As drag queens and transgender people come under attack across the country, San Francisco is doubling down on its support for performers by appointing its first "drag laureate"—an official city job with a $55,000 stipend.
After a monthslong application process, Mayor London Breed’s Office announced Thursday that the first person to hold the position will be D’Arcy Drollinger, the owner of South of Market nightclub Oasis.
Essentially the new “drag mother” to the city, Drollinger will serve for 18 months.
After her formal appointment Thursday at a ceremony at the San Francisco LGBT Center, Drollinger will be charged with promoting the city’s LGBTQ+ culture and small businesses, essentially serving as the city’s queer envoy.
“It feels good and kinda crazy—because I’m so busy—but it felt like the right next step,” Drollinger told The Standard. “It’s one thing to work as an artist or work as a small-business owner or entrepreneur. It’s another thing to work for the people and be an ambassador.”
Known for her ability to play a wide range of characters, Drollinger is a playwright with several original works—among them the ribald tour de force Shit & Champagne—who also adapts episodes of classic TV shows like Sex and the City, Star Trek, Friends and The Golden Girls into live drag reenactments.
In choosing Drollinger, the city selected an entertainer with enough business savvy to keep a cherished nightlife space alive during and after the Covid pandemic. While other independent venues have succumbed to economic pressures, Oasis famously stayed alive with a 12-hour telethon that raised $270,000 in March 2021.
As the city’s biggest drag club, Oasis nurtures local talent at shows like "Reparations" while booking national acts like Dina Martina or Miss Coco Peru. The venue employs 22 people, Drollinger said, with another five at its associated arts-incubator nonprofit.
“I’m thrilled that Mayor Breed has selected D’Arcy as our first drag laureate,” said Sister Roma, a longtime LGBTQ+ activist who sat on the selection committee. “She’s a small-business owner, producer, writer, actor and advocate for the trans and BIPOC communities. I can’t wait to see what she does with this new title.”
Drollinger has been performing since begging for a thrift-shop Mary Poppins dress at age 3.
“I did it for a really long time, and also when it was really hard—when you couldn’t just order shoes online, and you had to drive to LA, to Frederick’s of Hollywood." Drollinger said. "You had to get an open toe and an open heel, and they only had size 12!”
Last fall, the city put out a call for applications that involved local LGBTQ+ luminaries and cultural districts, plus city departments from the Entertainment Commission to the Office of Transgender Initiatives. A panel of individuals and queer organizations then reviewed the applications and submitted several finalists to the mayor.
Although initially scheduled to be released in April, Breed’s proclamation—or, if you will, the reveal—comes two weeks before the ceremonial raising of the rainbow flag at City Hall to inaugurate Pride Month.
"While drag culture is under attack in other parts of the country, in San Francisco we embrace and elevate the amazing drag performers who through their art and advocacy have contributed to our city's history around civil rights and equality,” Breed said in a statement, adding that the position signals how the city is a beacon for acceptance and opportunities for all.
For her part, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi last month lauded the idea of a San Francisco drag laureate.
"I have a grandniece who is trans. ... Every time a politician says some good thing about trans people, it means so much to us,” Pelosi said at the Show of Hope gala benefiting the San Francisco Community Health Center. "I am so grateful to Mayor London Breed, because we are right out there in appointing [a] drag laureate for the city of San Francisco."
Thursday’s announcement also helps fill a hole in the city’s drag pantheon, coming barely six weeks after the sudden death of Heklina, the eternally sardonic performer and drag hostess.
While Drollinger is currently Oasis’ sole owner, Heklina was one of the club’s other three co-founders when it opened on New Year’s Eve 2014, and for years afterward. Oasis was also where Heklina presented her monthly drag show “Mother,” a follow-up to the hugely popular "T-shack" at The Stud—the night that put her on the map in the ’90s and helped change the art of drag forever.
“This is someone that I started two businesses with, who I’ve known for more than half my life,” Drollinger said of Heklina. “And of course, she’d be jealous. She’d be bitter.”
As anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeps through America’s state capitals and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were disinvited from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Pride Night, San Francisco’s decision to create a drag laureate position is bound to elicit national controversy from people—from conservative groups like Focus on the Family to podcaster Joe Rogan—who equate drag with the sexualization of children.
“You have to sit there and ask yourself, ‘What is the choice?'” Drollinger said. “To be threatened and bullied and scared, or keep going and live your best life and sparkle harder—and be that role model for the people who are feeling put upon by these kinds of really outrageous legislation.”
Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]