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San Francisco Appoints ‘Drag Laureate’ in Push Back Against Attacks

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D'Arcy Drollinger stands for a portrait outside Oasis nightclub in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
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Anti-trans legislation is roiling the nation. Bills prohibiting drag performances are cropping up in statehouses. Violence and vitriol are turning children’s drag story hour events into headline-news protests.

San Francisco is fighting back Thursday by naming the nation’s first drag laureate, an ambassador-style position designed to represent the city’s famous LGBTQ+ community at a time when rights are under attack.

In a city known for its support of LGBTQ+ rights, San Francisco Mayor London Breed says it was a natural step to create a position that not only embraces drag culture but puts government resources toward it. D’Arcy Drollinger, a well-known drag performer and nightclub owner, will receive a $55,000 stipend in her 18-month role as the city’s inaugural drag laureate.

“My goals are to make San Francisco sparkle. I think drag performers bring a lot of sparkle and humor and glamor and silliness to the world. I think that is part of why drag is so successful,” Drollinger said, adding that she expects to be in drag for the entirety of her role. “I’m going to be in drag pretty much 24/7 for the next 18 months.”

She noted San Francisco’s drag community is already politically engaged and active.

“There’s a lot of power for the drag community in San Francisco,” she said. “I feel very honored to be able to take that one more step.”

West Hollywood Likely to Follow Suit

West Hollywood is on the verge of appointing its own drag laureate later this month, though at a much lower salary and with limited engagements. In New York, where the Stonewall riots marked a major turning point in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, a 2021 effort to create such a position has languished in a committee, reflecting the challenges of creating such jobs even in liberal cities.

In San Francisco, Drollinger will inaugurate the role three weeks before Pride Month begins. Her duties will span from producing and participating in drag events to serving as a spokesperson for San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community to helping officials to ensuring the city’s drag history is “shared, honored and preserved.” The job posting sought someone who will “embody San Francisco’s historic, diverse and inclusive drag culture, elevating the entire community on the national and international stage.”

The city’s mayor called Drollinger a “bright star in San Francisco″ for her advocacy and elevation of the city’s drag community.

“Whether it’s through a tragedy or to celebrate an occasion, she really has been a leader in this community and supporter of so many others,” Breed told The Associated Press.

Drollinger said she felt both nervous and honored when she was told the job was hers, given the recent violence targeting drag performers, even in the Bay Area.

“I know that there are a lot of anti-drag folks out there, and they are very loud, right? But I also don’t want to live my life under the shadow of fear. I don’t want to have intimidation stop me from growing,” she said. “So, yes, I am a little nervous. But I got a lot of fabulous people and fabulousness behind me.”

Members of the Proud Boys sparked a hate crimes investigation when they protested and shouted slurs outside a Bay Area library hosting Drag Story Hour, where drag queens read to kids, last June. In Oregon last year, demonstrators — some of them armed — threw rocks and smoke grenades at each other outside a drag event.

In November, a shooter at a Colorado Springs nightclub turned a drag queen’s birthday party into a massacre, killing five people and injuring 17 more. The suspect was charged with hate crimes and murder.

The American Civil Liberties Union is tracking 474 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation in the U.S., including Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation law that essentially bans drag from public property or in the presence of minors. A federal judge temporarily blocked the measure hours before it was set to go into effect in late March.

Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Story Hour, a global nonprofit event network that began in San Francisco in 2015, said he hopes other cities across the country will enact their own drag laureate programs.

“It’s just having that visibility and having that personal human connection — having that social story of someone from your community that looks like you or someone that you see or interact with on a regular basis,” Hamilt said.

New York City Councilmember Kristin Richardson Johnson plans to keep pushing for a drag laureate in her city if the position doesn’t win support this year. Jack McClatchy, the elected official’s legislative and budget director, couldn’t give a specific reason for why the effort has stalled, only noting that it’s one of more than 1,000 bills before the council.

West Hollywood, which was founded in part by LGBTQ+ activists in 1984, is expected to name its drag laurate in the coming weeks after a 2021 attempt failed over a pay dispute. Officials originally advertised the position with a $5,000 stipend, nearly double what the city’s poet laureate gets. Pushback prompted the council to raise it to $15,000 annually for the two-year term that begins July 16 — International Drag Day.

Drollinger owns the Oasis nightclub, which hosted “ Meals on Heels ” after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, where drag performers brought food, cocktails and socially distant lip-synching performances to home-bound customers.

“I hope that the drag laureate position telegraphs to the rest of the country that drag is not something to be scared of,” Drollinger said. “Drag is something to celebrate.”

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