are touring the world, signing lucrative commercial contracts, appearing in films and on TV, and even headlining shows on Broadway and London’s West End. RuPaul’s DragCons in New York and Los Angeles rake in more than a combined $8 million a year in ticket sales, merchandise, and appearance fees.
But the spirit of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot still lives on in many of today’s drag queen activists, who are fighting not just for their communities, but for their country, their values, and their planet.
One of the earliest known drag performers in America was a radical, too: In the 1880s, William Dorsey Swann, a former enslaved person who referred to himself as “The Queen,” was well-known in Washington, D.C.’s gay Black social circles for his raucous drag balls.
After being convicted on a trumped-up charge of running a brothel in 1896, Swann demanded a pardon from President Grover Cleveland. He didn’t get it, but the request made Swann the earliest recorded American to “take specific legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence,” Channing Joseph, author of the upcoming The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, wrote in The Nation.
“There were lots of things that seemed possible that had not seemed possible during the slavery era,” Joseph explained. “And I think that there was a level of excitement and possibility that drove Swann and his group to consider how they could express themselves and flout the norms of their society.”
By the turn of the 20th century, drag was becoming a popular feature on the vaudeville circuit, said Frank DeCaro, author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business.
“In vaudeville, drag kind of took off and was part of the mix — the way a juggler or anybody else would be,” DeCaro said. “It was a novelty act and because of the times, it was devoid of any sexuality.”
One top female impersonator, Julian Eltinge, “was sort of the RuPaul of 1912,” DeCaro said. “He looked pretty, which helped. And he was the queen of multimedia — with movies, Broadway plays, and a magazine with tips for how women could be prettier and have a better house.”
A lifelong bachelor, Eltinge had to be cautious about his personal life — cross-dressing was illegal in New York at the time and police raids on drag shows were common.
“There were stories of fisticuffs and Eltinge standing up for himself as if saying you’re straight made him more valid,” DeCaro said. “But a lot of performers back then defended their masculinity in public because they couldn’t be their true selves.”
By the 1940s, the social pendulum swung back toward conservatism and drag queens were pushed back to the fringes of society, performing primarily in underground clubs, often subjected to police harassment.
One of the first instances of modern queer rebellion was in 1959, at Cooper Do-nuts in downtown L.A, a late-night spot known as a haunt for gay men, drag queens, and gender-nonconforming people. One night, police arrested five people on charges of “sex perversion” and, as authorities tried to shove all five into one squad car, one of the men resisted.
Soon enough drag queens and other patrons hit the streets, pelting the cops with doughnuts, coffee cups and sugar shakers. The officers retreated and came back with reinforcements — only to find the patrons had done the same, resulting in an all-night melee.
That same year, WWII veteran José Sarria was gaining attention in San Francisco for his drag parodies of Bizet’s Carmen. His shows at the Black Cat Cafe in North Beach were also often plagued by police raids, with Sarria narrowly dodging the vice squad as patrons were arrested on morality charges.
By 1961, Sarria had enough. He marched down to City Hall and registered as a candidate for the Board of Supervisors — the first out gay man to run for political office in the United States.
Though he didn’t win, he garnered nearly 6,000 votes, making it clear that San Francisco’s gay voting bloc couldn’t be ignored. Since then, Serria told The Atlantic in 2011, “there’s never been a politician in San Francisco — not even a dog-catcher — that did not go and talk to the gay community.”
In the years before Stonewall, other drag queens found themselves on the front lines, fighting violent police raids at the Council on Religion and the Homosexual’s drag ball in San Francisco in 1965 and at the Black Cat in Los Angeles in 1967.
There was an emerging pattern to these actions, DeCaro said, with change being led by those who couldn’t hide in the closet even if they wanted to.
“It’s always the most outrageous, boundary-crossing people who really champion our freedom, only because they have no choice,” he said. “When you’re not who you appear to be in polite society, you end up having to fight for your very existence. They led the way, but it’s out of necessity and out of desperation often because they’re not asking for special rights, they just want to live.”
A few years later, in the summer of 1969, a police raid on a mafia-owned dive in New York’s West Village sparked a week of protest in and around the Stonewall Inn, which would be become the symbolic birth of the modern gay rights movement.
Among those at the Stonewall uprisings was drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind”), who later became a surrogate drag mother to queer youth in New York in the ‘70s.
Johnson toured internationally with drag troupes like Angels of Light and the Hot Peaches, and even having her portrait taken by Andy Warhol. But she deeply invested in advocating for gay and trans youth, people with AIDS and other marginalized groups. Johnson was an original member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with fellow activist queen Sylvia Rivera, which worked to provide basic rights for trans and gay youth experiencing houselessness, and was active with the radical AIDS organization ACT UP.
She credited drag with giving her the platform to become an activist.
