Drag march draws thousands in SF

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Tuesday April 11, 2023
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"Drag Up! Fight Back!" demonstrators marched into Union Square from Powell Street in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8. Photo: Heather Cassell
"Drag Up! Fight Back!" demonstrators marched into Union Square from Powell Street in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8. Photo: Heather Cassell

Kye Timmons, 33, a queer transgender therapist who works with transgender youth, said they were marching because, "I want young people to grow up into adults."

Timmons' partner, Tara Fumi Apriletti, 34, a queer nurse practitioner, was demonstrating because, "I love my partner."

"The right-wing wants us to be afraid and we're not gonna buy into it. We're out here to stand up for what we believe in and say, 'Hell yeah to queer joy,'" Fumi Apriletti, whose parents, Asano Fertig and Jim Apriletti, were marching with the couple, said as the "Drag Up! Fight Back!" march got underway April 8 in downtown San Francisco.

The Bay Area's LGBTQ community and allies came out in force for the demonstration and rally meant to send a message that anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ laws passed or proposed in many red states are neither needed nor tolerated. A smaller group took part in a rally outside San Francisco City Hall before marching to Union Square.

Kye Timmons, left, marched with their partner's parents, Jim Apriletti and Asano Fertig, who came out to support Timmons and their queer daughter, Tara Fumi Apriletti, "Drag Up! Fight Back!" Photo: Heather Cassell  

The crowd of protesters swelled from a few hundred to nearly 5,000, filling up Powell Street as people flowed into Union Square for the rally that ended at 3 p.m.

As the marchers left San Francisco's Civic Center at 11:45 a.m. and walked down Market Street to Union Square they chanted, "Trans rights are human rights," and "Drag Up! Fight Back!" Rainbow and transgender flags waved in the air among the protest signs reading "Disarm Hate," "Drag is not a crime," "Protect trans youth," and "Say gay, we will not be silenced."

Demonstrators also remembered Heklina, the late drag star and former co-owner of the Oasis nightclub in San Francisco's South of Market district. Stefan Grygelko, who was behind the drag persona Heklina, died unexpectedly at age 55 in London April 3, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. People carried posters with her image and she was mentioned in speeches throughout the afternoon.

Speakers at the rally discussed the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures across the country and two in Congress, the need to pay attention to what lawmakers are proposing, speak up, get involved, stand up for the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities, and vote.

A sprinkling of bewildered onlookers along Market Street stopped to watch the demonstrators as they passed by. Some tourists and shoppers looked askance from the street, shops, and their room windows looking down on Union Square from the Westin St. Francis hotel, while others joined the demonstration and enjoyed the drag shows.

Addressing the crowd, gay California state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) called the anti-LGBTQ legislative tsunami a "huge threat to our community."

Others were critical of conservative lawmakers.

"A war has been declared on us, the LGBT community by the radical right-wing of this nation," said Nicole Murray Ramirez, a gay Latino San Diego community leader and columnist of a local LGBTQ newspaper.

Murray Ramirez, as the Queen Mother I of the Americas and Nicole the Great, is the titular head of the Imperial Court System, the philanthropic drag organization that began in San Francisco in 1965.

On Easter Sunday, about 2,000 people marched in West Hollywood in a similar drag march organized by the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Under attack
Currently, more than 450 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed in various state legislatures, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Transgender youths' right to privacy, health care, sports, and information are the targets in more than 150 of those bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The bills are a multipronged assault on the LGBTQ community, attempting to limit changing government-issued identification, access to services and public accommodations, blocking transgender students from playing sports, and censoring free speech and expression, as the B.A.R. has reported.

An anti-trans bill in California would have forcibly outed trans students to their parents. But Assembly Bill 1413, sponsored by Assemblymembers Bill Essayli (R-Riverside) and James Gallagher (R-Chico) was effectively killed April 10 when Assembly Education Committee Chair Al Muratsuchi (D-Los Angeles) held the bill, preventing it from having a committee hearing.

Under the Democratic controlled Legislature, the bill had no chance of being passed. Nonetheless, statewide LGBTQ rights group Equality California praised Muratsuchi's decision.

"The state should play no part in right-wing attempts to vilify trans people and further inflame the never-ending culture war. We must enact policies that will protect truly trans youth and help to ensure they have every opportunity to succeed," stated EQCA Executive Director Tony Hoang, calling the proposed bill "misguided" and supporting a "dangerous narrative."

