Editorial: CA celebrates a summer of drag

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday August 16, 2023
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Drag queens D'Arcy Drollinger, left, Pickle, and José Julio Sarria have all made the news recently. Photos: Drollinger, Bill Wilson; Pickle, courtesy Pickle; Sarria, Courtesy Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce
Drag queens D'Arcy Drollinger, left, Pickle, and José Julio Sarria have all made the news recently. Photos: Drollinger, Bill Wilson; Pickle, courtesy Pickle; Sarria, Courtesy Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce

As drag entertainers find themselves increasingly under attack in many red states, California, not surprisingly, is tacking in the opposite direction. The state is embracing and celebrating drag in all of its forms, from history-making leaders to exciting and emerging artists. It's just one of the many ways in which the Golden State is leading — and leaning in — on this issue.

For us, as the nation's oldest continuously publishing LGBTQ newspaper that got its start covering drag queens — check out our digitized early issues! — the validation that drag artists here have received marks an important cultural milestone even as states like Florida and Texas attempt to ban drag performers, fine venues that host their events, and keep children from attending them. Some of these laws are now the subject of legal action, but the message they send is nonetheless chilling.

The year of drag laureates

Technically, promoting drag started this spring, when San Francisco Mayor London Breed named Oasis nightclub owner D'Arcy Drollinger as the world's first drag laureate in May. As we reported at the time, this position was years in the making: naming an ambassador for the local drag community was proposed in San Francisco's groundbreaking LGBTQ+ Cultural Heritage Strategy first released in 2018. After the COVID pandemic hit, the position became seen as a way to boost local nightlife venues and drag performers whose revenues were impacted by the global health crisis over the last three years.

Yet, by the time Drollinger was selected, the art of drag itself had come under fire from conservative politicians and other extremists. In this context, having an out, loud, and proud drag ambassador for San Francisco, long known as a beacon for queer residents and visitors, became even more important.

Drollinger has taken the position, which she will hold until November 2024, and run with it. She had a very busy Pride Month in June, attending numerous functions and parties. She threw out the first pitch at the San Francisco Giants Pride Night (even baseball Pride Nights became controversial this year, as we reported earlier about the kerfuffle the Los Angeles Dodgers found themselves in by inviting, disinviting, then reinviting the L.A. chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag philanthropic group, to receive an award at its Pride game.)

"It is pretty awesome. I am super proud and excited to, sort of, help define what this role is and does," Drollinger told the Bay Area Reporter during a May 15 phone interview to talk about being selected. "It just makes me want to be that much more fabulous and sparkle that much more harder."

Drollinger's position comes with a $55,000 stipend to help cover the costs associated with it.

But Drollinger isn't the only drag laureate in California. In West Hollywood, drag queen Pickle was formally introduced as that city's first drag laureate July 16, which happened to be International Drag Day. The Southern California city had been poised to name a drag laureate before San Francisco — and in fact approved the creation of the position in 2020 before its northern municipal counterpart did — but officials went back to the drawing board to seek more funding and retool the duties. It now comes with a $15,000 stipend, and Pickle is expected to serve through June 30, 2025.

Pickle has been involved in Drag Story Hour and, since 2017, has led her local chapter of the national organization. She's also creating a drag-based curriculum tied to the state's arts education standards so it can be used in schools, as we reported.

"I have built a career of bringing drag out of nightlife, not that nightlife is bad. Traditionally, drag was done in bars because they were safe spaces. But they are not the best spaces for the art form to thrive," explained Pickle. "In West Hollywood, there are so many drag shows in the clubs and bars. It is great to see that come back and the commerce that brings and the tourism it brings coming back to West Hollywood. I hope to build on that."

Added City Councilmember Lauren Meister, "West Hollywood has been one of the centers of drag culture for decades. Drag performers are often a thrilling attraction at many of our restaurants and bars, and West Hollywood's drag performers take center stage in a wide range of our city's arts and culture events."

Honoring José Julio Sarria

Finally, at long last, Governor Gavin Newsom and first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom this week announced that drag icon José Julio Sarria will be posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame, as we reported. The Latino World War II veteran became the first known gay person to seek public office with his ultimately unsuccessful 1961 bid for a San Francisco Board of Supervisors seat. Four years later Sarria had founded the Imperial Court System in San Francisco and proclaimed himself Empress I of San Francisco. The philanthropic drag organization has since crowned scores of empresses, emperors, and other drag royalty while raising funds for charitable causes and now has 70 chapters in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Last year, Sarria, who died in 2013, was honored with a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, but there's been an effort underway to have Sarria inducted into the California Hall of Fame for eight years. It's been largely led by Nicole Murray Ramirez, who was elected an empress of the Imperial Court in 1973 and currently holds the title of Queen Mother 1 of the Americas, Canada, United States, and Mexico.

Over the past several years, as new hall of fame inductees were announced, we puzzled over why Sarria was omitted, at one point exhorting Newsom to "stop snubbing Sarria" in an editorial. We would have liked to have seen Sarria inducted earlier, but the wait turned out to be worth it because the issue of drag is now more front and center than ever before — as is the critical importance of seeing drag stars recognized.

Sarria will be inducted Tuesday, August 22, along with several other deceased notables in an all-posthumous class this year. We're glad Newsom and Siebel Newsom at long last decided to honor him this year.

Other cities may see drag laureates in their futures, such as New York City and San Diego. Thankfully, California is bullish on our drag artists, both living and deceased, in a way that other areas would be smart to emulate.

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