What is Bay Area drag? Oaklash Festival has some wild ideas

"Everyone brought pulled out all the stops, from a clown on a Segway scooter performing to Britney Spears' Circus, to a queen shooting water out of syringes stuck through her cheek," says Oaklash co-founder Mama Celeste, remembering Hollow Eve's performance at last year's festival. Photo by JP Lor

“Television is not nor has it ever been the ultimate form of drag,” Oaklash Drag Festival co-founder and performer and East Bay-based drag queen Mama Celeste, a.k.a. Greg Tartaglione, writes in an email interview with 48 Hills. She’s not-so-subtley shading a certain televised drag competition that’s spawned countless imitators who may not realize the electric connections a live and rowdy crowd can bring. Surely Oaklash’s multitudinous 100 performers will be preaching this to the choir at the second edition of the festival this weekend (Fri/26-Sun/28), which will include two extensive, eight-hour days of performance.

Mama Celeste and fellow performer Beatrix LaHaine started the festival last year to “give the Bay Area the kind of representation it deserved,” says Celeste. In 2018, that meant bringing over 50 drag queens and kings from Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose for an intermission-less six hour show.

“It was exhausting and amazing,” Celeste says. “Everyone pulled out all the stops, from a clown on a Segway scooter performing to Britney Spears’ “Circus” to a queen shooting water out of syringes stuck through her cheek. The audience was living!”

Erika Klash gives you neon creep clown at last year’s Oaklash. Photo by Meme Cherry

The diversity of Oaklash’s 2019 acts speaks to one of the ways in which Bay drag steps back from more mainstream incarnations. Certainly, the disconnect between Bay Area performers and RuPaul’s Drag Race has been much commented on—and the region’s near total lack of representation on the VH1/Logo TV megalith is certainly remarkable. But even if the rumors are true that the deep freeze is due to long simmering feuds between Ru and Bay legends, the Bay’s flavor of drag is anything but mainstream. 

The current scene may well be influenced more by local history than current trends. From the days of political activist and performer José Sarria—the Widow Norton, who founded the Imperial Court system and one of the first openly queer person to run for office in the United States—Bay drag has been about far more than perfectly beat faces and expert tongue pop. Here, the Cockettes obscured the accepted social order with sequins and bearded drag, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have wielded their looks as activist beacons for decades.

“It’s always been obvious to me that the drag community in the Bay Area isn’t like other drag communities,” says Peaches Christ, who will perform at Oaklash with a host of legends like House of More! matriarchs Glamamore and Juanita More! and emergent stars like Nicki Jizz and Lisa Frankenstein. “I think I realized it before I even arrived in 1996,” Peaches continues. “When I hosted John Waters’ visit to Penn State University he told me about the Cockettes and how he and Divine and Mink would do shows with them. I’d never heard about any drag troupe that sounded anything like the Cockettes!”

(from left) Jader, VivvyAnne ForeverMORE, Florida Man mince about at 2018 Oaklash. Photo by JP Lor

“The Castro is known for its flawless beauty queens, SoMa is known for its gender-bending punk aesthetic,” says Mama Celeste. “But as rent has spiked in San Francisco, more and more artists have been moving to the East Bay which has created this amazing melting pot of all the scenes.” Oaklash’s lineup pays homage to 2019’s socioeconomic realities with its East Bay location, for the second straight year at eclectic venue Classic Cars West.

Oaklash also typifies the time-honored Bay tradition—at least in recent decades—of a pan-gender scene that does not hew to rigid definitions of who should be on stage. Some of the Bay’s most famous drag and performance nights over the years have featured artists who work gender into their art, from music to conceptual art, always welcome on Bay drag stages. This year, Zedgar Infiniti, Dollii, The Gooch Palm, Saturn Rising, and 15 DJs show the breadth of the festival’s drag community.

That’s particularly important in the face of occasional mainstream pressure to limit drag to the purview of cis gay men. “My art crosses all gender lines and allows anyone experiencing to imagine me as themselves or relate in a way that inspires their own experience,” says Saturn Rising. “It’s an escape and an affirmation all in one.”