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen,” Johnson said in a 1992 interview shortly before her death. “That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.”
Challenges and Crisis
When AIDS hit the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, drag queens like Johnson and others stepped up. In San Francisco, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence lead the way: Registered nurses Bobbi Campbell and Baruch Golden, a.k.a. Sisters Florence Nightmare and Roz Erection, worked with medical professionals to draft safer-sex literature that used plain language and humor to educate. Other members of the “order” handed out condoms at events and launched successful AIDS fund-raisers.
At the same time, in New York’s East Village, a different drag scene was emerging with the arrival of RuPaul and Lady Bunny.
Linda Simpson began performing with Ru and Bunny in the ’80s at venues like the Pyramid Club and Boy Bar, while also documenting ACT UP protests with her ever-present camera.
Simpson’s photobook The Drag Explosion collects her photography from both the activist world and drag scene of the 1980s and ’90s.
In New York, Simpson said, AIDS street activism, specifically, ACT UP, “was a more cis man thing.”
“I think the queens were more doing benefits and helping out in that regard. But it was all interwoven — at Wigstock you’d see a lot of people with ACT UP shirts.”
Drag was intrinsically revolutionary then, she said, challenging the heteronormative homogeny of the Reagan ’80s.
“It was about provoking a lot of questions and pushing boundaries that were related to gender and social norms,” Simpson added. While it wasn’t organized resistance or running for office, “it was political in its own way.”
An Elected Empress
Juanita More is another drag queen whose activism was shaped by the AIDS crisis.
A queer Latinx born in the Bay Area, More found her way to San Francisco’s Castro District in 1990. She became fast friends with Glamamore, the city’s drag doyenne, who agreed to give More her first drag makeover just before Halloween.
“I went out that night and had an absolute blast and came home saying I can’t wait to do it again. And I did it the next weekend,” she said. And the weekend after that, too — drag became a positive outlet for grief, anxiety and the social and political energy she had in abundance.
“Emotionally, I had been living through such a dark time with AIDS that drag became a new way for me to go out and be around people again,” said More. “It also became another artistic outlet.”
She said she loved bringing drag out of the gay ghetto and into places where people didn’t expect it, like a popular San Francisco comedy club where she organized a sold-out run of three drag performances in 1994.
“I was always pushing to bring drag into places where it normally wouldn’t be,” More said. “I loved arriving at events where you normally would not expect a drag queen to show up.”
She also started using her act to organize fund-raisers for AIDS organizations and groups that supported both LGBTQ young people and seniors.
“I care about queer youth because they’re the future. They’re going to be my voice when I can’t talk anymore,” More said. “And to this day, queer elders are still telling me the stories of what led me to where I am today.”
In April, More was elected Empress of the Imperial Council of San Francisco, a venerated LGBTQ nonprofit founded by Sarria in 1965 that distributes charitable donations to other nonprofits. More first met Sarria at a Pride event in 2005.
“He was just sizing me up. And I loved it,” she said. “José was like royalty and looked at you with much wisdom. He was courteous, kind, and generous in his opinion. He adored the attention that he was getting and it was so well deserved.”
More has already raised a record $200,000 through the Imperial Council, which, as a “monarch,” she can donate to causes of her choice — like the San Francisco Queer Nightlife Fund, the LGBT Asylum Project, and the transgender-youth initiative Project TRUTH.
“I like working more behind the scenes, being the person who really builds it and is really thorough about it,” More said. “I love to put it out there and then move on to another project.”
She loves that so many other queens are finding their way as activists, too.
“I’ve always felt that drag queens and trans people have led first, whether it was politics or social issues,” she said. “It’s blown up more now because drag has blown up more. Look at José, he ran in 1961 and wanted to take care of the community he had started to create. So it’s always been there. There’s just a new way to showcase it now.”
The New Wave of Drag Activism
The non-binary trans drag queen Iamfaith is also breaking down stereotypes: A Navy veteran, she’s the founder of Helping F.A.I.T.H (Facilitating Access Into Transformative Housing), which provides support services to LGBTQ youth of color.
The origins of that activism, she says, date back to high school.
“I had an effeminate personality, so a lot of male humans took it upon themselves to use me as a scapegoat, whether they wanted to express their anger that they were going through at home or with other people,” Iamfaith said.
“They used me as a punching bag. It wasn’t too severe but it was enough for me to relate to other young people who were being bullied.”
Rather than see the pandemic as a setback, Iamfaith views it as a chance to step up her activism.
“I realized that I had been afforded a lot of opportunity, access, and power within my own efforts. I knew that there was a demographic of individuals that were in need of access to resources.”
She began Comforting the Community, which provides aid to people living on the streets of Hollywood—mainly young Black and Latinx trans women—and FaithLynn’s Closet, which collects makeup supplies, lashes, brushes, wigs, and more.
