Political Notebook: At San Francisco Friendsgiving event, attendees give thanks

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday November 22, 2022
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Drag personality Juanita MORE!, left, joined with sisters Kat Hantas and Nicole Emanuel and their friend, Sarika Singh, at a benefit for Mama G's Thanksgiving Street Dinner. Photo: 21Seeds Infused Tequila
Drag personality Juanita MORE!, left, joined with sisters Kat Hantas and Nicole Emanuel and their friend, Sarika Singh, at a benefit for Mama G's Thanksgiving Street Dinner. Photo: 21Seeds Infused Tequila

At a drag-themed Friendsgiving co-hosted by 21Seeds Tequila and famed San Francisco drag personality Juanita MORE!, attendees gave thanks for the past year and the outcome of the midterm elections. Leaders of the Mama G's Thanksgiving Street Dinner also expressed gratitude for the event resulting in a donation that covered the cost of nearly 500 meals they gave out to unhoused individuals November 20.

The charity for 14 years has handed out free food ahead of the annual Thanksgiving holiday to people living on the streets of San Francisco's Civic Center and Tenderloin neighborhoods. At roughly $10 a meal, the tequila company's contribution to Mama G's totaled around $5,000, said Peter Gallotta, a gay man who founded the nonprofit.

"One of our guests said they hadn't had a Thanksgiving dinner in years. Many of our guests hadn't had a warm meal in days," Gallotta noted in a Facebook post Monday thanking volunteers and donors who supported this year's meal. "This would all not be possible without Cory Alexander Armenta who has served as our executive chef for the past 14 years and who makes the high quality, delicious food we serve happen."

This year 650 meals were served at a pop-up distribution point in the Civic Center. Two years ago, due to COVID, the nonprofit's volunteers delivered more than 1,000 packaged meals directly to people on the streets throughout the city, but they were back in United Nations Plaza last year with their usual buffet setup and fed 555 people.

At the drag fundraiser last week, held in the backyard patio of Casements bar in the city's Mission district, Gallotta told the Bay Area Reporter that he is thankful this year that the local community is able to gather again amid the ongoing health crisis.

"There is a sense of resiliency this year," he said. "We have been through two really tough years."

Peter Gallotta helps serve dinners at the recent Mama G's Thanksgiving Street Dinner in San Francisco. Photo: Alfredo Coyotl Cuatlacuatl  

The third vice chair on the committee that oversees the San Francisco Democratic Party, Gallotta also pointed to a number of political wins in the November 8 general election that buoyed his faith in the electoral process amid widespread concerns about the strength of the country's democracy. In particular, he hailed the elections in Oregon and Massachusetts of the first two lesbians as governors of their states and Democrats beating back a predicted red wave to hold the U.S. Senate and keep Republicans to a slim majority in the House.

"We have been through four elections this year," noted Gallotta, referring to San Franciscans casting ballots in two special elections on top of the June primary and this month's fall races. "It points to our politics being so divided and makes people feel a lot of uncertainty. But I am choosing hope and gratitude."

MORE! told the B.A.R. she, too, is grateful that nightlife events and other community gatherings are back. She donated her usual appearance fee from the Drag Friendsgiving Extravaganza toward Mama G's, which she has routinely raised funds for throughout the years and has cooked up "gallons of cranberry sauce" for its dinners.

"I am still thankful for my community, which still supports anything I ask it to raise money for," said MORE!, who had just found out that day that her dogs, Jackson and Macho, are featured in Castro-based hospice Maitri's Mutts and Meows charity calendars for 2023.

Johannah Goldstein, a straight ally who chairs Mama G's board and has volunteered with it since 2012, told the B.A.R. she was grateful to be living in "a still functioning democracy" following the results of the election. And she said she "is grateful for the community donation to Mama G's and the volunteers who help out every year. I am so grateful for the people who give their time, money and effort."

Pointing out that the nonprofit is all volunteer-run and has no office expenses, Goldstein noted, "Every dollar we receive in donations, we turn around and put into feeding the community."

Anthony Luna, a gay San Francisco resident who serves on the nonprofit's board, has been helping out with Mama G's the past four years. He told the B.A.R. he was thankful for the ongoing support the organization receives from the community.