“Drag is about performance, and presence, and being shocked and awed by the beauty of the seven-foot rhinestoned goddess whose sweat is dripping on you in the front row,” says Mama Celeste. Ample motivation to get yourself into IRL drag nirvana, a.k.a. this weekend’s Oaklash front rows, to see the past, present, and future of Bay Area drag get its due. 

Fri/26 8pm-1am, $10-15
Eli’s Mile High Club, Oak
More info and tickets here.

Sat/27-Sun/28 2-10pm, $20; presale sold out, tickets available at door
Classic Cars West, Oakland
More info here.

Drag Queens Against Guns

Pictured from left to right: Khmera Rouge, Estee Longah, Kristi Yummykochi, Buka Kay, June Glüm (Bottom) Faluda Islam, Raya Light

On June 12th, 2016, a mass shooting left 49 dead and 53 wounded at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on Latin night. As someone who helps organize one of the handful of Asian Pacific Islander LGBTQ spaces in San Francisco, it broke my heart. I found myself wondering what would happen if this had occurred here in San Francisco, in our space? How do you respond when a space that is supposed to be safe is flooded with gun violence? How do you fight back, and more importantly, how can we come together to do that.

In response to the Parkland shooting, I wanted to show our community united against gun violence, so I brought together drag queens from all over the Bay Area to speak to issues of gun violence that are important to them. Why drag queens? Drag is inherently performative. It’s a visceral medium of storytelling that forces you to question your conventionality. In times of political unrest, drag is powerful and gives the LGBT community a unique tool to subvert marginalization. As such, drag queens become the perfect way to change the narrative on gun violence, and show it as an issue with deep ties to the LGBT community. 

Photos by Vince Flores and Christine Vo.

Pictured from left to right: Khmera Rouge, Estee Longah, Kristi Yummykochi, Buka Kay, June Glüm (Bottom) Faluda Islam, Raya Light

As a community, it’s time for us to move past living in this supposed post-marriage equality daze, and accept that gun violence is an issue for the LGBTQ community to fight. According to 2016 FBI statistics, race, religion, and LGBTQ identities make up the top 3 categorical targets for hate crimes, with our community accounting for roughly 20% of total REPORTED hate crimes. The term reported here is important to note since many crimes go unreported, and transgender individuals are often misgendered. Marginalized communities disproportionately bear the burden of gun violence, and this is especially true for LGBTQ people of color.

When talking about gun violence, it’s also important to understand that more Americans kill themselves with a firearm than are murdered with one at a 2:1 ratio, and that stricter gun control laws have shown to strongly correlate with lower suicide rates. Suicide involving firearms is fatal 90% of the time. Alternate methods are less deadly, and give time for that individual to be reached out to, to receive help

After Parkland, and now Maryland, policy makers are already offering their thoughts and prayers. Let’s organize our community and push them to do more.

Faluda Islam

Faluda Islam is a drag queen rebel leader bent on liberating the Muslim world from the shackles of Western Imperialism. Infusing San Francisco ideals with a queer Muslim identity, she wants to show the world that Muslims are a nonviolent people. Even though they carry the stereotype of being terrorists, they are not actually responsible for a majority of the gun violence, or event acts of terrorism in America. Historically, more Americans are killed by right-wing extremists born right here. School shooters have a demonstrated profile, so why do we immediately think of Muslim terrorists? Faulda comes in peace. Muslims come in peace. They can come to escape violence or to find new homes. They can be queer, and they can also advocate against gun violence.

Raya Light


Our media landscape is fragmented. We have a greater number of media outlets, and those outlets are increasingly reaching specific, segmented audiences. We can get trapped in our own bubbles of influence, and it can be hard to separate fake news from real. What can you believe when there is a non-stop, escalating garbage dump of rhetoric? We can often feel disillusioned, defeated, and silenced, but we can break free from the chaos and find our voice. Listen to the victims of mass shootings. Listen to the Parkland kids. Listen to the survivors of Pulse. If we are going to fight gun violence, we must be engaged in the struggle for what is right. Surveys show that LGBT groups overwhelmingly support gun control measures, it’s just time for us to be a little bit louder about it.