“I knew that the younger demographic was really in need of more support and services. I thought, ‘How can I make a difference in the community?’”
Helping F.A.I.T.H is currently fundraising to purchase its first property, a 13-bed home in Koreatown the group hopes to transform into a safe haven for trans youth experiencing homelessness.
Iamfaith believes that the strength of drag activism is how queens can cultivate totally unique platforms and causes. Some are more political than others: Canadian drag queen Kyne, for example, has amassed more than a million followers on TikTok schooling fans in math and science.
Embracing a passion for STEM was a revolutionary act for this Filipino-Canadian drag queen, who turned heads on Season 1 of Canada’s Drag Race.
“I love math, and when you sincerely love something you want to shout it from the rooftops,” Kyne said. “People associate a lot of bad memories with math. [But] math is beautiful, interesting, and extremely relevant to the world around us.”
By infusing humor and glamour into her mini-lessons, Kyne opens people’s minds, “because drag is fun, irreverent, artistic and silly.”
“I hope I can break down stereotypes about math but also stereotypes about drag queens and gay people,” she said.
Drag is Political
Still, there’s no denying the political, social and racial upheaval of recent years has encouraged more drag queens to become involved in activism.
That includes Drag Race performers, too: Phi Phi O’Hara and Brita Filter are ambassadors for Drag Out the Vote, a nonpartisan organization that hosts voter registration drives at drag shows.
Last year, RPDR breakout stars Peppermint and Bob the Drag Queen, who have closely allied with Black Lives Matter, launched Black Queer Town Hall, a non-profit focused on “celebrating black queer excellence by supporting and cultivating community, sharing knowledge, and uplifting voices.”
In March, audiences were stunned when eventual Season 13 winner Symone walked the runway wearing a stark white gown with bullet holes in the back, and the phrase “Say Their Names” written in red Swarovski crystals on her headpiece.
“I really wanted to take this opportunity to do some activism in my drag and personify that Black angelic being,” she said in the episode. “As I turn around, you see on the back there are two bullet holes and I put my hands up [to say]. ‘Don’t shoot.'”
Black Lives Matter, she added “is not a moment, it is a movement. We continue to say their names—Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Brayla Stone, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Nina Pope, Monica Diamond.”
Queens are also looking to shake things up from the inside by running for elected office. Chicago drag queen Joan Jett Blakk ran for president in 1992—promising to paint the White House lavender—but it wasn’t until April 2019, when Los Angeles performer Maebe A. Girl was elected to the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council that the first known drag queen was voted into public office in the U.S.
This savvy trans performer now has her eyes on Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff’s congressional seat in the 2022 election.
In 2020, Eric Morrison, who still occasionally performs as drag queen Anita Mann, won a seat in Delaware’s House of Representatives.
And Big Apple drag queen Marti Gould Cummings, who also works with Drag Out the Vote, became the first drag queen to run for New York City Council when they launched their campaign in 2019.
Cummings, who identifies as non-binary, came to the city in the early 2000s to be a stage actor. But a gender-bending role in the 2008 off-Broadway show Twisted pushed them in a new be-wigged direction.
Stage Fright, Cummings’ long-running Broadway-themed drag show at Therapy in Hell’s Kitchen, welcomed Tony winners like Ann Reinking and Billy Porter.
In the midst of the turbulent 2016 presidential race, Cummings was performing at another bar when they cracked wise about vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence.
“I made a political joke, and the bar owner didn’t enjoy that,” Cummings said. “So I quit that gig. And as I was walking away from it, I had a lightbulb moment — I realized I have a microphone in my hand every day, I have an opportunity to educate not only myself but others in the world. And that’s how political me was born.”
After Donald Trump was elected president, Cummings got involved in HK Dems, a community group involved in making change at the local level.
“I made some calls to friends of mine in politics and saw there was a void that was there,” Cummings said. “And so I got involved in a political club—I started doing community work, working on local elections and getting young people engaged in the political process, and educating myself about local politics.”
They ended up serving on Community Board 9 in Upper Manhattan and on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Nightlife Advisory Board.
“That eventually led to running for City Council, which was something I never thought I’d do in my life, ever,” they said. “That wasn’t on my vision board.
In a strange way, Cummings said, drag prepared them for the world of politics.
“In drag, you’re dealing with all types of people and personalities — wrangling crowds and dealing with hecklers. Also, we bring people together for toy drives and food drives, and protests. So drag really prepared me for the organizational aspect and the community-building aspect of politics, too.”
Cummings didn’t win, but they’re proud of their campaign and said victory still manifested in other ways.
“I had a mom come up to my mom on the street on Election Day and say, ‘My kid and I met Marti while they were campaigning and my 10-year-old came out as non-binary that night,’” Cummings recalled.
“I tell people when bad things happen in politics, don’t use it to get discouraged. Use it as fuel to continue to push and push and push.”