Application process opens for San Francisco drag laureate post

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday November 17, 2022
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San Francisco Mayor London Breed, at left, has announced that the application process for the city's first drag laureate position is now open. Photo: Rick Gerharter
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, at left, has announced that the application process for the city's first drag laureate position is now open. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco is now accepting applications for its inaugural drag laureate position. The mayoral appointee is to be selected early next year.

The person will be one of two such honorary officials in the country, as West Hollywood is also working on naming its own first drag laureate. It had hoped to do so this month, but the search process announced in September resulted in a disappointing number of applicants so the city is retooling its requirements.

Drag performers in San Francisco will have until January 16 to submit an application. They must be full-time residents of the city and county and at least 21 years old.

A vetting committee of community leaders will recommend up to five applicants for San Francisco Mayor London Breed to choose from, and she is supposed to announce her decision sometime in February. The drag laureate will serve for 18 months and receive an honorarium of $55,000 to help cover the costs of performing their duties.

"San Francisco's commitment to inclusivity and the arts are the foundation for who we are as a city," said Breed in a statement shared with the Bay Area Reporter. "Drag artists have helped pave the way for LGBTQ rights and representation across our city, and they are a part of what makes our city so special. Investing in programs that continue their legacies and create opportunities for the next generation of drag performers to thrive help us to celebrate our city and this community."

Helping to advise the city on launching the drag laureate program has been gay attorney Michael Nguyen, a member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission LGBTQIA+ Advisory Committee. Nguyen also performs under his drag persona of Juicy Liu.

"As a drag performer myself, I know the transformative nature of this art form, unlocking power through finding a voice as an artist and mobilizing our LGBTQI+ community as an activist," stated Nguyen who, as a member of the vetting committee, will not be applying for the position. "San Francisco has long been a place where queerdos have used drag as a platform to create international movements, from the International Imperial Court System and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I am proud we are able to pay homage to our past, recognize a drag performer for their talents and impact, and build a future for even more drag activist spaces throughout San Francisco."

In addition to representatives from the HRC, other vetting committee members are coming from the city's public library, Entertainment Commission, Arts Commission, Grants for the Arts, and Office of Transgender Initiatives. Community members for the panel have been recruited from the Transgender District, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits, Grand Ducal Council of San Francisco, Imperial Court of San Francisco, Drag Story Hour, Rebel Kings of Oakland, and the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance.

"I can't think of any other city with a drag community more talented, diverse, inclusive, and exciting than San Francisco," stated Sister Roma, a member of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the infamous drag nun philanthropic organization. "As a member of the drag laureate vetting committee I'm relying on my 35 years of experience as a drag activist, fundraiser, public speaker, event producer, and entertainer to present Mayor Breed with the very best candidates to represent our city."

Funding increased

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Breed this year sought funding in her two-year budget proposal to launch a drag laureate position for the city. The position is being modeled after the city's poet laureates, who have served between two to four years in the position.

Initially, the drag laureate was to receive $35,000, similar to what the poet laureate receives for serving 12 months. But the vetting committee for the drag position recommended that the person receive $20,000 more and serve an extra six months.

Breed's office agreed to the changes. The money is coming through the San Francisco Public Library, the city agency that also oversees the poet laureate program.

"I am excited to see this plan move forward to proclaim a drag laureate for San Francisco, an important recognition for our entire community, akin to our city's poet laureate," stated City Librarian Michael Lambert.

San Francisco was the second city in California to initiate a drag laureate program. In 2020, West Hollywood was the first known city anywhere in the world to approve the creation of a drag laureate for the LGBTQ haven in Los Angeles County.

Last August, as the Bay Area Reporter noted at the time, the West Hollywood City Council approved a plan for selecting a person for the position by Thanksgiving. But another wave of COVID-19 last fall delayed that timeline.

Feedback that City Councilmember Lauren Meister, now serving as mayor, received from one local drag performer about the laureate post led her to ask city staff to further refine the scope of the position. She had initially worked with gay former city councilmember John Duran two years ago to push for West Hollywood to name a drag laureate.

Their two-year reign was to begin this month and run through October 2024, with the person to have received a $5,000 honorarium each year. But the application process is currently on hold as city staff come up with a revised proposal.

West Hollywood city spokesperson Sheri A. Lunn told the B.A.R. November 16 that the City Council will need to again vote on approving the program before the new drag laureate selection process is announced. The timeline for doing so has not been set, added Lunn.

Meister told the B.A.R. Wednesday, November 16, that her city is committed to establishing the position and wants to ensure it has the details correct.

"My motto is get it right. Don't do it just to say we did it. Trying to get it right," she replied in a text.

New York City leaders have called for establishing a drag laureate position. The latest to do was queer City Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, who in May submitted a proposal to establish a drag laureate for the Big Apple. It is awaiting a committee hearing.

A boost for nightlife

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. It was reading about the drag laureate suggestion in the B.A.R. that led gay West Hollywood resident Scott Schmidt to first bring it to the attention of Meister.

City leaders in all three jurisdictions see it as a way to boost local nightlife venues and drag performers whose revenues have been impacted by the pandemic over the last two and half years. San Francisco's drag laureate will be expected to participate in and host community events while serving as an ambassador for the city's LGBTQ, arts, nightlife, and entertainment communities.

"San Francisco would not be the beacon for LGBTQ rights it is without drag artists," stated gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the city's LGBTQ Castro district. "This program is an appropriate recognition of the essential role drag plays in our queer culture, and I look forward to seeing who will be named our first drag laureate."

Those interested in applying to be San Francisco's drag laureate can do so online via the website.

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