June Glüm

We’re sick and tired of Thoughts and Prayers™. Our elected officials offer nothing but pithy platitudes after each mass shooting, and we’re done with it. Our nation is at a tipping point in the gun control movement, and this mass shooting feels different. The Parkland survivors are inspiring–particularly Emma Gonzalez and Delaney Tarr, two of the strong young women leading the charge–unequivocally rejecting and renouncing offers of thoughts and prayers and demanding action. Our nation has burned through all our thoughts and prayers over the years, and if our legislators won’t take action, WE are the ones who get burned by the continued inaction. Time’s Up for #thoughtsandprayers

Kristi Yummykochi

On February 27th, 2018, the Florida House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that included $67 million for a program to train teachers to carry guns. There is no good research showing that arming teachers, or even putting more armed police in schools is effective. In fact, the good guy with a gun narrative has shown to overwhelmingly incorrect. More guns means more death. Trump has said that “gun-free” zones are invitations for attackers, but then why aren’t guns allowed in congress? The teachers from Parkland and countless other school shootings have told is that they don’t want guns, they want gun control and funding for school supplies instead. It’s time to listen to them.

Panda Dulce

Gun control is a numbers game. It’s no secret that sponsorship of major politicians and mass marketing efforts is what gives the NRA its formidable political clout. In 2016, the group donated more than $30 million to get Trump elected — the highest amount ever spent on a presidential candidate. However, this statistic is indicative of a bigger problem: Over the past 15 years, spending on gun rights lobbying exponentially exceeded that of gun control by nearly tenfold. Not only are we lacking in voting numbers, but we also lack the monetary numbers necessary to bring safety to us all.

We need to unify a voting bloc and target donating entities. We need to fight numbers with numbers. We need to put our money where our mouth is.

Making gay leather parties sleazy-fun again

SF Eagle poster design from 1981 by Uyvarri.

NIGHTLIFE Two of the best parties of the last year pulled off a gay miracle: They combined classic, raw sexuality straight out of the ’70s with forward-thinking music. It was like stepping into a time capsule that turned into a spaceship that turned into an orgy. Transformational! 

Both parties were thrown by a new crew called Mr. Drummer 1979—a reference to classic gay leather scene magazine Drummer, based in San Francisco for much of its 24-year existence and once edited by renowned writer Jack Fritscher, who now maintains the Drummer Archives. (The magazine was known for its competitive pageants around the country; the Mister Drummer 1979 mascot is a toothsome hunk named Mike Glassman, who led a vibrant life, and died of AIDS in 1993.)

The Mister Drummer 1979 parties aim to revive the vibe of historic local leather bars. The first two explicitly commemorated lusty, long-gone SF bars the Tool Box and Febe’s, even printing retro logo t-shirts for the occasion. “We wanted to recreate old school cruise bar environments while simultaneously celebrating iconic institutions,” DJ Matthew Paul, part of the crew founded by his friend Nick Wafle, told me. “It’s time to make leather fun, sleazy, and relevant again!” 

An Eagle Sunday Beer Bust moment captured by photographer Doug Ischar

These parties aren’t the first to model themselves on filthier-than-thou bacchanal of SF in its Folsom Street Miracle Mile heyday. DJ Bus Station John’s Thursday weekly Tubesteak Connection plays underground disco and Hi-NRG from the time and wraps everything in a retro-porno vibe—it’s now going on its 14th year at Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin—and he also spins the classics third Sundays at Disco Daddy, the Eagle’s first-ever tea dance. Honey Soundsystem has also feted the music and vibe of that far-off time, with parties that feature vintage porn soundtracks in legendary locations. The monthly Go Bang parties at the Stud delve into the gay disco vibe, too, with special guests from the heyday of bathhouses and all-nighters.

But Mister Drummer 1979 is the first to exclusively concentrate on the leather theme, and almost all traces of vintage camp have been subsumed in the sweaty embrace of hard looks and hot muscle. Some of the dudes there are tanks, straight out of the stuck-together pages of a Tom of Finland calendar. A leather dress code is strongly encouraged, as is making out with as many men as you can on the dance floor. 

Don’t be frightened, be titillated, a little curious even. Whereas the macho seriousness of original leather bar scene could be a turn-off for more playful-minded folks like myself, these parties are full of conviviality—almost relief, really, at the option of being able to come together in a steamy, red-lit atmosphere full of harnesses and chaps that weren’t just purchased on the fly for Folsom Street Fair trendiness. There’s also the music: While there are occasional winks to the past, the DJs utilize contemporary techno and synth music to whip up a heady eroticism that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlin’s notorious sex-dungeon Laboratory.       

