With roots stretching back thousands of years, drag performers have recently become a cultural Rorschach test.
Just as the art form has catapulted into mainstream spaces – thanks, RuPaul – it has elicited fear in cultural conservatives, who, as the Bay Area Reporter has been reporting, are seeking to limit its public visibility through state action.
The B.A.R. spoke with three drag performers of color to ask their thoughts on both the welcome spotlight on their shows, and the unwelcome glare at statehouses, particularly in red states.
Bebe Sweetbriar, a former Miss Gay San Francisco who has gigs “four to five days a week,” told the B.A.R. that she initially started dressing in drag for church. Sweetbriar is the drag persona of Kevin Junious, a 61-year-old Black gay man.
“A lot of us start during the Halloween season, and I am no different,” said Sweetbriar. “I attended St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church [in San Francisco’s Diamond Heights neighborhood] and every November we have St. Dymphna, when we do fundraising dedicated to that particular saint.”
St. Dymphna is the patroness of those suffering from nervous and mental afflictions as well as victims of incest, according to Catholic Online.
Part of that fundraising was a weekend of matinee and dinner performances written and performed by parishioners, Sweetbriar said.
“They wanted to write a drag character in there and I got my name from the script, and everyone liked my performance and I couldn’t believe that,” Sweetbriar said. “I hadn’t done drag before. The reason why I continue doing it is because I saw the power of drag at that time.”
Sweetbriar said drag tapped into her natural talents.
“I’ve always been an entertainer, interested in singing and dancing,” Sweetbriar said.
But Sweetbriar’s favorite part of performing isn’t anything she does at all; rather, it’s “the people.”
“Drag brings so much joy to those who come to see it, and I enjoy that,” Sweetbriar said. “All kinds of drag are valid and it’s because those who come to watch it get joy from everyone’s type of drag. From the shyest to the most outspoken member of the audience, they all have a great time.”
In 2016-17, Sweetbriar started performing professionally. She has “21 gigs on my calendar” for April.
“That’s all I do,” Sweetbriar said.
The recent vitriol against drag performances really picked up steam last year, with TikTok and Twitter accounts expressing outrage while sharing videos of drag events. Some Republican governors have channeled this indignation in recent months, with Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signing a law that bans staging “adult cabaret” on public property in the state as well as anywhere a child might be present. Several experts fear that could impact drag shows, as the state’s pre-existing law defines adult cabaret as “a cabaret that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers.” (The law was recently temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
In Florida, the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis – a potential 2024 GOP presidential nominee – has gone after several establishments that hosted drag performances, threatening to take away their liquor licenses on the grounds that having minors present at drag shows “corrupts the public morals and outrages the sense of public decency.”
Sweetbriar said that all this is “ridiculous” and “a way for those who are anti-gay, anti-trans, who don’t want to understand who we are and don’t want to take the time to understand. It’s a way to change the narrative and deflect from what’s going on in our country, so we become the problem.”
But, Sweetbriar said, there is hope.
“The new generation – it may be their first fight – but this isn’t new,” Sweetbriar said. “We’ve fought this battle before. The new generation are pretty vocal, as well, and we will fight and overcome this madness as well.”
Juicy Liu is the drag persona of Michael Trung Nguyen, 41, who is the current board chair of the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance, or GAPA, a longtime Bay Area-based organization.
“The very first time was back in college – probably 2001. This is pre-‘RuPaul’ era,” Liu told the B.A.R., referring to the popular “RuPaul’s Drag Race” show, which premiered in 2009. “My school had a drag week. I went to a small liberal arts school in Texas, and there were few of us, few gay folks. Did it again in law school, around Halloween; started professionally in 2016.”
Liu graduated from Southwestern University in Texas and UC Law in San Francisco.
At that time, Liu said that she “started doing drag monthly with the Rice Rockettes at the Lookout,” a gay bar in San Francisco’s LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. Then, two years later, she pioneered her own show, “Juicy Thots,” also at the Lookout.