Last month, two anti-transgender bills were proposed in Congress, House Resolution 5, "The Parents Bill of Rights Act," and HR 734, "The Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act." A committee in the GOP-led House passed the bill March 9, reported Gay City News.

In 2022, governors signed 29 anti-LGBTQ bills into law, according to HRC.

Tennessee became the first state to potentially ban drag performances with the February 9 passage of SB 3. Recently, however, United States District Court Judge Thomas Parker in Memphis blocked the law from taking effect, stating that it was too broad. Parker then extended the injunction until May 26, reported Pink News.

While the Tennessee bill does not specifically mention drag, civil rights organizations are wary, as are many drag performers.

"Anti-LGBTQ+ extremists have put drag performers and the establishments that support them in their sights this year, with multiple bills filed across the country seeking to ban and, in some cases, criminalize drag performances. These far-right figures claim that drag is dangerous to children — not gun violence (the leading cause of death for children and teenagers), child hunger, or affordable housing — but drag," EQCA communications director Jorge Reyes Salinas said in a statement to the B.A.R. "This is a direct assault on free speech and an attempt to intimidate the LGBTQ+ community."

EQCA co-sponsored the Drag Up! Fight Back! demonstration and rally.

"Drag is an art form that is valued, cherished, and will not be silenced," Reyes Salinas said.

"RuPaul's Drag Race" creator RuPaul took to Instagram last month calling Republican lawmakers "bullies" who weren't solving real issues they were elected to solve from poverty to gun control. He urged people to register to vote.

"Register to vote so we can get these stunt queens out of office," RuPaul said in the post.

Wiener agreed. Speaking to the crowd Saturday, he said, "Let's be clear about why they're doing this. They don't want to talk about the fact that children are getting shot and killed in classrooms in this country. They don't want to talk about [how] so many people are dying of drug overdoses because of lack of access to health care. They don't want to talk about the climate emergency or income inequality or any of the real issues that are facing our country. What do they want to talk about? That drag queens and trans people are somehow the biggest threat to this country.

"We're not gonna let them get away with it," he continued, praising transgender youth for their bravery to live authentically and the drag artists who have been fighting for LGBTQ rights for a century. "Don't mess with the drag queens."

Attention needed
Lesbian El Cerrito City councilmember Carolyn Wysinger, former board president of San Francisco Pride, told the crowd the reality is that right-wing Republicans, including LGBTQ GOPers, are in it for the long haul.

"We have to understand this ... is a long game that the right-wing Republicans are playing," she said, stating people need to pay attention to "the boring shit" — policy work. "[Republicans] didn't just get people on the ballot or just get someone to [the] Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. They played a long game."

Republican former President Donald Trump was able to appoint three members to the Supreme Court during his term, solidifying a conservative supermajority.

Wysinger explained California has its deep red districts that Wiener and other out lawmakers in California's Legislature are fighting against every day in Sacramento.

"Every day they're going into the halls of justice and having to explain to people from red areas why trans lives matter, why we need to pass anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws," she said about the LGBTQ legislators.

She, along with other speakers, called upon the people at the rally to do more.

Standing up
Only a handful of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have spoken out against the anti-LGBTQ bills in their state legislatures and fewer governors have vetoed them. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) vetoed SB 50, the state's ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, only to have his GOP-controlled legislature override his veto March 29. The bill goes into effect in late June.

Rebecca Blankenship, a trans woman who's a member of the Berea school board in Kentucky, and Louisville state Representative Pamela Stevenson (D) have also been speaking out opposing Kentucky's anti-transgender bills, reported WKYT. Stevenson delivered a fiery speech against HB 470, which banned gender transition services and more in Kentucky, on the floor of the legislature with demonstrators cheering and chanting in the background.

Nebraska State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh (D-06), the mother of a transgender son, is among those who have also stood up against hateful legislation against the LGBTQ community using her filibuster power. Cavanaugh has been busy filibustering every bill introduced in the legislature to get her point across. Nebraska's LB 574 would prevent gender-affirming care for transgender youth, reported Good Morning America 3.

"If this Legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority then I am going to make it painful, painful for everyone," Cavanaugh told lawmakers in Nebraska's legislature, "because if you want to inflict pain on our children, I am going to inflict pain upon this body."

She also announced the new political action committee, Don't Legislate Hate, launched along with bisexual Senator Megan Hunt (D-8) and gay Senator John Fredrickson April 3. Hunt is also the mother of a transgender son.