(I would also add here that now that macho conformity isn’t the only option in gay bars, thanks to a vibrant and femme-positive queer underground scene, I don’t feel the toxicity in the air I used to at such gatherings.) 

During the AIDS crisis (and continuing today) the Eagle Sunday Beer Bust raised money and offered solace. Photo by Doug Ischar.

On Fri/2, Mister Drummer 1979 pays tribute to a bar that’s still in existence: the Eagle.  “We were inspired to celebrate the Eagle because it’s a legendary SF institution; from leather to biker and even punk culture, the SF Eagle has been a haven for outsider communities,” Paul told me.  

The Eagle itself, the real one down in SoMa, opened in 1981 as a leather bar (one of many called the Eagle in various cities, signaling a safe haven for gay men). Over the years it transformed into more of a biker hangout that hosted packed Sunday beer busts for charity, closed for a spell in the early 2010s, reopened with community help and new owners in 2012, and now caters to a more dance party-oriented crowd—although there are still plenty of rough characters, cigar smoke, and hot trade.

Paul introduced me to the original Eagle manager, Patrick Batt, who moved here specifically to help open the Eagle. Patrick own the Auto Erotica store, an upstairs wonderland in the Castro, which has transformed from “just another Castro-strip dildo and lube store” into a palace of vintage gay porn and retro homo-culture memorabilia.

Auto Erotica is glorious, go there, buy stuff. It’s full of tasty memorabilia from the golden age of gay media, including stacks of “one-hander” books and bin upon bin of magazines like Mandate, Colt, BlueBoy, and, yes, Drummer. (Batt told me a 23-year-old customer recently told him this was his first time holding a gay porn magazine in his hands, which made me feel like Methuselah.)

View treasures like an original poster from the Lion Pub poster, SF’s first preppy gay “fern bar” from the 1970s that transformed into a drum ‘n bass music hangout in the 2000s, and has now just hit the market as a single family home for almost $6 million dollars. Gaze upon tantalizing VHS cassettes that will have you plotting to rescue your grandparents’ old player from their basement storage.

Owner Patrick was a successful bar manager in Chicago—he ran leather classic Gold Coast—and was moved out here by Eagle owner Bob Damron, creator of the legendary (and, pre-Internet, essential) Damron Guides for gay travelers, to give the fledgling leather bar some polish and shine, and to help distinguish it from its many competitors.  

The Eagle opening party in 1980: Owner Bob Damron (center) with manager Patrick Batt (right)

Batt made it only a few months into the bar’s life until he was quite literally canned. “I was from the Midwest, and didn’t know there was a distinct West Coast gay bar culture,” he told me. “One of the biggest mistakes I made was stocking the bar with beer in cans. I had no idea that people here would get so angry about that. People were slamming the cans back on the bar when they were served, yelling ‘What the hell is this?'” But we were locked into a distributor and we couldn’t change to bottles quickly enough. So the Eagle had to actually close for a time while we fixed it. And then I was let go.”

Batt described the SF gay bar scene of the time as “exactly what you’ve heard about it, wild and full of bars and men. Everybody had their little gimmick to distinguish themselves, but it didn’t seem very competitive at the time because there was so much going on.” 

Batt went on to work for Drummer, in its mail order distribution department (back then you had to send away to San Francisco for sex toys and porn mags in most part of the country), before breaking off and starting his own company, Mercury Mail Order. Mercury’s dildo and lube storage facility became the original Auto Erotica storefront in the late ’80s. And now Auto Erotica sells old Drummers and ’70s gay bar memorabilia. Truly, the Circle of Gay Life.

The Mister Drummer 1979 Eagle Tribute includes music by one of the stewards of gay Hi-NRG pioneer Patrick Cowley’s legacy, Josh Cheon, formerly of Honey Soundsystem. My fingers are crossed that there will be a retro logo t-shirt available as well. In any case, you will dance, your chaps will squeak, and everybody will probably get laid. 

Fri/2, 9pm-2am, $10
Eagle, SF.
More info here