Bay Area lawyers use drag to benefit out-of-state LGBTQ groups

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 19, 2023
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Drag king Papi Churro is helping promote House of Jurisprudence's July 30 drag show that will benefit LGBTQ organizations in their former home state of Texas. Photo: JNC Snaps
Drag king Papi Churro is helping promote House of Jurisprudence's July 30 drag show that will benefit LGBTQ organizations in their former home state of Texas. Photo: JNC Snaps

Texas families and health care providers this month filed suit against Lone Star State officials in a bid to block a law banning medical procedures for transgender youth from going into effect on September 1. HIV prevention agencies are closely following a federal lawsuit over Texans' access to the medication PrEP that prevents transmission of the disease.

Watching the legal battles from afar are Bay Area lawyers outraged by the attacks on LGBTQ rights and preventative sexual health services. They have also been dismayed by the passage of laws specifically targeting drag performers, such as a Texas bill adopted this year that bans "sexually oriented performances" in the presence of minors.

Rather than merely kvetch, they are harnessing their connections in the local legal field and using their talents as drag performers to raise awareness and financially benefit LGBTQ agencies on the ground in Texas and other states where conservative lawmakers have been passing anti-LGBTQ laws.

"I was really sad for most of this year and, frankly, waking up every day really upset. Being able to focus on something active and positive has really helped me feel like there is something to keep working toward," said nonbinary Oakland resident Ari Jones, who performs in drag as Pop Rox. "I am very grateful this community exists, but I look forward to the day when trans people can exist in serenity."

Jones, 31, is a director at Berkeley nonprofit Oasis Legal Services, where they represent LGBTQI+ asylees and other immigrant survivors of trauma. The native of Redwood City began performing in drag while at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Earlier this year Jones helped found a collective of drag artist legal professionals under the name Legalize Drag. The group hosted its first drag show benefit in the spring and raised $10,492 for organizations in Tennessee, where a law banning drag shows at public venues was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge in June.

"I think that folks in the Bay Area really want to step up and express solidarity with those who are in less friendly embracing environments," said Jones. "And, frankly, a lot of folks in the legal community have deeper pockets. So by focusing on performers that are also legal professionals, we are able to tap into some networks that have an ability to give right now."

The collective is hoping to match or exceed what it raised for groups in the Volunteer State with its July 30 fundraiser for several Texas LGBTQ nonprofits. It is being held at a larger space, the queer-owned nightlife venue El Rio in San Francisco's Mission district.

"The group of performers we brought together for the Tennessee benefit had a lot of energy and wanted to keep putting on events. The group decided to name ourselves the House of Jurisprudence," said Jones, who will be among those performing. "After Texas passed its own drag ban, we felt that was the natural next focus for the group."

It also happens to be the home state of collective member Juicy Liu, the drag queen alter ego of Michael Nguyen. The patent attorney has worked in the Bay Area now for 15 years.

"As a recovering Texan, I know the importance of these vital LGBTQI+ nonprofits doing the hard work on the ground," stated Liu, 41, a co-founder of Legalize Drag. "It breaks my heart to know that I can be arrested for performing a centuries-old art form because right-wing extremists need a new boogeyman to mobilize their base. It is simply un-American and unconstitutional to ban drag — I now fear for my safety as a drag performer when I'm visiting Texas."

Helping to promote the benefit has been Itzel Abrego, 45, who performs as two-spirit drag king Papi Churro and has known Jones for a while, even pet sitting for them. A parent of four young adult children, the youngest of whom lives with them in Oakland, Abrego left Austin for the Bay Area in late 2021 in order to be closer to their partner.

Despite it meaning they would be giving up their career as a full time drag performer in their home state of Texas, Abrego felt it would be safer to live in California. They had been the target of anti-LGBTQ harassment after the public library in Leander, Texas, invited Abrego to host a drag story hour in August 2019 and then disinvited them due to the controversy.

A member of a conservative group in the state had begun a campaign to cancel the event, which was covered by disgraced conspiracist Alex Jones on his InfoWars program and then picked up by mainstream media outlets. With their private information doxxed online, Abrego for a time had moved into a friend's home at their insistence until the story had died down.

"Now I look back at it as the calm before the storm. Now that all this stuff is happening, they were setting everything up it felt like," recalled Abrego, who turned their ordeal into a drag act where they impersonated Jones.

Another factor in their decision to leave Texas was the state's loosening of its gun laws, allowing people to carry firearms out in public. As a person of color it no longer felt safe going anywhere outside of Austin, Abrego told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview.