President Joe Biden has spoken out against the laws on several occasions. On April 6, the Biden administration proposed changes to Title IX focused on transgender student athletes' eligibility for teams, the B.A.R. reported.

"Drag Up! Fight Back!" organizers Juanita MORE!, left, Sister Roma, and Honey Mahogany addressed the crowd that filled San Francisco's Union Square on Saturday, April 8. Photo: Heather Cassell  

Been there, done that
At the San Francisco rally, lesbian activist Olga Talamante and other activists like Murray Ramirez, shared their more than 75 years of experience fighting for LGBTQ and other marginalized communities' rights and gave a brief history lesson.

Talamante was a San Francisco Pride grand marshal in 2012, the B.A.R. previously reported.

Born in 1935, Murray-Ramirez told the crowd that he survived the fear of being hospitalized and subjected to electric shock and lobotomy, decades of political and legislative attacks, riots, and racial and homophobic and anti-transgender slurs being hurled at her not only by straight people but also by LGBTQ people.

"I come from the times, and listen closely, when — with just a stroke of a pen of your parents or a judge — homosexual Americans were not only committed to state hospitals, but they were subjected to electric shock treatment and lobotomies never to return the same," Murray Ramirez said.

Murray Ramirez recalled the "Lavender Scare" of the 1950s under then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The witch hunt against LGBTQ federal employees remained in place for decades. There was also the "Red Scare" led by then-senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), a national campaign against alleged members of the communist party.

It's estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 federal employees lost their jobs during the Lavender Scare, reported Time. Similarly, thousands of government employees to Hollywood's biggest names were blacklisted during the Red Scare, including LGBTQ people.

The 1970s brought American singer and beauty queen Anita Bryant's "Save the Children" campaign and conservative Baptist televangelist the Reverend Jerry Falwell's anti-LGBTQ campaign. Murray Ramirez fought against California's Briggs initiative, a 1978 statewide ballot measure that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. It was defeated by voters.

Talamante said that she survived being a political prisoner in Argentina for 16 months. She said laws attacking and dehumanizing activists, students, and others is how Argentina's brutal military rule started in the 1970s.

"Then came the unleash of the most brutal repression," where people were disappeared, imprisoned, executed, and children were taken away from their families, she said. To this day, children as adults are still being found and reunited with their families, she said.

Speaking about conservatives, Talamante said, "They hate all of us."

"We cannot let the right-wing unite us only in our hate. We must unite in our love for each other," she added.

"Today I speak to you as a proud Latino drag queen," Murray Ramirez said. "This old cha-cha queen says read my silicone lips, 'We are never, ever going back into the closet.'"

"We will win this radical right war because history is on our side," Murray Ramirez added as the crowd roared with cheers.

Tourists from Australia, Colombia, and Denmark told the B.A.R. they didn't understand why anti-LGBTQ laws were being passed in America. When asked if it changed their view of the United States, they said, "Yes."

Colombian tourist Norin Bineei was texting and sending photos of the rally to her gay brother back home. She expressed disappointment because she and her brother believed the U.S. was the freest country in the world and that other countries, like Colombia, look up to the U.S.

Dutch tourists Karin Zimmer and her daughter hopped off a bus tour to watch the demonstrators march down Market Street. They were shocked to learn that American lawmakers were restricting LGBTQ rights when the Netherlands expanded rights for sexual orientation and gender identity last year.

"They're not very tolerable," Zimmer said of conservative lawmakers, adding that she was glad that the LGBTQ community was able to protest the laws.

Local onlookers throughout the day expressed that the demonstration raised their awareness to take action against the LGBTQ hate. Victoria Juliano and Courtney Kessler, fans of "RuPaul's Drag Race," joined the demonstration while out shopping in Union Square.

"It's really just so unfortunate that it feels like we had such a great opportunity to make more progress and inclusivity happen," said Kessler. "Instead, we choose to fight non-issues all the time instead of helping those who actually need help."

Both women said they were going to explore where they can volunteer to support the LGBTQ community.

The protest was organized by the People's March, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the San Francisco Democratic Party.

The march and rally was sponsored by 25 businesses, groups, and organizations, such as the Equality Business Alliance, Oasis, the National LGBTQ Task Force, National Center for Lesbian Rights, the city's LGBTQ Democratic clubs — Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas — the Imperial Council of San Francisco, and San Francisco's queer cultural districts in the Castro, Tenderloin, and South of Market.

The ACLU has set up the Drag Defense Fund to support legal battles against hateful legislation, like Tennessee's SB 3. To donate, click here.

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