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West Hollywood City Council OKs drag laureate program

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The West Hollywood City Council approved a proposal August 2 for a drag laureate position. Photo: Courtesy Discover Los Angeles
The West Hollywood City Council approved a proposal August 2 for a drag laureate position. Photo: Courtesy Discover Los Angeles   

The West Hollywood City Council unanimously approved a drag laureate program August 2, which is expected to launch this fall.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted in an online story last week, city staff developed a proposal for how to start the program in the Southern California LGBTQ enclave. Monday's vote came nearly a year after the City Council approved the creation of a drag laureate. It will be the first such representative for drag performers and LGBTQ nightlife issues established by a U.S. municipality.

City Councilwoman Lauren Meister, who co-sponsored the original resolution with gay former City Councilman John Duran, told the B.A.R. August 3 that one change that was agreed to was to include drag kings as well as drag queens and other drag artists.

Another change, said Meister, was that business owners or their designates could be on the committee to select the drag laureate.

"Like a manager," she said, referring people such as the club personnel who often book drag acts.

SF also has drag laureate idea
While West Hollywood will become the first, San Francisco may become the second, as the idea is under discussion by City Hall officials and could be brought forward later this year. As the B.A.R. has previously noted, the concept of having an ambassador for the local drag community was first proposed in the draft version of San Francisco's groundbreaking LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy released in 2018.

The final document, filled with myriad ideas for preserving and strengthening San Francisco's LGBTQ community, was published and given to the Board of Supervisors last August. It has yet to be officially presented to the supervisors due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

After reading about the drag laureate suggestion in the B.A.R., gay West Hollywood resident Scott Schmidt brought it to the attention of Meister. Seeing it as a way to boost local nightlife venues and drag performers whose revenues have been impacted by the health crisis, Meister co-sponsored a resolution in support of establishing the position with Duran, who lost his reelection bid last November.

"I'm pretty happy," Schmidt told the B.A.R. August 3. "It's been awhile coming."

He added he was pleased to see drag kings included in the drag artist family.

"We get to recognize this great art that's part of our community," he said of the drag laureate position.

WeHo staff proposal
Similar to West Hollywood's poet laureate program designed to act as a champion for poetry, language, and the arts, the drag laureate will be an honorary position tasked with attending various business and civic functions, participating in business mixers and events, and conducting one or more projects that bring awareness to drag culture, per the staff report.

"This honorary position would serve as an ambassador to West Hollywood businesses, especially the businesses in the city's historic LGBT district and promote arts and culture in West Hollywood," it states. "The Drag Laureate would serve to highlight and promote the contributions of drag artists to West Hollywood by acting as an ambassador to businesses in the city."

The West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce both provided feedback to the city about the program. The person selected as the drag laureate would serve a two-year term from November 2021 to October 2023.

They would be expected to attend and participate in six West Hollywood business grand openings/ribbon cuttings, West Hollywood Chamber mixers or events to support West Hollywood local businesses. The person would also have to organize one yearly event to promote drag culture, such as a panel discussion or performance workshop.

What could prove to be the most controversial aspect of the proposal is that city staff wants to review all of the drag laureate's official programs — they would be required to perform at three city events during their reign — to ensure their "appropriateness prior to execution." That was approved by the council Monday as part of the report, which was moved to the consent calendar and adopted 5-0.

The staff proposal calls for a $5,000 honorarium each year for the drag laureate, which is $2,000 more per year than the poet laureate receives. The bump in the stipend is due to the increased scope of the drag laureate position, such as the required number of appearances and cost associated with hiring artists for their events.

Each year's honorarium would be parceled out in $1,250 increments based on benchmarks established in an agreement between the city and the person selected. The staff is also proposing that the city cover the facility costs, tech costs, and create promotional materials on behalf of the drag laureate's events.

Drag artists eligible to be considered need to show they have "a significant connection to the City of West Hollywood," per the staff report. They could either live or work in the city; volunteer regularly with a community program servicing the city; or have organized or participated in multiple events co-sponsored by and/or took place in West Hollywood.

Anyone fitting the requirements is welcome to apply for the position and will need to submit a three-minute video sample of their drag work. The window to apply will be from 8 a.m. August 30 to 6 p.m. September 30.

A nine-member selection committee would recommend one of the applicants to the City Council for approval at its November 1 meeting. It would be comprised of two city staffers; an arts and cultural affairs commissioner; one person each from the city's Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board and its Transgender Advisory Board; representatives from both the city and the Los Angeles LGBT chambers; and two West Hollywood businesses owners or their designates, as Meister explained.

Matthew S. Bajko contributed reporting.

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