"It got to the point my home wasn't any longer my home. It sucked because it was my grandfather's land," said Abrego, who is a member of the Coahuiltecan and Nahua/Otomi tribes. "So it was not safe, and I was worried."

One Texas friend of theirs took their own life due to the oppression they were facing, as did a friend from Tennessee. Abrego has chosen family who are transgender people still living in Texas now trying to move out of the state, while other friends are choosing to stay and fight.

"I have friends that don't want to have to move because of this legislation. They don't want to be bullied out of there so they are fighting," said Abrego, who works full time now as an office manager for the San Francisco nonprofit Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center. "I have a lot of amazing activist friends turning into big warriors out there, and I want to help."

Oakland drag artist Pop Rox is involved in House of Jurisprudence. Photo: Courtesy Pop Rox  

Beneficiaries
One of the beneficiary agencies of the upcoming drag benefit is Equality Texas and its Queer Texas Crisis Fund. CEO Ricardo Martinez, a gay man who grew up in New York and has familial ties to Texas, told the B.A.R. the statewide nonprofit has received financial assistance this year from several businesses located in other states, such as San Francisco law firm Keker Van Nest & Peters LLP, because of the legislative assault on LGBTQ Texans' civil rights.

"I understand why people would have pity on us. I want to note that is because they are concerned from the stuff they hear, and what they hear isn't wrong," said Martinez, 41, who's led his nonprofit for four years. "I think they are right to be fearful of what is happening on our behalf."

In addition to the record number of anti-LGBTQ bills being filed by Texas lawmakers — there were 141 in 2023 that Equality Texas deemed to be bad — candidates are increasingly running on an anti-LGBTQ platform, noted Martinez, while "vigilante, extremist" parent groups are targeting school policies and others "invade" safe spaces like drag brunches.

"But I think we have thousands of people across Texas who are fighting," he said. "We know 70% of Texans believe discrimination against us and our community is wrong. We need them to practice this love into action."

His agency employs 14 people, all but one full time, on a budget this year of nearly $2 million. Working with a coalition of pro-LGBTQ groups in the state, Equality Texas successfully opposed 95% of the bad bills it tracked this legislative session, noted Martinez.

Having financial support, such as from events like the San Francisco fundraiser, is essential for his agency and its nonprofit partners to continue doing the work they are doing, added Martinez.

"We have a success rate that is pretty high. But we are only able to do it if we are resourced up enough to do it, because the fight is so big and we are pretty small organizations," he said.

One such agency is Organización Latina Trans Texas based in Houston, which employs two full time employees and operates on a budget of roughly $250,000. It will receive a portion of the money raised at the San Francisco event.

"We focus really hard on expanding the organization or expanding the people who are doing the work," said Gia Pacheco, a transgender Texas native who is the agency's program coordinator.

Pacheco, who turns 33 the same day as the drag benefit, told the B.A.R. her agency has also been receiving more support from people out of state this year.

"It is very nice to see that we are not alone here in the dark state of Texas," she said. "People outside of Texas are taking notice and interested in helping. Unfortunately, we are in a dire situation at the moment."

Her agency runs the only shelter for trans people in Texas, said Pacheco, with room for 20 people at a given time. It is open to anyone from the LGBTQ community and currently houses 10 individuals, some of whom are Latino/a immigrants.

"If we don't take them in, no one else will," said Pacheco. "A lot of shelters send trans individuals who go to them for help to us. They don't have the capacity to house them and keep them safe."

The legislative fights have her and other trans adults in Texas on edge, said Pacheco, as they now fear their access to gender-affirming health care will be the next to be restricted.

"A lot of times, especially people my age, they think this is not affecting them because they are not a minor. But that was their first step," Pacheco said of the Republicans who control the state government. "If they see they can do it for youth, there is nothing stopping them from stopping adults from getting health care in the state of Texas. There is nothing stopping them to reverse name and gender maker changes on state IDs."

A third Texas agency, the Black Trans Leadership of Austin, will also share in the proceeds raised via the San Francisco fundraiser. Among the scheduled speakers are Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who is running for U.S. Senate next year, and Daniel Faessler, a trans man who serves as an administrative law judge for the California Department of Social Services.

"If we can help even one queer or trans person feel safer or more stable staying in their environment or more comfortable then our event has been a success," said Jones.

The July 30 drag show benefit will take place from 3 to 8 p.m. at El Rio, 3158 Mission Street. Tickets are $30 at the door.

A discounted price of $20 is available for tickets bought online up until 10 a.m. that Sunday via http://tinyurl.com/legalizedragTX




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