"I am also thankful to be out doing what we do in the city, in the Tenderloin," said Luna, adding of last week's election results, "it was great to see young people voted. They turned the tide for us."

Another board member, Clayton Bishop, a gay man who began volunteering with Mama G's five years ago, told the B.A.R. he is most grateful this year that his decision to pivot his career in 2021 is paying off. He went from working in the hotel industry to being employed by an interior design business.

"That is going really well," said Bishop, now the brand manager for HEWN San Francisco.

In March, global company Diageo acquired for an undisclosed amount 21Seeds from its straight co-founders, sisters Kat Hantas and Nicole Emanuel and their friend, Sarika Singh. Hantas had begun making her own tequila at home and enlisted Emanuel and Singh to launch the tequila brand in 2019.

Longtime friends with MORE!, who is featured in a mural on the side of Hantas' home at the corner of Steiner and Grove streets near Alamo Square Park and the adjacent famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses, Hantas had bonded with MORE! over their shared love of cooking. The two teamed up together three years ago to feature 21Seeds' tequilas at MORE!'s annual Pride party that doubles as a fundraiser for a local LGBTQ nonprofit.

"We didn't know anything," about launching a beverage company, recalled Hantas in her brief remarks at the event.

She thanked MORE! for giving them some pointers as a longtime nightlife promoter and entrepreneur who had opened their own eatery in the Tenderloin. "It all worked out amazingly," added Hantas.

Speaking to the B.A.R. Hantas said, this year, she is "most thankful for my community. You can't save the world, but you can save your block."

She joked that the mural of MORE! "is our eighth Painted Lady!" Hantas had it created as a way to deal with the constant break-ins of cars, many those of tourists, parked in her historic neighborhood. "I was in Portugal and saw the artworks there all over on the city streets. It may not have stopped people breaking into cars, but it sure has made our block a little more beautiful. I haven't given up hope."

Emanuel, who converted to Judaism a decade ago, told the B.A.R. that coming out of the pandemic and witnessing the rise of antisemitism and other hateful rhetoric has made her realize the importance of speaking up for what you believe in and to cherish who is there to support you during rough times.

"I am thankful, honestly, we are doing this. It's times like this that make you realize who your allies are," she said.

Casements co-owner Chris Hastings, a gay man who also owns the Castro gay bar The Lookout and co-owns Mission eatery WesBurger N' More, also told the B.A.R. he is thankful to be able to host events like the Friendsgiving benefit.

"People need spaces to meet new people and see old friends," said Hastings, who opened Casements at 2351 Mission Street roughly six weeks before COVID led San Francisco officials to shut down non-essential businesses.

Hastings and co-owners Gillian Fitzgerald, who is queer, and Sean O'Donovan, who is straight, quickly pivoted to delivering cocktail orders to customers around the city. It allowed them to pay their bills and maintain their lease.

The bar, known for its extensive Irish whiskey selection, is named after an Irish merchant marine, Robert Casement, who exposed colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo and in South America. In the 1920s he joined the Irish liberation movement and, accused of being a homosexual, was executed. Some scholars contend, however, a diary reputed to be Casement's that detailed his gay exploits was a forgery. (LINK: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/28/roger-casement-gay-irish-martyr-or-victim-of-a-british-forgery)

"He was written out of the history books," said Hastings, adding that only in recent decades did the Irish government recognize Casement.

As for their business when the city allowed bars to reopen, Hastings and his co-owners took over several parking lots behind Casements to provide an outdoor area for their customers who were not ready to gather indoors. It has since become a coveted feature of the bar that they are seeking to make a permanent fixture of Casements.

But, because the outdoor area is privately owned by California Parking Company, it is unclear if the bar can secure a permit for it under the city's Shared Spaces program that has allowed businesses to take over street parking spots to erect parklets for their customers, said Hastings.

"We are hopeful we can get a permit. Right now we are trying to continue it," said Hastings.

For Thanksgiving this year he and his husband are hosting Hastings' parents, brother and sister-in-law, "and a couple strays," joked Hastings, who is cooking a turkey for the very first time. "I am thankful we can do that."

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, December 5.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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