Transmissions: Being dragged into a culture war

  • Wednesday February 8, 2023
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Transmissions: Being dragged into a culture war

Decades before the upper floors of a three-story building at the corner of Broadway and Kearny in San Francisco became a co-working office space, it was home to a nightclub called Finocchio's. Unique among its North Beach contemporaries, the club featured "female impersonation" acts.

Indeed, growing out of its seedy speakeasy past, the club became known for its shows featuring gay and straight men performing as women. While in the parlance of the time, the club hosted what it called female impersonators, though we'd consider it more a progenitor of the drag of today.

Finocchio's, which closed in 1999, was quite popular for decades, with celebrities ranging from Frank Sinatra to Bette Midler counted among its clientele. It was also a huge hit with the tourist crowd that visited the city including, I note, a young couple who honeymooned in the city in 1960. That would be my mom and dad.

However popular the show and its performers were, the business did have one rule I find especially noteworthy, both then and today. Even though the club made its name presenting "female impersonator" shows, every performer was required to enter and exit the club as a man.

Indeed, we served not for ourselves, but at the pleasure of a non-trans, non-gay club owner, to a predominately non-gay, non-trans audience. Deviating from that would get you removed from the club.

Now pardon me: I want to deviate for a moment, and address an elephant in this room.

In the decades between Finocchio's heyday and now, drag performance and trans identity have, shall we say, not been the closest of friends. Many in drag circles have looked down on trans identities, and many in trans circles have looked askance at drag.

I'm of the opinion that much of the dictates expressed by both groups may be born out of fear.

Those in drag may not want to be associated with transness, and will insist that they are merely portraying a character, performing, and that this has little to do with identity.

Meanwhile, many trans people will say something very similar, noting that being trans is an innate part of their identity, and should not be equated with simply wearing a costume for some cheap laughs.

Both have points, but if you think that presenting a drag persona is going to cause others to think you are trans, or you think that your trans self is going to be delegitimized by others equating it with drag, and you lash out as a result, that is a fear reaction — and in these days, we have plenty to fear without fighting each other over some phobias.

Those who stand against us, both drag and trans, really don't care about the distinctions, and if they can regulate us both out of existence while we continue to fight among ourselves, that's just a bonus in their eyes.

At this time, there are anti-drag bills coursing through statehouses across the country. (See this week's online LGBTQ Agenda column for more on that.) Many of these seek to list venues with drag shows as "sexually oriented businesses," with many such bills defining drag as broadly as possible, such as declaring it encompasses anyone who dances, sings, or monologues while wearing attire associated with a gender different than they were assigned at birth.

Yes, this is so broad, that many suspect it would move many of Shakespeare's plays to be declared adult, as well as potentially relegate any male performer in eyeliner or tights to be declared "adult entertainment."

Not that they're likely to use such laws in those cases: we know exactly who they'd be aiming this at.

For the last 14 years, "RuPaul's Drag Race" has graced the small screen, growing the pop culture popularity of drag. Indeed, drag moved from the bars to MTV, becoming big business for successful contestants as well as for the show's titular star, RuPaul Charles.

I would contend that much like transgender people reached our pop culture "tipping point" in 2014, as declared by Time magazine, followed by the culture war backlash of today — and the torrent of anti-trans legislation — drag also reached its own tipping point where it crossed over from a purely "in community" activity to an Emmy-award winning medium that often lands its stars on Broadway.

As the Republican Party and its de facto leader, former President Donald Trump, flail about to find grievances to appeal to their rabidly bigoted base, both trans rights and drag performance have been found in the crosshairs.

At Finocchio's, we were welcomed onto the stage and allowed to perform, provided we were pretty, had a good singing voice and, just as important, were still willing to pack up our finery and assimilate at the end of the night. Again, we served at the owner's pleasure, not our own.

Likewise, it was fine if drag performers stuck to the clubs and bars — but becoming a fixture of American pop culture was a road too far, and now the right wants to make sure we know our place. The fight — sometimes very literally — over drag queen storytime and the like illustrate this perfectly. The conservatives don't want anyone to think there is anything aspirational about drag, or transness, and seek to quash both by any means possible.

Now is a time for our communities to stand up, together, and let it be known that, drag or trans, we will be exactly who we are, and no one else is going to legislate us out of existence. We need to learn to work together, and set aside our fears and differences, for the betterment of all.

Gwen Smith later became a friend of one of the performers who entertained her parents. You'll find her at

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