Breed funds San Francisco drag laureate post

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 1, 2022
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San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has budgeted $35,000 in her two-year budget proposal to launch a drag laureate position for the city. A selection committee will help recommend drag performers for her to choose from for the post, with the inaugural person likely named sometime in October during LGBTQ History Month.

Exact details on the selection process, responsibilities of the drag laureate, and the duration of their reign are still to be worked out. But the position is being modeled after the city's poet laureates, who have served between two to four years in the position.

The money Breed is including in her budget is to cover a one-year stipend for the drag laureate. It will come through the San Francisco Public Library, the city agency that also oversees the poet laureate program.

"San Francisco's commitment to inclusivity and the arts are the foundation for who we are as a city," stated Breed. "Drag artists have helped pave the way for LGBTQ rights and representation across our city, and we must invest in programs that continue their legacies and create opportunities for the next generation of drag performers to thrive."

Michael Nguyen, shown in his drag persona Juicy Liu, is helping set up the drag laureate. Photo: Courtesy Istagram  

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.

"I am just hopeful it is yet another thing in the city where we can promote LGBTQI+ Pride and excitement. Having a drag laureate, in my mind, that person being at a lot more city events and having the ear of the administration will be exciting," said Nguyen, who doesn't plan to apply for the position since he is working on its creation.

"A position like this really legitimizes drag. It shows drag performers are keepers of culture," he added. "Queer culture in America is mainstreaming, especially drag through 'RuPaul's Drag Race' for sure. It used to be you had to go to a gay bar and that was where drag performers were. Now we are on TV; we need to have a public presence."

San Francisco is 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 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.

Meister told the B.A.R. Tuesday that the council should hear back from city staff at its June 22 meeting about the latest plans for the position, including how much to fund it. The proposal last year called for a $5,000 honorarium each year for the drag laureate, which is $2,000 more per year than the city's poet laureate receives.

She is hopeful of seeing a drag laureate be named sometime this year during her mayoralty.

"We really are looking at this program very seriously," said Meister. "We want to make sure that we set it up for success."

New York City could also establish a drag laureate position. Former city councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer had pushed for one last year, but his proposal died in committee.

In May, queer City Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan revived the idea and submitted a new proposal to establish a drag laureate for the Big Apple. It is awaiting a committee hearing.

Asked by the New York Post if Mayor Eric Adams, who has been championing the city's nightlife since taking his oath of office January 1, supported the idea, spokesperson Fabien Levy said, "Adams has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community and will continue to do so. Our team is reviewing this legislation now."

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 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 years. As Meister noted to the B.A.R. this week, drag performers are themselves small business owners who are as worthy of municipal assistance as any other locally owned business.

"They do this for a living. We want to be respectful of that," said Meister as for why her city is fine-tuning the parameters of its program before officially launching it this year. "We think it is a great program and something, hopefully, that will take off and go on year after year, long after I am gone."

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. Over the coming months representatives of various city agencies, including the public library and the human rights, entertainment and arts commissions, and community members will create a working group to establish the program's design, eligibility, and selection process.

"We celebrate the rich diversity of our communities and neighborhoods through a variety of efforts. I am heartened and glad to be supporting San Francisco's first drag laureate, and the city's broader LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy," stated San Francisco Human Rights Commission Director Sheryl Davis. "I am grateful for programming that recognizes and advances the contributions and history of the LGBTQI+ community."

Nguyen told the B.A.R. he expects that the selection committee that is formed will ask upward of 10 drag laureate applicants to submit additional material about why they want the position and deserve to be named to it. From those, a certain number will be forwarded to Breed, who will make the final determination on who will become the city's first drag laureate, Nguyen said.

"Of course, as a drag queen, I know the power of drag and the power of drag activism. There are so many deserving performers who should be recognized," he said. "I know I am excited to push it forward. I know the mayor's office has been wanting to do it, but the pandemic got in the way."

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