“I let go of my monthly show after the pandemic, to focus on other things. I did perform as part of Sister Roma’s birthday show at Oasis,” Liu said, referring to the LGBTQ+ nightclub in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. “I pull out my drag when requested for bigger shows,” such as the upcoming “Fight to Legalize Drag” at Oasis, on April 29, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.
When asked about the birthday performance, Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the long-standing drag nun troupe, told the B.A.R., “I went to a campaign fundraiser for Honey Mahogany at Oasis organized by Juicy. She sang LIVE and I was so blown away I asked her if she would perform for my big 6-0 Diamond Birthday Celebration and she graciously accepted. Juicy brought the house down!”
Mahogany, a contestant on Season 5 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” is a Black trans person who ran unsuccessfully for the District 6 seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last year. She is currently the chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.
Mahogany told the B.A.R., “I adore Juicy Liu and the work she has done with GAPA and her continued engagement fighting for our community.”
“Juicy is someone who I know cares deeply for her community and is also someone who continues to be a model of what courage and allyship look like,” Mahogany continued. “I was honored to have her host a fundraiser for my campaign for D6 supervisor.”
Liu said that drag “gives me the opportunity to experience me in a different way.”
“Juicy Liu – my drag persona – is still me, but is a more highly-stylized version of me. I love singing – so I’m a singing drag queen, which is a little more rare here in the United States,” compared with British Commonwealth countries, Liu later clarified. “Through my drag, I’m able to transform.”
Liu, who is helping to select San Francisco’s first drag laureate, said one of the big misconceptions about drag is that it is the same as being transgender.
“A lot of people when I first started doing drag more would ask ‘do you identify as trans?’” Liu said. “No, I am just a gay man who likes to perform, but I am not a trans person. I know a lot of trans people and I want to be respectful of that. Right now, there’s a purposeful misinformation campaign to classify trans people as drag queens. Drag is an art form, and all people can do drag.”
Asked about the crackdown on drag, Liu said, “I think it’s heartbreaking and makes me feel very upset and mad.”
Not only is freedom of expression, protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, at risk, Liu said, but state governments “very clearly having animus to a whole community feels hateful.”
Still, Liu hopes it’s “the last stand” for the conservatives pushing these restrictions.
“They’re trying to pull things backwards,” Liu said.
Liu spoke at a Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club event March 22 on this topic along with Roma, drag king Alex U. Inn, Office of Transgender Initiatives Executive Director Pau Crego, former Milk club president Gabriel Haaland, and Jackie Thornhill, a trans woman who is a legislative aide to gay District 8 San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.
“They’re going to ban us? Effectively make it illegal? It happens so quickly,” Liu said. “We have to fight for queer joy to perform.”
Amoura Teese is the drag persona of Jericho Maldonado, 32, who hails from Hayward but now lives in San Francisco. She has been performing in drag for the past eight years.
“I am of Mexican, Native American, and Swedish descent,” she told the B.A.R. “I started doing drag to be part of a community. I was first social in San Francisco at 24-25 and was looking for friends, and the people I came across in the gay community were into nightlife and drag and, as a performer as a youth, someone said I should do drag at a competitive drag show at a club, so I did, and I loved it.”
Teese does drag four to five days a week in Oakland (at The Port Bar), San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento. She recently performed in Reno, Nevada and Miami.
When asked about Florida being among the states that have recently impinged upon drag, Teese said, “I feel it’s a shame the conservative agenda is to always target a minority.”
“I’m grateful here in California we haven’t experienced something so hurtful toward our community,” Teese said. “I think it’s despicable.”
One of Teese’s favorite experiences in drag was performing at Oakland’s Pridefest the last couple of years.
“The owners [of The Port Bar] and other LGBT organizations have come together to do Pridefest the past few years,” Teese said. “Making an event out of thin air and allowing me to be part of it, post-pandemic, it’s opportunities like that that make me feel so thankful for the embrace of drag: the opportunities I hold close to my heart.”
Gay Port Bar co-owner Sean Sullivan agreed.
“Amoura was an amazing homegrown host since its [Pridefest’s] inception,” he said.
John Ferrannini is an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.